ABA Law Day: For Schools: Lessons K-4: Teaching About Contracts

For Schools

Grades K-4
Teaching About Contracts

Note: This exercise was created by Chicago attorney Lloyd E. Shefsky. It's a great lesson for a resource person teaching an early elementary class.

Can little children understand contracts? Should they be taught to understand contracts? You bet! My personal experience shows that certain rudimentary principles of contract law are understood intuitively by many, if not all, five-year-olds.

Here's a step-by-step outline for introducing lower elementary students to some of the main concepts involved in contract law as the "stuff" of attorneys' work. This material is introduced in a way that youngsters find exciting and interesting. The strategy is a role-play in which elementary students participate in negotiating a contract and resolving a dispute from knowledge they already possess and experience they already have.

The genesis of the plan presented below was announcements by my five-year-old son that the parents of his kindergarten class were invited to explain what they did for a living. Parents were to be scheduled individually on different days.

How was I to explain to kindergartners the working world of an attorney? If few adults fully understand the legal issues of business law, how could I explain them to a class of five-year-olds, in spite of their above-average intelligence, sophistication, and positive orientation to the law?

Choosing a Topic
The teacher of my son's class had recommended that I limit my presentation to a maximum of 30 minutes, preferably less. Because the attention span of elementary students is short, the presentation had to be both stimulating and concise. For this reason, I quickly rejected a description of a day in my working life as well as a description of a complicated and/or unusual case. (I am pleased to report that at the end of my 30-minute exercise, when attention spans were indeed beginning to show signs of waning, the teacher informed me that I had held class attention far longer than those parents relying on oration.)

There are additional constraints when addressing K-4s in contrast with older students. Limited life experience and substantive knowledge dictate a teaching exercise set up ahead of time within tight limits.

Contractual arrangements permeate our society, and disputes over these arrangements are everyday occurrences for attorneys and laymen. Children, too, enter contractual relationships whenever they go to a movie or borrow library books. Children negotiate simple contracts whenever they promise to relinquish one comic book for another or trade baseball cards.

Disputes may arise after contracts are consummated for a variety of reasons—one party cannot or will not fulfill the agreement or is perceived as not living up to all or part of the terms of the contractual agreement. In the example of the children's exchanged promises, a comic book may have missing pages.

A complex legal issue that frequently arises is known formally as a "mistake of fact." According to Black's Law Dictionary, a "mistake of fact" is an unconscious ignoring or forgetting of a fact relating to a contract, or a belief that something material to the contract exists or has existed when, in fact, it does not nor ever has existed. It is not, however, a mistake caused by a party's neglecting a legal duty. A "mistake of fact" can be mutual or not, each with differing legal results.

Negotiating a contract and then resolving a dispute over a mistake of fact was the focus that I chose for explaining my work as an attorney. This is a legal situation arising again and again in the real world of business and, indeed, everyday life. The next step was devising and planning an appropriate situation for "acting out," so that I could instruct my kindergartners by allowing them to participate.

Planning Ahead
When legal professionals accept requests to contribute to law-related education projects, careful preparation is perhaps the most important prerequisite, just as it is for trial or negotiating a transaction. No matter how short and simple the instructive session is to be for the K-4s, careful preparation is vital. An ill-prepared speaker can fall back on ad hoc discussion and "thought" questions when facing high school students; you can't disguise lack of planning when instructing K-4s.

My preplanning for my son's class involved asking him about the "sweet -tooth" preferences of his classmates. I discovered that at least two of them are very fond of chocolate bars, but that one was devoted to plain chocolate and the other strongly preferred chocolate with nuts. It is advisable to know the likes and dislikes of several classmates ahead of time in case substitutes are needed.

Bringing Props
The next step is to bring props. You should bring your own to class rather than assume that an elementary school is prepared for all contingencies. My props were few and very easy to assemble:

1. A black crepe-paper "robe" suitable for a kindergarten-size judge. A sheet of black crepe (or tissue) paper available at most variety stores works quite well once a hole is cut in the center to go over a child's head.

2. Enough chocolate bars for the entire class, some plain and some with nuts. Only one of each kind will be used initially and shown to the class; the rest should be hidden from view. Unknown to the class, however, one of the two bars in full view is actually an empty wrapper made to look like an actual candy bar. (Substitutions can be made here so long as there are two items similar in intrinsic value but variable in their preferred value.)

3. A tape recorder. This was originally for my own later enjoyment, but recording the class exercise can also serve as a useful learning device for the entire class. Children love to hear their recorded voices, and the teacher can play back the classroom activity, perhaps on the following day, for a short discussion or a question/answer period about simple kinds of contracts the children would understand.

Involving Students as Active Participants
Although much has been written about the value of role-playing as a teaching device, there is some reluctance in using it with lower elementary students. My experience will hopefully dispel this reluctance. As soon as I arrived in class, I assigned one child to be the judge (in my case my son), followed by "hands up" voting on preferences for chocolate bars (with or without nuts). I then asked for two volunteers, one to represent each candy bar preference, with my selection guided by what my son had told me in the planning stage. A single bar of each of the two types of chocolate bars was placed on the "judge's" table in front of the class, and each of the two volunteers was asked to stand behind but not touch the bar he least preferred. I then told these two students that, even though each had received the kind of bar he did not particularly like, they were both free to talk to each other and work out an arrangement to exchange the assigned bar if they wanted to do so. The one condition I specified was that each must speak into the tape recorder, one at a time. The two volunteers quickly discussed an exchange of chocolate bars to satisfy each other's preference. When both were satisfied that a "deal" had been reached, I suggested each pick up the candy bar he had obtained in the "negotiated" exchange.

If the negotiating session was consummated quickly, the concluding portion of the exercise involved a more complicated legal issue. In a business deal, one party does not always get what he thinks he bargained for. Thus, in the classroom, one of the children was very surprised and chagrined to discover that he had received an empty wrapper and not the chocolate bar he assumed was there. When I asked the "cheated" child to express his feelings into the tape recorder, he expressed every legal concept of "mistake of fact." Interestingly, at no time did he resort to an allegation of fraud, since it was clear that the child who had received the candy bar knew nothing of the deception.

The child with the candy bar, of course, had quite different opinions about what constituted a fair resolution, saying that "fair is fair" and "a deal is a deal." Having exhausted all of his logical arguments, the child with the empty wrapper then suggested that perhaps they should split the candy bar. The owner of the bar promptly rejected this suggestion, commenting that he couldn't understand why his classmate would want to split the bar since the other boy didn't even like that kind of bar in the first place.

During all of this discussion, it should be noted that neither child became belligerent or teary. My role as attorney-leader involved some directing, but directing should be minimized as much as possible to allow the children to handle their own bargaining and dispute settlement. Once assignment of roles had been made and the few instructions given, I found my main job was to act as occasional prodder when talk bogged down.

Ultimately, the judge was called upon to decide the dispute in a brief, "mini mock trial." He concluded, in five-year-old language, that while there was merit on both sides, he felt his two classmates should split the sole candy bar. No doubt, a judgment based on fairness, although one cannot ignore the fact that he was concerned about his ability to coexist with classmates. (Is that very different from our common law tradition?)

Once the verdict was handed down and accepted, without any adult coaching, I then distributed my surprise supply of hidden candy bars to the entire class, including the child with the empty wrapper.

The happy class listened to a brief work about what I do for a living and the role of deals and disputes in this work. I explained very simply that people constantly get into arguments, because one person thinks that a situation, not necessarily another person, has been unfair, like the child who had expected a candy bar but got only paper. When someone feels hurt at losing to another what he thinks should rightfully be his, he and the other each hire an attorney to solve the problem. Because lawyers are experienced and know the rules, they can make a deal for the person each represents (the client) and then help decide a fair result if the deal later turns out differently than expected. Because lawyers are not so involved—they do not get candy bars from the agreement—they can more easily reach a bargain or deal and resolve a later dispute. Finally, if even the lawyers can't agree or persuade their clients to agree, the lawyers and clients can go to court and allow a judge to make a decision.

A major value of this little exercise was its revelation about the capacity of lower elementary students to apply certain concepts of fairness and common sense that, after all, underlie law in general. The arguments made by the two student participants sounded amazingly familiar to anyone who has witnessed lawyers arguing the merits of a disputed transaction on behalf of clients. Although the language and presentation of lawyers are more sophisticated, the youngsters' reasoning process was very similar to theirs. The judge's verdict, too, was very like the verdicts in numerous court cases following meetings of counsel in the judge's chambers.

The children began to learn about the system of formal rules and informal practices which institutionalize the same rules of fair play that most of them have already begun to internalize. A definition of what is just may vary among this age group, as it does among a group of adults, but it exists nonetheless. The brief exercise in contracts reinforced the children's understanding that even though events may seem unfair to one party, there is something that can be done to rectify them in a reasonable way.

The ability to exercise control within the rules was another valuable lesson. Although I had set up the rules of "our" game ahead of time, the student-volunteers, representing the entire class, were allowed to negotiate their own deal without outside interference. Only when the bargain struck by them was found lacking an expected element—a candy bar for each—was it necessary to rely on formal "rules" for achieving a fair, if not totally satisfactory, resolution. In their ensuing arguments, this class learned firsthand some of the rudimentary skills of conflict management.

The final lesson is that deals and business arrangements of many types may not always be completely satisfying to every party, but a sense of fairness and justice can be achieved within the limits imposed by factors outside the control of anyone. And that after all, is the purpose of law.

Lloyd E. Shefsky is of counsel to the Chicago law firm of Shefsky & Froelich, Ltd. He specializes in tax, financial, and business law matters, and is author of numerous published articles. This article is used here with his permission.