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What's on the coins?

Heads and tails

These activities have students explore the images on our coins.

There are activities to design new coins and a physical education activity (with a related graphing activity) involving tossing a coin. 


Introduction - tossing a coin

  • Ask the students:

    • what we mean when we say 'they tossed a coin to decide which team would go first'

    • what other occasions they can think of when people toss a coin to decide something

    • what we mean by 'heads or tails'.

The head side of our coins

  • Ask the students who is featured on the head side of all our coins and explain that our coins have a portrait of the Queen on the head side because she is our Head of State.  

If we had a new Head of State (e.g. if the queen died or abdicated) the new Head of State's picture would be on our coins.

Interesting Coin Fact

It is a tradition that the portrait of the new Head of State on coins and notes has them face in the other direction to the previous Head of State.

  • Ask the students if the Queen is looking to the left or to the right on our coins.  Students can see this on any coin or in the coin photographs.

  • Have the students work out which way the next Head of State would be looking when new coins were made.

New Zealand has changed the Queen's portrait three times during her reign.

  • Ask the students why the picture of the Queen has been changed.

The Queen's picture is changed to reflect a more current image of her. The last portrait was taken in 1996.

  • Ask the students to look at home for any coins dated before 1996 that show a younger queen, or show them this picture.


The tails side of our coins

  • Ask the students to look at the tails side of our coins.

  • Explain that each coin has a drawing of something of importance to New Zealanders and have the students identify what is on each coin.


50 cents




Design: The bark Endeavour, commanded by Captain Cook, sailing south, with Mt. Taranaki (Egmont) in the distance.

20 cents




Before December 1990 Design: A kiwi facing right and fern bush.



1991 onwards Design: A representation of a well-known Maori pukaki carving.

10 cents




Design: A Maori carved head or koruru with Maori rafter patterns.

5 cents




Design: A tuatara sitting on a coastal rock. A gull flies in the background.





Design: A kiwi with fern leaves.





Design: A kotuku (white heron), flying right.


There are two designs for the 20 cent coin because New Zealand developed two new coins - the $1 coin and $2 coin - in 1990. It was decided to feature the kiwi on the $1 coins (so we truly have a kiwi dollar), so the kiwi was removed from the 20 cent coin.

In 2006 we do not need any new pictures for our coins as we are just changing their size and composition.

  • Have your students complete a rubbing of the images on the current and new coins by holding a coin steady under the paper and using a soft pencil to stroke over the page.

  • Ask the students to work as groups or individuals and design a new coin. Before they design their coins the students might want to explore:

    • what makes a good image for a coin, by looking at coins from other countries. Students may be able to bring foreign coins from home along to discuss

    • what New Zealand image they would use and why.

Commemorative coins

It is suggested that you use this activity as an extension after your students have designed their coins, as many of the ideas the students come up with may already be on our commemorative coins. However, some students may be aware of the commemorative coins and bring them into their discussions about coin design.

  • Ask the students if New Zealand has produced coins with images from Lord of the Rings, or Narnia, or of Hector's dolphin on them.

  • Explain that New Zealand develops special sets of coins for coin collectors. Limited numbers of these coins are produced and their value might increase with time. We have made commemorative coins to recognise the New Zealand films Narnia and Lord of the Rings as well as coins to recognise special New Zealand animals like Hector's dolphin and special events in New Zealand's history.

Students can look at the commemorative coins New Zealand has produced by visiting  http://stamps.nzpost.co.nz/Cultures/en-NZ/Coins

The coins are 'legal tender' and you could use them to buy goods but people don’t usually do this. Instead people make a hobby or a business out of buying and selling commemorative coins.

Students who are interested in finding out more about buying and selling coins on the internet could visit Trade Me or eBay or other websites that provide information about collecting coins. 

  • Students could:

    • discuss what events, or other things, would make uniquely New Zealand  commemorative coins

    • decide who they would feature, and why, if a series of coins was to be made featuring famous New Zealanders young people look up to

    • decide what, or who, they would feature on a series of coins made to feature young people in New Zealand and their achievements.

  • Tell the students that people in New Zealand can now have stamps made with their own photograph on them. Students can find out about this on http://stamps.nzpost.co.nz/Cultures/en-NZ/Stamps and entering personalised stamps in the search option.

  • If the students could make a coin that was special to their whanau, school or community have the students decide what they would put on it and why.


Heads and tails P. E. activity

In this outdoor activity pairs of students toss a coin to see which of two activities they will do. It requires some preparation of cards for activity stations outlining two alternative activities such as:

heads - star jumps, tails - hopping.

heads - throw and catch a small ball, tails - throw and catch a large ball.

heads - skipping with a skipping rope, tails - skipping using a hoop.

The activity is designed with an optional classroom bar graphing extension activity.

The P.E. activity 

  • Provide enough small coins for each pair of students to have a coin. It is recommended you use real coins for the activity, but if you use a plastic coin remind the students this coin does not have the Queen’s portrait on the head side.

  • Set up your chosen range of activity stations with explanation cards that show two possible activities, one marked heads, one marked tails.

  • Have the students move through the stations at suitable time intervals and complete an even number of activities.

  • At the start of each activity have the students toss their coin and record whether they tossed a head or a tail. Then have the student complete the activity indicated by the result of the coin toss.

 In the classroom

  • Students could record their own and the classes' results.

  • Explain that there is an equal probability of a coin that is tossed landing on the head or the tail side. So in 10 tosses the theory says you should have five heads and five tails, but this does not always happen in practice.

  • Discuss how close each pair (and the class) was to the predicted ratio of equal number of 'heads' to equal number of 'tails'.


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