Student Activities

Wants Versus Needs in a Changing World

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Grade Level:
High School: Ninth Grade through Twelfth Grade
Social Studies
State Standards:
Iowa Core: 21st Century Skills, Social Studies (3-5, 6-8, 9-12)


As they visit Herbert Hoover's tiny birthplace, students make a list of the Hoover’s material possessions and compare the family’s wants and needs with their own.

Classroom teacher and park ranger Lynette Cummings developed this activity as part of the Teacher to Ranger to Teacher Program.


Students will be able to:

    1. Explain the difference between wants and needs.
    2. Apply the concept of wants and needs to their own lives, such as by budgeting and making smart financial decisions that improve their lives now and in the future.
    3. Learn how wants and needs change with the times through technological advances.

Wants & Needs

Needs are usually things like shelter, food, water, clothing, health care, and energy (fuel for heat and light). A need is a requirement or a necessity. Other things are wants. A want is a desire for or something to wish for.

The cottage where Herbert Hoover was born is very small and therefore contains the barest of necessities. A stove for heat and to cook, a lamp for light, and various cooking and eating utensils. Clothes, blankets and dishes were stored in cupboards and dressers. Other than that, the Hoovers had their beds to sleep in, a table and chairs, and a daybed (like a couch). The privy (toilet) was in an outhouse behind the cottage and water had to be brought inside as needed. Herbert, his parents, his brother and his baby sister lived together until Herbert was three and half years old. The parents worked and saved for a better future. His father, Jesse, worked hard in his blacksmith shop and was able, after a few years, to sell that business and open a farm implement shop. He was also able to move his family to a bigger two-story house a few blocks away, where the family had more room and privacy. Hulda (Herbert's mother) and Jesse were also saving for their children's education. They firmly believed a good education would help the children to be successful. Jesse and Hulda made sure the children attended school as soon as they were old enough.

The humble beginnings of Herbert's life were due, in part, to the fact that that was how everyone lived then and partly due to the Hoover's saving and working toward a better life. As children of pioneers, they were used to creating a life for themselves from little but hard work and thrift. There were fewer modern conveniences and those available were expensive for a family just starting out. Jesse and Herbert's grandfather built the Birthplace Cottage. Before then, the family lived with Jesse's parents.

There is quite a contrast with life in the 1870s and the way we live now. Credit was not readily available for most things. If you could not pay for something outright, you did not get to have it. 21st century Americans to a much greater degree often borrow or buy things on credit when they cannot yet afford them, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. The rise in home foreclosures during recession is an example. In addition, the bare necessities of life are considered to be quite different now than they were then. Technological advances are a part of the difference. People today may consider cell phones and computers a necessity (for example, they may be necessary for a parent's job).


Day 1

Students visit Herbert Hoover's birthplace cottage. Students may want to take the time to make a list of what they see in the cottage to use the next day. Have students figure out the uses of each object.

Day 2

Students make a list and share their list of the things they saw in the birthplace cottage. Students also list the use of each object. Students differentiate between a need and a want. To do this, have students classify each object they saw in the cottage as either a want or a need. This can be as a whole class or in groups sharing what each group decided at the end of class. Have students inventory a room in their own home when they go home at night. They should write down each object in the room and they may even want to include how it is used as that might help them determine if it is a need or a want.

Day 3

Students separate the list of items from a room in their house into wants and needs. Students should also consider things they are hoping to get in the next few months. Have students determine if this is a need or a want and prioritize them. Students should come up with a plan of how they can save for these items so they can buy them for themselves. Discuss how this is an example of a budget.

Students should compare their needs to the Hoovers' needs. How have they changed? How are advances in technology involved in the changing needs and wants? (What have we come to rely on that is available to us now that was not available in the Hoovers' time?)


Above Proficient; Students can describe the difference between a want and a need and apply it to a living situation. Students can explain how wants and needs can change for people over time due to their living conditions as well as technological advances and the availability of the technology. Students can give an example of these changing wants and needs. 

Proficient; Students can describe the difference between a want and a need and apply it to a living situation. Students can give an example of how a want can become a need due to a person's changing living conditions or to changes in technology and its availability.

Below Proficient; Students can describe the difference between a want and a need but have a hard time applying it to a living situation. Students do not fully grasp that people lived differently in the past, not because they were poor, but because of differences in technology and its availability.

Park Connections

This activity illustrates the way people lived at the time of Herbert Hoover as well as the Quaker beliefs in thrift, individual enterprise and education. Herbert's family worked hard and saved for a better life. They valued education and made sure the children attended school. They also wanted their children to attend college and were saving for that. These beliefs allowed people to build thriving communities where none had existed.


wants, needs, budget

Last updated: June 17, 2016