WASHINGTON (AP) -- A wave of "ooohs" went up from the third- and fourth-graders in response to the enticing offer: a box of colored chalk for 4 cents. The pupils were tempted as the lady from the bank held up the boxes in their classroom, but they'd been told that more goodies were coming later so they might want to save the 10 pennies they got at the start of the learning game.

The exercise Tuesday at John W. Ross Elementary School in Washington was part of National Teach Children to Save Day, on which bankers around the country fanned out to some 2,000 schools. The average savings rate of Americans has plunged to one of its lowest levels since the Depression -- people spend $9.99 for every $10 they earn, according to the banking industry, which is trying to get through to kids early about the importance of saving."While today's kids can surf the Internet or use a CD-ROM to do their homework, some don't know the fundamentals of saving and personal finance," said Donald Ogilvie, executive vice president of the American Bankers Association. "We hope that by teaching youth the secret of compound interest, we will encourage savings and create smarter financial consumers."

Despite the long-running stock market boom that has brought a "shareholder democracy" to this country and stunningly high levels of participation by ordinary investors, financial literacy is declining among high school seniors, a survey released last week showed.

In another recent survey, of 1,000 youths age 12 to 17, 500 said their parents had never taught them the facts of money. In responses to other questions, 500 reported they had received no such training in school, while about 330 said they still use a piggy bank to save money and 600 said they don't get a periodic allowance from their parents.

At the same time, young people are bombarded from every direction by tempting products and messages urging them to buy now and worry later.

At Ross Elementary, an old brick schoolhouse a few blocks from trendy Dupont Circle, many of the students' families have moved here from Central America or countries such as India and Nigeria.

Their parents often both work and "take money very seriously," said David Zirin, one of the teachers. In many cases, he said, the children speak better English than their immigrant parents and read telephone and utility bills for them.

During the money game, some of the 8- through 10-year-olds handled the postcards of Washington landmarks and monuments -- which they had bought for 3 cents each -- almost reverently, passing them hand to hand to get a look.

"Everyone in my group wanted to buy a postcard," declared Juraine, the captain of Group One, after polling her nine teammates in the bright classroom with computer terminals lined up against one wall and two rabbits named Patsy and Rudy in big cages.

Group Five, which held back on the postcards and the colored chalk, later was rewarded by being able to buy a batch of Pokémon trading cards for 7 cents, to the envy of their peers.

"Which group has what they really wanted?" Brent Smith, an officer at the local Citibank branch, asked when it was over. "This is an important lesson with regard to saving your own money for something you really want," he told the 50 pupils.

And how to carry that money on the way to depositing it in the bank? In a bright blue wallet emblazoned with "Citibank," of course, with Velcro strips and lots of compartments and plastic holders.

After the wallets were passed out to the students, crackling sounds filled the air as they eagerly opened and resealed the flaps.