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KS2 Book Topic – The Rabbit Problem

With ever more children being packed into schools, Emily Gravett’s The Rabbit Problem, in which a colony of rabbits must deal with the challenges of a rising population, may well strike a chord, says Carey Fluker-Hunt...

  • KS2 Book Topic – The Rabbit Problem

Once, long ago, in Italy, there was a mathematician named Fibonacci who was fascinated by number sequences and the rules that governed them.

Once, more recently, in Brighton, there was an author and illustrator named Emily Gravett who happened to be listening to the radio when the discussion turned to the Italian mathematician and a particular puzzle that had occupied his time. Emily might have reached for the off switch, but for one lucky coincidence – the puzzle just happened to be about rabbits, and Emily was hooked.

Rabbiting on

Fibonacci’s puzzle goes something like this: imagine you’re looking at a pair of rabbits in a field. They can’t leave the field, and every month they produce a new pair of baby rabbits. These babies grow up to produce babies of their own, and month by month the quantity of rabbits increases.

Fibonacci, of course, was interested in the numbers and the relationship between them – in this case, the mathematical formula that could be used to predict how many rabbits would be in the field at any given time. Emily Gravett was more interested in the rabbits. Confined to their field in ever-increasing numbers, what would they eat? How would they manage? Would they ever escape?

To answer these questions she created The Rabbit Problem – a book in the form of a calendar that introduces Chalk and Lonely Rabbit, and offers its readers a completely different way of thinking about maths.

Numbers framework

The fact that the book is based on a mathematical problem can come as a surprise: “I wanted to show that behind the nice, neat numbers lay a more humane (or even rabbitine) story,” says Emily.

But the numbers are there, alongside everything else, providing a framework for the book and a rationale for the rabbity activities that happen within its pages. Knitting hooded suits to keep themselves warm, publishing newspapers to combat boredom and introducing rationing when their supply of carrots dwindles, Emily’s rabbits engage in the kind of family relationships to which everyone can relate, no matter what their age (or species).

And then December arrives, of course, and all 288 rabbits explode from the book in a pop-up surprise that’s guaranteed to delight everyone, from the mathematically-able to the numerically-challenged alike.

Enjoyment, in fact, is at the heart of this book, which offers its young readers warmth and humour and lots to explore. Questions follow – about maths, cooking and why teenagers get bored – making it a wonderful starting point for all sorts of cross-curricular work. Ultimately, though, it’s the kind of book that readers love, and one to which they respond with creative projects of their own – and that, of course, makes it the very best kind of book.

Sharing this book

Prepare your class by talking about families. Who lives with you in your house? Who is part of your wider family? What’s it like, living with people of different ages? What’s good about it? What’s difficult? Talk about the things that must be done to keep families healthy and happy. What helps everybody to get on well with others? What practical tasks must be done?

Show children Emily’s illustration for the month of July. If possible, project the image onto a large screen, or enlist some helpers and work in small groups with multiple copies (making sure that children focus only on July and don’t look ahead)! What does this picture show?

Can anybody guess at the relationships between the different rabbits? How can we tell? How might these rabbits be feeling? What would it be like if we found ourselves in the field with them?

Draw the children’s attention to the signs. Explain that there was only one rabbit to begin with, but things changed. What might happen as time goes on? How do families manage when space is in short supply?

Now introduce the whole book. Begin by guiding your class through the book’s structure

Introduce the basic story and plan for repeated book sharing and book talk sessions with time for questions and discussion interspersed with independent exploration. At a later date, when everybody has had the opportunity to look closely at the artwork, explore the inserts and build a relationship with the whole book so you can start using it for cross-curricular work and as a springboard for creative response.

1 Rabbit role-play
Working in small groups, take one illustration per group and assign different roles to children, choosing a cross-section of rabbits to get a variety of perspectives.

• Ask each group to discuss their illustration, using mindmapping to explore the characters. What do they feel?
• What might they be about to say or do?
• Practise sitting and moving ‘in character’. Ask each group to arrange themselves as shown in their illustration. Then, at a given signal, children can bring their characters to life. What will happen as the still-life image is allowed to unfold?

Children should share their ideas with the whole class, with each group performing and others providing a critique. Later, children can write play scripts for their scene and record them.

2 Finding food
Have some foodie fun, using the book as inspiration.

• Explore carrots by trying some of the recipes (and making carrot prints)!
• Challenge children to come up with similar recipe books for other vegetables Grow different varieties of lettuce from seed and compare their appearance and taste
• Go on a hunt through school looking for locations of edible foodstuffs, taking notes in a specially-made ration book. (Grass on the field? Packed lunches in the cloakroom? Biscuits in the staffroom?)
• Find out about rationing and the Second World War. Does anybody have a relative or elderly neighbour who remembers food coupons and can talk about what it was like when shopping and eating were very different experiences?

If you’re looking for an extended project, then planning, planting and caring for a rabbit vegetable garden brings lots of opportunities for cross-curricular work, from budgeting for seeds and planning the layout to cooking the produce, taking photographs and keeping a scrapbook record.

3 Shelter me
The Rabbit Problem starts with a single burrow in Fibonacci’s field. But what would we do if we were stuck there for a year? Would we try to dig a burrow or build a different kind of shelter?

• Try some imaginative visualisation. Ask children to close their eyes as you talk them through different scenarios. How would it feel to be small and covered in fur and have to dig a hole in the ground with your paws? What might you see as a bird, collecting twigs to make a nest? And what would you think and feel if you were alone in the wilderness and had to build a shelter? What would you do?
• Collect feedback as a group and discuss, making a list of the best descriptions so that everybody can share them. If children have come up with good ideas, try setting them out as a poem: ‘Digging a burrow’, for example, or ‘Building a nest’.
• Den-building can be fun and a great way to engage reluctant learners, though it needs to be planned and delivered with care to meet health and safety guidelines.
• If you can’t go outside to build your own dens, how about designing rabbit-sized shelters in the classroom? This can be an imaginative drawing exercise – one that isn’t bound by reality – or you can ask for designs to be constructed using recycled materials such as boxes and tubes. In both cases children are likely to be highly motivated to explain their ideas, allowing you to interview them and capture video footage, as well as ask them to create annotated diagrams and written work.

4 Real rabbits
If Chalk and Lonely were real rabbits, how would they behave?

• Observe rabbits in the wild, or in a garden centre and find out as much information as you can.
• Why not write, present and film a mock television documentary? Alternatively, design a PowerPoint presentation to share with another class.

5 A year in the life of…
Working in small groups, develop a character.

• Where do they live? What happens to them on a day-to-day basis? Where do they go and what do they do? What difference do the changing months and seasons make?
• Plan ‘A Year in the Life of…’ these characters, using a calendar to show their stories. Can ‘extras’ such as invitations, letters in envelopes, tiny books and other devices be included?
• Create calendars from computer printouts for children to customise, or source blank office calendars from a stationery supplier.

6 Playing with numbers
Try exploring Fibonacci’s sequence.

• Start by representing the numbers of pairs of rabbits with objects, by laying out counters, for example, with one counter for each pair.
• Once children have had an opportunity to experience the numbers in a concrete way, make a table to show the number of the month and the corresponding numbers of pairs of rabbits. For example, in the first month (January) there are no pairs (or one rabbit). In the second month there is one pair (or two rabbits). In the third month there are 2 pairs (or 4 rabbits). In the fourth month there are 3 pairs (or 6 rabbits) and so on. If you write the number of pairs as a sequence you end up with 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21….
• Ask children if they can spot a pattern. What relationship does each number have to the numbers preceding it? Can children decide what the next two numbers in the sequence would be? (Answer: 34 and 55, as each successive number is generated by adding the two immediately preceding it). These numbers (the pairs of rabbits) are known as the Fibonacci numbers and relate to all sorts of things in the natural world, including the way that pine cones and shells grow, as well as ratios that govern the rules of classical painting.
• To explore numbers in class and find out why Fibonacci enjoyed them so much, your children could make a display or book about maths puzzles and solve them.

The Rabbit Problem was a Seven Stories Hooks into Books pick for Key Stage 2. To find out more about receiving seven of the best books for your Key Stage every term, together with background information and activities, visit sevenstories.org.uk/learning

Carey Fluker Hunt is a freelance writer, children’s book ambassador and creative consultant.

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