When stories and maths collide! #1

I love using stories to get kids engaged in maths, which happens to be one of my favourite subjects to teach. I’m hoping to write more blog posts about some of the great children’s books out there, which go beyond wonderful stories and magnetic characters, and provide a launchpad for maths learning. The first one?


The Paper Bag Princess


If you aren’t familiar with this text, go seek it out now and see if it brings back some vague memories from primary school. It was written back in 1980, and features an iconic princess who spends most of the story wearing nothing but a paper bag. She’s had her home and clothes destroyed by a dragon, and the fire-breathing menace has also kidnapped her beloved fiancee. And so, she takes on the dragon, defeats him with her cunning and rescues the prince… only to have the prince declare that she looks terrible in her paper bag. This is the final page:


I remember enjoying this story as a kid, mainly because the princess and prince are named Elizabeth and Ronald respectively… which happen to be my parents' names. I thought this was hilarious. 

Anyway, let’s get on to how this funny and feminist book could be used to teach maths.


When Elizabeth takes on the dragon, she asks him if he can burn up 10 forests. He responds by aggressively burning up 50 forests.  I can already see the possibility of using this to practise multiplication and division.


How many trees could be in a forest? 

If you burnt 10 forests, how many would that be?

If you burnt 50 forests, how many would that be?

If he burnt 200 trees altogether, how many forests could that be? Can you draw this to show the same amount of trees in each forest? How many different sized forests could there be with 200 trees?



Later in the book, Elizabeth dares the dragon to fly around the world in ten seconds, which he does. Then he does it, in 20 seconds.  This moment in the story could lead into an enormous exploration about how we measure speed, and the length of the circumference of the world.  How fast do planes fly? How long would it take them to fly around the whole world? How long would it take for a car to drive around the whole world?

These questions would be suited to an older primary level, or early secondary, but you could make it a lot easier for early primary:

How far can we travel in ten seconds?

How far can we travel in twenty seconds?

Use measuring tools (tapes, rulers, trundle wheels) to record our distances.

Can we record everyone’s distances and put them in order?

Can you estimate how far you would travel in thirty seconds? 



Lastly, you might notice from the photos that my copy of The Paper Bag Princess is pretty small. You know how sometimes books on Book Depository are really cheap? Well, this one was about $2 and I bought it without realising that it was a tiny version. Doesn’t matter!  Why not use a tiny version of the book to investigate measurement and ratios?


It’s amazing how much maths can be drawn out of one very tiny but very important children’s book. Any ideas about how you could use this book to teach secondary maths (providing those teenagers aren’t too cool to use a picture book)?