Instructor Serving Up Economics

By Judy Harlow Vowels



Spark students' interest in real-life economics with a classroom restaurant project.

When you’re teaching your students about the forest in your region, you're discussing a natural resource. When you don’t have enough glue sticks to go around, you have a scarcity problem. When your students are researching inventors like George Washington Carver, who discovered 300 new uses for the peanut, they're learning about entrepreneurs. Whether we realize it or not, we are constantly exposing our students to economics–the part of social studies that focuses on the production, distribution, and consumption of goods.

For the past three years, I have consciously integrated economics into my entire curriculum, from teaching economic vocabulary to developing economic school-to-work-projects–and it has made a world of difference to me and my fourth graders. It has increased their confidence and enthusiasm for learning while reinvigorating my teaching. Best of all, we’ve had a blast!

Children of all grade levels and every background can learn, apply, and retain economic principles. Teaching our students economics–sometimes called the science of making decisions–is a key ingredient of helping them become effective citizens, workers, voters, consumers, investors, and participants in a healthy economy.

Through economic projects, students gain practical experience at working and become better decision-makers. By improving their human capital– that make people more valuable to employers–students will have greater opportunities in life. Such lessons have a special value for at-risk children, who may feel that they have little control over their lives.


A restaurant business is perfect for a classroom economics project. Restaurants are the largest employers of teens, so the skills learned are extremely useful. And operating a class restaurant is easily modified for all grade levels and teaching time frames. Kindergarten students can run a simple lemonade stand, while intermediate students can create a complex fine-dining experience.

It's also easy to incorporate a wide range of curriculum areas. Last year my fourth graders became “restaurateurs” by opening their own Italian establishment, Denaro Ristorante (Money Restaurant). This was a long-term school-to-work project that culminated in the students’ transforming our classroom into an elegant restaurant complete with linens, crystal, and our own “professional” staff.

To learn economics in real-life settings and to gather ideas for their project, the children took field trips to a food distributor, a grocery store, and an Italian restaurant. Guests from the industry spoke to the class. Through these experiences, students learned about human, natural, and capital resources, interdependence, specialization, scarcity, producers, consumers, and competition. They also gained relevant, on-the-job training, a positive view about working, and even social etiquette!

The project lasted several months because I wanted to connect lessons to diverse curriculum areas and leave room for it to evolve as it progressed. But the same venture could have been accomplished in a three-week period, and simpler ones can be completed in just a couple of days. Regardless of the grade you teach or the scope of your undertaking, the steps that follow will guide you through your own restaurant project in a way that effectively teaches economics.

To Get the Ball Rolling, Have Students...

Pick a concept for their restaurant. Budget, space, and other resources for cooking and serving guests will all be factors in determining the type of restaurant they choose to operate. A simple bakery selling cookies and milk requires only a toaster oven. A fine-dining establishment requires a larger amount of space for preparing multiple dishes, an oven, at least two burners, dishes, and a space for cleaning up.

Choose a name. Check the Yellow Pages to assess the competition. How many restaurants in the area are similar to the one your students want to open? What types of names do they have?

Pick their customers. Who will be the consumers (community leaders, parents, school staff, students), and will they be paying or nonpaying?

To Refine Your Ideas...

Take field trips. Have the children visit restaurants, food distributors, farmers' markets, and grocery stores for on-the-job training to improve their human capital and to see how restaurants are interdependent with other businesses.

Invite speakers to your class.
Ask restaurant entrepreneurs, servers, managers, linen- and laundry-service representatives, and chefs to share their knowledge about the specialization of their jobs.

To Prepare for the Grand Opening...

Determine resources needed. Once you and your students have refined the concept, list the human resources (servers, managers, dishwashers, greeters, cooks) and capital resources (dishes, linens, ovens) they will need to open their restaurant.

Seek donations. Local restaurants, food distributors, grocery stores, and even linen companies may be happy to donate goods for your project. (If so, be sure to include them on the grand-opening guest list!)

Conduct interviewing seminars.
Demonstrate to students the importance of eye contact, a firm hand shake, and speaking positively and clearly about themselves during an interview. Teach them how to “sell” the skills that make them a valuable asset. Perhaps give a math test for servers and chefs on measurement, calculating tax, or simple addition. A great language arts connection is to ask potential employees to write a short position paper about why they should be hired for a job.

Advertise! Students can write slogans and jingles or design ads for the class or school newspaper or the hallway bulletin board.

Write and design the menu. Look at menus from local restaurants to see how they use descriptive language to entice customers into trying their food.

Have a practice run-through. The class doesn't have to use real food for this!

Enjoy the big night! As your students revel in their success, don't forget to capture the event on film.


A restaurant project is just one way to explore economics. You can tie economics in with the literature you are reading by discussing how economic situations affect characters and motivate their actions. Students take a new interest in math problem solving when calculating economic concepts such as the most cost-effective way to buy items or interest earned on savings.

Economics offers a great basis for starting a class business for producing goods such as valentines or bird feeders. How about a service business, such as locker cleaning, to raise funds for your local animal shelter? A debate about land and wildlife preservation versus commercial development is a great springboard for discussions on economics.

Once you start teaching the concepts of economics, you'll see them in everything you teach! You'll have a whole new way to put a fresh spin on familiar subjects–and help prepare your students for the real world.

Judy Harlow Vowels, an Instructor adviser and teacher at Hazelwood Elementary School, in Louisville, Kentucky, is the coauthor of “Economics to Dine For,” a comprehensive teaching unit that won an EconomicsAmerica national award.