Updated: Feb 5
Many stock market games designed for students are an exercise in gambling, not Investing.
My Son's Middle School Stock Market Game Taught Him to Gamble, Not Invest
When my son was in middle school, he completed an instructional unit on the stock market. The students were put on teams, given virtual money to buy stocks and competed with each other to earn the highest gains on their investments.
The “game” only lasted three weeks.
His team did ok, and they learned how to select stocks and place orders to buy, but the experience left them with some real gaps in their knowledge.
His teacher had all the best intentions. Understanding how the market works is an essential component of financial literacy, and many students don’t have access to this information. This knowledge is especially important for students who come from families with limited generational wealth because they may not learn investing skills from their parents and grandparents.
But there are several reasons why a 3-week stock market game sets students up for unrealistic expectations about investing and may be more harmful than helpful to their financial education.
The game encourages “short term trading,” not investing.
Keeping a position open for a few hours to a few weeks is gambling. Three weeks is not long enough to look at stock trends or to wait for attractive entry and exit points for most investors. The winners of my son’s game got lucky, but they were not necessarily better investors than the losers.
The length of the game may not allow students to take advantage of dividend payments.
Dividends are an important part of most investment portfolios, but most dividend payments only occur quarterly.
Also, there are usually several weeks between ex-dividend dates and dividend payment dates. A 3-week holding period, like my son’s class was offered, means that even students who select dividend stocks will almost certainly miss out on the dividends. They either miss an ex dividend date, or the game ends before they receive their payout.
Having a large lump sum to invest at once is an unrealistic scenario for most students.
The game starts students with a large amount of cash and sends them shopping. This is not the way most people invest.
While lump sum investing is fun, it would be much more realistic to offer them a smaller sum to start with, and weekly or monthly income to build their virtual portfolios over a longer time.
The game did not teach students to use limit orders and trailing stop orders.
Most investors don’t have time to monitor their positions throughout the day. For this reason, knowing how to set up orders that will automatically execute under certain conditions is an essential part of an investment strategy.
The game did not provide opportunities for students to grow their skills by learning to use options.
It is possible to lower entry costs and to bring in extra cash on investments by selling cash secured puts and covered calls. These safe, beginner-friendly option strategies are an important part of a self-managed investment portfolio.
But since options are contracts with an expiration date, taking advantage of them to help build a portfolio requires setting expiration dates a few weeks to a couple of months away. A three-week unit does not allow students to learn to incorporate these skills.
Also, most games designed for students do not have the capacity to enable options trading. While adults can set up a paper trading account to practice trading options, many online brokers will not allow minors to do so.
There are Better Ways
There are some better ways to teach students to invest, though.
First, use a program with a longer investing window - preferably at least 6 months, but a year is even better.
If you are a teacher, consider setting up the program at the beginning of the school year and revisiting it in January and at the end of the academic year.
You might consider a trading platform that allows you to start each student with a lump sum, then set a weekly or monthly “income” for each student to build their investment portfolio. This more closely mimics the way most people are able to invest and allows you to teach about dollar cost averaging.
If you are a parent and have an account with an online broker, see if you can set up a separate paper trading account and give your child access, then help them practice investing that way. I personally like the ThinkorSwim trading platform paperMoney accounts.
And for students who really enjoy learning to trade and want to take things up a level, after a few months of buying and selling stocks and funds, teach them some safe, beginner-friendly options strategies.
I have found only one online student investing program that has all these features in an educational platform. Personal Finance Lab has a low, per-student cost, is highly customizable and challenges can last up to a year. It’s the one I plan to use with my own students.
After my son's school game was over, I helped him open an investment account with $1000 he had saved. He was about 12 years old. You can read how that turned out here!
Sign Up Your Teen for an Investing Course
If your student would benefit from some investing education, I would be happy to help. I've taught teens privately for quite a while, and I recently created an online class, which you can read about here.
Outschool is an education platform that matches students and teachers from around the globe. I don't always have classes on the schedule, but if you let me know you're interested, we can find a time that works for you. I'll open a session in case a few other students would like to join.