Huffing and Puffing through Economics

Book Links: February/March 2002 (v.11, no.4)

by Cynthia A. Weldon-Lassiter

Many adults have a hard time fully understanding the complexities of economics, so teaching the subject to elementary-school students might seem impossible. But believe it or not, fairy tales effectively demonstrate basic economic principles and depict a variety of economic experiences in a way children can truly understand. Some selections contain obvious economic concepts, such as the version of The Three Little Pigs in which an entrepreneurial pig family's waffle-making prowess turns into a lucrative business. Other fairy tales may not so explicitly explore economic concepts, but a focused eye can see how variations on these tales can assist in teaching basic economic principles to children in the primary grades.

In this article, an economic principle is paired with a familiar fairy tale. These selections may be used to note similarities and differences among versions or as a springboard for teaching additional concepts. With practice, educators will begin to see how several versions of the same story can be used to highlight more than one economic principle. The bibliography contains several editions of each tale, with selections that reinforce economic principles such as wants and needs, scarcity, and opportunity cost. There are traditional retellings, along with some "fractured" fairy tales.

Because many children in the primary grades have prior knowledge of fairy tales, they are a good way to teach an often difficult but essential topic. Children personally identify with the characters and can extend themselves by engaging their imaginations in role-playing. Using fairy tales to start a discussion of economic principles also allows the classroom to become a venue for demonstrating these concepts.

Wants and Needs: Goldilocks and the Three Bears

This tale is an effective selection for introducing the difference between wants and needs. Wants are goods and services that people would like to have, but are not necessary for survival. Needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter, are things we must have to exist. When Goldilocks enters the bears' home, her needs for food and shelter are met.

Brett, Jan.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears. 1987. 32p. Putnam, $16.99 (0-399-22033-X); Puffin, paper, $6.99 (0-698-11358-6).

Preschool-Gr. 3. In this version of the classic fairy tale, Brett adds a new dimension to the characters through their beautifully detailed costumes. As the bear family exits, Goldilocks enters in all her finery, but up to no good. Surely Brett's Goldilocks has much to peruse in this lavishly decorated home. Despite the familiarity of the story, children will want to linger on the extraordinary illustrations before turning the page to see what Goldilocks has been doing.

Ernst, Lisa Campbell.
Goldilocks Returns. 2000. 40p. Simon & Schuster, $16 (0-689-82537-4).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Fifty years later, she's changed her name and launched her own business called Goldi's Locks and Keys. Still, she's having a terrible time forgiving herself for her childhood break-in at the bears' home. To make amends, Goldi returns to the cottage of the bears and provides her services as interior decorator and housekeeper.

Galdone, Paul.
The Three Bears. 1979. 32p. Clarion, $15 (0-395-28811-8); paper, $6.95 (0-89919-401-X).

Preschool-Gr. 3. The trusting bear family decides to leave their front door unlocked, which Goldilocks takes as an open invitation. Just as you'd expect, she devours the porridge, breaks a chair, and falls fast asleep in baby bear's bed. Fortunately for her, they live in a modest, one-floor cottage, and her escape through the bedroom window is successful. This story is also available in a new collection of Galdone's fairy tales,
Nursery Classics (Clarion, 2001).

Guarnaccia, Steven.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears: A Tale Moderne. 2000. 32p. Abrams, $15.95 (0-8109-4139-2).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Upbeat, modern, and stylish, the three bears are now living in a split-level, and mama bear is cooking up some chili for lunch. After a ramble in the woods, they return to find their home, which is furnished with items by celebrated designers, in shambles. Eventually, they find Goldilocks, who has deflated Mama's 1967 "blow" bed and is snoozing under baby bear's striped comforter.

Activity: Brainstorm a list of items from each book, as if taking inventory in a store. Items might include porridge, beds, chair cushions, blankets, or bowls. Categorize the items as wants or needs. Once the list has been compiled and the items categorized, initiate a class discussion about why each item fell within its selected category. The items in Guarnaccia's modern version would serve as a great contrast to those in the more traditional versions by Brett and Galdone.

Goods and Services: The Three Little Kittens

Goods are tangible items that people want or need. Services are tasks that a person performs for someone else. In this fairy tale, a pie and a rat are goods that are consumed. Two services are performed-the mother cat bakes a pie, and the kittens wash their mittens.

Galdone, Paul.
The Three Little Kittens. 1986. 32p. Clarion, $15 (0-89919-426-5); paper, $5.95 (0-89919-796-5).

Preschool-Gr. 2. The sad little kittens lose their mittens, but soon find them. Mother is glad, but once the mittens are soiled with pie, the kittens realize they must perform a service to get in her good graces again. After washing their mittens, the kittens enjoy another treat.

Activity: To illustrate the concept of goods and services, have the class produce a good, such as puppets, that they may use in performing a service, such as a puppet show. The children could stage a puppet show for another class or use the puppets in class to act out a particular fairy tale.

Scarcity: Little Red Riding Hood

What's in Little Red Riding Hood's basket anyway? In most versions of the fairy tale, it doesn't really matter because the wolf is not after its contents. Ernst adds a twist about the basket's contents, and her version is perfect for introducing the concept of scarcity. Scarcity is the condition that results when people's wants are greater than the resources available to satisfy those wants. This condition forces us to make choices. If the contents of Little Red Riding Hood's basket were scarce, there could have been big trouble, but fortunately there are enough muffins to satisfy the wolf's wants--which keeps his behavior in check. Imagine what would happen if scarcity was an element in this situation.

Ernst, Lisa Campbell.
Little Red Riding Hood: A Newfangled Prairie Tale. 1995. 40p. Simon & Schuster, $16 (0-689-80145-9); Aladdin, paper, $6.99 (0-689-82191-3).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Little Red Riding Hood is such a thoughtful granddaughter. She offers to take some of her favorite wheat berry muffins and cold lemonade to her granny's house. She hops on her bike, but wouldn't you know it-she runs right into a hungry wolf crossing the prairie. But, wait! He's not after Red Riding Hood or Granny. The wolf wants the recipe for the muffins! Granny solves the problem by opening her own muffin shop, and the wolf becomes a valuable employee.

Activity: After reading Little Red Riding Hood, ask an older student to visit the classroom dressed as the title character. Children can try to guess what's in her basket. When she departs, Little Red Riding Hood can leave her basket behind. Let the class open it to discover a combination of crayons and lollipops. Ask each child which item he or she would like. Once an accurate number is tallied, count the number of lollipops and crayons. When the items are passed out (assuming the children will find the lollipops more desirable than the crayons), a scarcity of lollipops will force some children to choose crayons, even though they wanted the other. As an antidote, reveal an alternate treat for the whole class to enjoy. Muffins, perhaps!

Opportunity Cost: Jack and the Beanstalk

Walker's version of this story perfectly demonstrates the concept of opportunity cost. When one makes a decision, the most valuable alternative not chosen is the opportunity cost. In other words, it's what one has to give up when one chooses a certain path. Sleep is imperative to normal functioning; yet Jack gives up slumber in his warm, safe bed, in order to embark on an unknown adventure. After taking one bag of gold from the giant, Jack returns for a second-but Jack is smart. He sees that he can take the goose, who will lay many golden eggs in the future.

Kellogg, Steven.
Jack and the Beanstalk. 1991. 48p. HarperCollins, $16 (0-688-10250-6); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.95 (0-688-15281-3).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Fee-fi-fo-fum! With the backdrop of its original English setting, Kellogg retells the classic tale of a courageous boy named Jack who scrambles up and down a beanstalk. Trying his luck, the young boy returns with gold, a hen that lays golden eggs, and a melodious golden harp. The softly shaded illustrations will encourage children in story time to draw nearer to see the giant's nasty lair, and retreat when they come face to face with his hideous, gruesome appearance. As always with Kellogg's stories, there's much to savor.

Walker, Richard.
Jack and the Beanstalk. Illus. by Niamh Sharkey. 1999. 40p. Barefoot, $15.95 (1-902283-13-9).

Preschool-Gr. 2. When a wiry tendril of the famous beanstalk taps on his bedroom window one night, Jack doesn't think twice about leaving his comfy bed to explore the great unknown. He climbs the beanstalk a second time for another bag of gold, but the goose that lays the golden eggs makes an offer he can't refuse. In the end, Jack takes off with the usual loot and shimmies down the beanstalk with the giant's wife, who is also eager to escape. The comically outlandish illustrations are a special treat.

Activity: This fairy tale allows you to explore what students would give up in order to have the opportunity to go on such a great adventure. Ask children to ponder what opportunity cost would be worth a hike up the magical beanstalk.

Producers and Consumers: The Little Red Hen

Producers are people who make goods or provide services. Consumers are people who buy goods and services. As consumers, we enjoy the luxury of shopping for goods and using services provided by producers. Besides being a producer herself, in
The Little Red Hen, the hen has a producer to rely on when the miller grinds the wheat into flour, since that job is not her specialty.

Galdone, Paul.
The Little Red Hen. 1979. 32p. Clarion, $15 (0-395-28803-7); paper, $5.95 (0-89919-349-8); paper and audiocassette, $9.95 (0-395-89902-8).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Peek inside the dilapidated farmhouse and find the little red hen scurrying around to do all the chores. Amidst the clutter, her lazy friends-the cat, dog, and mouse-refuse to do a thing. In the end, the hen reaps the rewards from her labor when she has the scrumptious cake all for herself.

Sturges, Philemon.
The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza). Illus. by Amy Walrod. 1999. 32p. Dutton, $15.99 (0-525-45953-7).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Having a taste for pizza, this little red hen makes off for the grocery store to purchase all the necessary ingredients, even flour. Unfortunately, she does not make a list and must return to the store when she realizes her friends the duck, cat, and dog are too busy goofing off to help out. Despite their indolence, she invites them to enjoy the pizza with her.

Zemach, Margot.
The Little Red Hen: An Old Story. 1983. 32p. Farrar, $14 (0-374-34621-6); Sunburst, paper, $5.95 (0-374-44511-7).

Preschool-Gr. 3. "Not I," said the goose, the cat, and the pig. So, the little red hen does it all by herself. She plants, harvests, and threshes the wheat, and takes it to the mill to be ground into flour. Her last request for assistance in making the flour into a loaf of bread is turned down, as her friends are too busy playing cards. It serves them right to be denied a single crumb!

Activity: Take a field trip to a local bakery or bread company and check out the process of cake baking or bread making. Upon returning to school, have children write or illustrate which role they would enjoy most, being a producer who bakes or a consumer who buys and eats goods. Reading the versions by Galdone, Sturges, and Zemach will highlight three different delicacies made by the hen. Capitalize on that by voting and finding out which delicacy would be in greatest demand.

Trade: The Three Little Pigs

How much did the pigs pay for their building supplies? You guessed it--nothing! How nice, but in the real world, that's not how it works. The pigs have no money, as their destitute mother sent them off to seek their fortunes. Without cold, hard cash, trade is their best option for acquiring their building supplies. Trade involves exchanging goods and services for other goods and services of equal value, or for money.

Lowell, Susan.
Los Tres Pequeños Jabalíes: The Three Little Javelinas. Illus. by Jim Harris. 1992. 32p. Rising Moon, $15.95 (0-87358-661-1).

Preschool-Gr. 2. A hairy southwestern trio highlights this bilingual tale of a coyote's plan to change the dinner menu. Tired of mice and rabbits, he sets his sights on the little javelinas. Adorned in their southwestern attire, the first two javelinas are chased through a scorching desert after making homes of tumbleweed and saguaro sticks. A much sturdier mud adobe house built by the third javelina becomes a refuge for all three.

Trivizas, Eugene.
The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. Illus. by Helen Oxenbury. 1993. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Margaret K. McElderry, $17 (0-689-50569-8); Aladdin, paper, $6.99 (0-689-81528-X).

Preschool-Gr. 2. The tables are turned when the three little wolves go out into the world and must beware the big bad pig. The wolves decide to live together and build homes made from bricks, concrete, and iron, but each time the big bad pig comes to visit, he is using something more powerful than a huff and a puff. The wolves decide to change their tactics and build a fragile yet fragrant house. The ending will make readers eager for spring.

Activity: Ask each child to assume the role of one of the little pigs and ponder these questions: What building supplies would you prefer and why? What good or service would you provide for a bundle of sticks? For a bundle of straw? For a load of bricks? Collect a variety of classroom items (at least one per child) and simulate trading goods. Versions by Lowell and Trivizas highlight different materials that may be used to build the houses. Compare the materials used in these two versions and ask the same questions. According to the goods and services suggested by the students, what building materials have the highest value? The lowest?

Entrepreneurship: The Three Little Pigs

Kellogg's version of this tale features an entrepreneurial family of pigs, making it the perfect selection for introducing the idea of starting a class business. An entrepreneur is one who assumes the risk of starting a new business or of introducing a new good or service to the marketplace in the hope of earning a profit. In this retelling, Serefina Sow invests in a waffle business that proves to be quite lucrative.

Kellogg, Steven. T
he Three Little Pigs. 1997. 32p. HarperCollins, $16.95 (0-688-08731-0).

Preschool-Gr. 3. Serafina Sow awakes from a dream and realizes that something must be done about her financial situation. As a single parent, she decides to start her own waffle business so that her three offspring may prepare for the future. Percy, Pete, and Prudence ultimately encounter the surly wolf, Tempesto, and he makes it known that he prefers pork chops to waffles, but a scorching waffle iron persuades him otherwise.

Activity: Using a market survey, get a feel for what product would sell in your school. How many people would be willing to buy the product? How much would they pay? Popular items, such as bookmarks, would serve as viable goods. For more information on starting a classroom business making bookmarks, visit the E. Angus Powell Endowment for American Enterprise Web site (see "Web Connections" sidebar on p.12).


Web Connection

  • Visit to see the NCEE's
    Economics American program, a comprehensive curriculum for economics education.The
    E. Angus Powell Endowment for American Enterprise was created in 1979 by E. Angus Powell to promote economic literacy among young people. Its Web site at features model economics curriculums for K-Gr. 12 and workshops for teachers.

Professional Resources

  • Econ-Exchange: Practical Classroom Activities for Today's K-12 Teachers. This quarterly publication is a joint project of the E. Angus Powell Endowment and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Virginia. Economics projects by teachers in elementary-, middle-, and high-school classrooms are highlighted. The winter 2001 issue focuses on information technology and economics. The fall 1999 issue highlights entrepreneurship and economics. Back issues are available at no cost. For more information, contact Executive Director Rebecca Shepherd at
  • The Gingerbread Man. 1993. 212p. University of Missouri-St. Louis, $45.

    Published by the Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Education at the University of Missouri, this amazing resource for first and second grades is an integrated thematic approach that encourages cooperative learning while incorporating skills in economics, math, science, language, social studies, written language, and reading. It contains 15 days of instruction, each day requiring three and a half to four hours of time in the classroom. The following Web site gives specific information on purchasing this item as well as additional thematically based economics units for various grade levels:
  • Mapes, Carrie, and Judith Gold.
    The Little Red Hen--A Complete Unit: Reading, Language, Science, Math. 1995. 64p. Evan-Moor, paper, $6.95 (1-55799-376-9).

    This thematically based unit (suitable for K-Gr. 2) is organized to make it easy to select what is appropriate to include in your program. Reading, language, writing, math, and science activities can be used to incorporate economic concepts such as goods and services, consumers and producers, specialization of labor, and human resources.
  • Moore, JoEllen.
    Bread around the World: A Complete Thematic Unit. 1995. 48p. Evan-Moor, paper, $9.95 (1-55799-388-2).

    This cross-curricular unit for Gr. 1-3 explores the importance of bread all over the world. Topics related to the history of bread and how a bread factory works incorporate economics concepts such as choice, producers and consumers, opportunity cost, and production.

Cynthia A. Weldon-Lassiter has been teaching kindergarten for nine years and is working toward a doctorate in early childhood education.