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Two kids with savings

On a sunny October afternoon in downtown Toronto, a group of grade six and seven students are measuring, cutting and attaching strips of colourful duct tape to make their own wallets.

The 11 and 12-year-olds, who attend St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School, are excited as their teacher steers them through a discussion about who has a wallet, what they might keep in one and how it could prove useful.

"I use money to buy candy, so I need to start thinking about this kind of stuff," says Grade 6 student Philip Virdo. His classmate, Stella Batti, is also curious: "I get money for my birthday and my grandpa always tells me not to waste it."

The make-a-wallet activity is part math and part art class, and a hands-on way to get these kids thinking about a topic that might otherwise seem boring: financial literacy.

Principal Connie Giordano believes integrating money-related topics into an art class makes them meaningful for the students. "This is a great age for them to start thinking about the value of money and how they want to spend it. It is a valuable lesson."

Schools across Ontario are slowly starting to integrate personal finance lessons into various classes, be they art, math, history, or science. The Investor Education Fund helped create the program to help meet the Ontario government's efforts to inject financial literacy into the curriculum for grades 4-12.

Tom Hamza, president of the Investor Education Fund, says research shows that the earlier you start teaching it, the easier it is to ingrain good financial behaviour. "This is not an issue that you can tackle once in grade 10 - it needs to be addressed regularly in classrooms."

With housing prices at record highs and households taking on massive amounts of debt, there has never been a more pressing time to make sure that kids are learning money smarts early and often.

"We certainly know anecdotally that we are not seeing great financial behaviour being modelled at home. Debt is more widespread than ever before and I don't see us getting better at managing this," Mr. Hamza says.

Ontario is not the only province taking steps to cover money skills at school. Manitoba and British Columbia teach some financial literacy in high school and Quebec has plans to do so.

It will, however, be a long time before financial literacy is part of the curriculum in all Ontario classrooms. "This is a generational change that needs to happen, because ministries, schools, boards and teachers, all need to be familiar with this," Mr. Hamza says. "And we have maintain this pressure, even when economic times get good."

November marks the start of financial literacy month in Canada, a time when various groups - including banks and government organizations - will promote the topic.

Back in the downtown Toronto classroom, the kids are finishing up their wallets and have plenty of ideas on what they will keep inside them: bus passes, library cards and money for snacks. Their teacher, Susy Prsa, says she plans to use more money-related topics in her class. "They need to learn how to organize and manage their money. It is a big responsibility."