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Symbols on Coins: U.S. Coins Evolved from Ancient Times

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Students will learn about the evolution of coins, and will create their own coin, using the various features that have been carried over into modern times. This lesson is part of the Unit Plan “Ancient and Modern Coins.”

Coin Type(s)

  • Cent
  • Nickel
  • Quarter
  • Half dollar
  • Dollar

Coin Program(s)

  • Generic


  • Students will learn about the evolution of coins and the different features we see today on coins such as symbols, mint marks and portraits.
  • Students will create their own coin, which will include a portrait and symbols on the obverse and reverse, the edging, the mintmark, and the date.

Major Subject Area Connections

  • Social Studies

Minor/supporting Subject Area Connections

  • Art


  • Third grade
  • Fourth grade
  • Fifth grade
  • Sixth grade
  • Seventh grade
  • Eighth grade

Class Time

Sessions: One
Session Length: 90 minutes
Total Length: 46-90 minutes


  • Whole group
  • Individual work

Terms and Concepts

  • Ancient coins
  • Coin history
  • Coins
  • Greece
  • History
  • Rome
  • Symbols
  • U.S. coins


  • Access to the Internet.
  • The United States Mint H.I.P. Pocket Change™ Web site at
  • Art supplies: Modeling clay, clay tools or pencils, clay flattening devices (rolling pins, empty juice bottles, hard plastic glasses), drawing paper
  • Handouts with images of ancient coins and currently circulating U.S. coins
  • Books that give information about coins and coin making, such as:
    • Cobblestone Magazine, “A Look Inside the U.S. Mint,” September, 1985.
    • Roman History From Coins by Michael Grant
    • North American Coins and Prices, 9th edition edited by David C. Harper
    • Handbook of Ancient Greek and Roman Coins by Zander Klawans
    • Collecting Coins for Pleasure and Profit by Barry Krause
    • Facts and Fictions about Coins:  An Uncommon Guidebook to the Wonderful World of Numismatics by Leon Lindheim
    • Official 2001 Blackbook Price Guide to United States Coins published by Random House, Inc.
    • How to Build A Coin Collection by Fred Reinfeld
    • Coins as Living History by Ted Schwarz
    • Art In Coinage by Carol H.V. Sutherland
    • A Guidebook of United States Coins, 53rd edition, 2001 by R.S. Yeoman


Research and find information on the history and evolution of coins using the suggested reading materials and the United States Mint H.I.P. Pocket Change Web site.

  1. Introduce the activity by displaying a penny (or a large paper replica of a penny) for the whole class to see. Ask your students what it is, and what we use it for. Explain to your students that if they look closer at coins, they will see that each one is a piece of artwork that tells us about a country’s culture.
  2. Distribute handouts with images of ancient and currently circulating U.S. coins, and discuss some of the history and evolution of coins by using the points of information listed below.
  3. Discuss some of the similarities between the ancient coins and the circulating coins.
  4. Tell your students that they will be creating their own coin to represent an aspect of our culture that they feel is important. Discuss possible coin topics as a class.
  5. Have your student create sketches of the front (obverse) and back (reverse) of the proposed coin. The coin sketches should include a portrait and date on the front and a legend, symbol, and denominational amount on the back.
  6. Give each student a 2-inch square chunk of modeling clay and a blank piece of paper. Have each student create a planchet (coin-shaped model) by flattening the clay and then cutting a circle by pressing with an upside-down glass.
  7. After modeling their design in clay, the students can write a description of their coin including their rationale for the symbol they used.

Differentiated Learning Options

When comparing ancient coins to modern coins with your class, you could also have your students examine modern foreign coins to see if they too use symbols to represent their culture or their history.

Teachers can assess the coins and descriptions created by the students regarding following instructions and meeting the lesson objectives.

This lesson plan is not associated with any Common Core Standards.

Discipline: Social Studies
Domain: All Thematic Standards
Cluster: Time, Continuity, and Change
Grade(s): Grades K–12

Teachers should:

  • assist learners to understand that historical knowledge and the concept of time are socially influenced constructions that lead historians to be selective in the questions they seek to answer and the evidence they use
  • help learners apply key concepts such as time, chronology, causality, change, conflict, and complexity to explain, analyze, and show connections among patterns of historical change and continuity
  • enable learners to identify and describe significant historical periods and patterns of change within and across cultures, including but not limited to, the development of ancient cultures and civilizations, the emergence of religious belief systems, the rise of nation-states, and social, economic, and political revolutions
  • guide learners in using such processes of critical historical inquiry to reconstruct and interpret the past, such as using a variety of sources and checking their credibility, validating and weighing evidence for claims, searching for causality, and distinguishing between events and developments that are significant and those that are inconsequential
  • provide learners with opportunities to investigate, interpret, and analyze multiple historical and contemporary viewpoints within and across cultures related to important events, recurring dilemmas, and persistent issues, while employing empathy, skepticism, and critical judgment; and enable learners to apply ideas, theories, and modes of historical inquiry to analyze historical and contemporary developments, and to inform and evaluate actions concerning public policy issues.

Discipline: Visual Arts and Music
Domain: K-4 Visual Arts
Cluster: Standard 1: Understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes
Grade(s): Grades K–12

  • Students know the differences between materials, techniques, and processes
  • Students describe how different materials, techniques, and processes cause different responses
  • Students use different media, techniques, and processes to communicate ideas, experiences, and stories
  • Students use art materials and tools in a safe and responsible manner

Discipline: Visual Arts and Music
Domain: K-4 Visual Arts
Cluster: Standard 4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
Grade(s): Grades K–12

  • Students know that the visual arts have both a history and specific relationships to various cultures
  • Students identify specific works of art as belonging to particular cultures, times, and places
  • Students demonstrate how history, culture, and the visual arts can influence each other in making and studying works of art

Discipline: Social Studies
Domain: All Thematic Standards
Cluster: People, Places, and Environment
Grade(s): Grades K–12

Teachers should:

  • Enable learners to use, interpret, and distinguish various representations of Earth such as maps, globes, and photographs, and to use appropriate geographic tools
  • Encourage learners to construct, use, and refine maps and mental maps, calculate distance, scale, area, and density, and organize information about people, places, regions, and environments in a spatial context
  • Help learners to locate, distinguish, and describe the relationships among varying regional and global patterns of physical systems such as landforms, climate, and natural resources, and explain changes in the physical systems
  • Guide learners in exploring characteristics, distribution, and migration of human populations on Earth’s surface
  • Have learners describe how people create places that reflect culture, human needs, current values and ideals, and government policies
  • Provide opportunities for learners to examine, interpret, and analyze interactions of human beings and their physical environments, and to observe and analyze social and economic effects of environmental changes, both positive and negative
  • Challenge learners to consider, compare, and evaluate existing uses of resources and land in communities, regions, countries, and the world
  • Direct learners to explore ways in which Earth’s physical features have changed over time, and describe and assess ways historical events have influenced and been influenced by physical and human geographic features