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started15th Jan 1980
ended25th Mar 1980
last rpt29th Mar 1984
5 school years
duration15 mins
age rangeAge 5-7
languageenIn English

Maths-in-a-Box is a BBC schools TV series from the 1980s, covering Mathematics for primary school pupils.

A delightful maths series for infant school children about a girl called Tracy and her friend Paul from next door, who meet a strange man from another world and have to teach him all about basic number techniques, geometry and measurement.

The visitor, whose name is Powka, comes from a place called Sooter and travels around in a magic box which is the same shape and size as the dice used in board games. By reciting the magic words - tiki tiki tox, out of the box - he is able to leave the box and grow to the size of a normal man. The children are also able to shrink down and accompany him back into the box by reciting tiki tiki tox, in to the box.

Tiki tiki tox - in to the box!

Inside Powka's magic box is his talking computer, which has been damaged in a flood - all the things it used to know about numbers and shapes have been washed away - and so Powka knows nothing about maths. Together the three of them go to visit different places (generally filmed outdoors) in the magic box to gather the knowledge needed to repair the computer. The computer can talk and display diagrams and animations, and at the end of each episode it delivers a catchy song about the maths it has learned. The computer's voice was provided by Northumbrian singer-songwriter Alex Glasgow[1], who presented the BBC schools maths series Countdown throughout the 1970s, and also wrote all of Maths-in-a-Box.

Powka's magic is carried out with the help of his special magic wand, called a "trustock". The trustock looks like a small, thin cricket bat with numbers all along it which help with counting and addition. Initially it has the numbers from one to nine, but when the children tell Powka about zero and then numbers up to 19 he adds them to the stick as well. Powka uses the trustock to register information from his experiences and then feeds the information into the computer when he returns to the box.

The series cast the children as teachers and Powka, the adult figure, as the pupil. The mathematical concepts are all based on real-life examples and there are fun subplots involving Powka being visible only to children not adults (in particular, not Tracy's mum who teases them about their apparently imaginary friend, "the man in the box"), and Tracy and Paul finding out about how things are different in Sooter through a series of riddles. A study of the series noted that "the price of its undoubted popularity with children is (the amount of) time devoted to strictly non-mathematical material included to keep the story-line credible."[2]

Careful use was made of simple mathematical terms and concepts, such as sets "including" other sets and things placed "above" or "below" other things or being "bigger" or "smaller" than each other, and pointing out where Powka uses these words ambiguously. A sum of 3+4 was read as "three and four". The episodes dealing with heaviness used the term "weight" rather than "mass".

One survey found that "a curious phenomenon seemed to surround Maths-in-a-Box."[3] While the series was quite widely used by teachers to support mathematics teaching, it was used by even more teachers to support language, and by almost as many again as a general interest series for infants. So the time sacrificed to keep the storyline viable was obviously worthwhile given the wider use made of the series than simple maths support.

Tracy and Paul


Quick episode list

# Title Broadcast
1. Strange Visitor 15 Jan 1980
2. Down on the Farm 22 Jan 1980
3. The Big Cover Up 29 Jan 1980
4. At the Seaside 5 Feb 1980
5. Winning and Losing 12 Feb 1980
6. A Long Story 26 Feb 1980
7. Racing and Pacing 4 Mar 1980
8. Weight-Watchers 11 Mar 1980
9. Plum Crazy 18 Mar 1980
10. Evens and Odds and Ends 25 Mar 1980

Num Title Archive Broadcast
1. Strange Visitor BBC 15 Jan 1980
Meeting Powka

Maths content: Pattern and number

Tracy and Paul meet Powka for the first time during a game of snakes and ladders. They examine the computer and discover that it has got so mixed up that it thinks chickens have four legs, horses have two, and a circle is a "round square".

Powka shows the children a decorative pattern of bottles and jars that he had started to paint, and they work out how the pattern would continue. They give the information to the computer and it recites "bottle, bottle, bottle, jar, jar" back to them rhythmically so they can dance to it. They see another pattern in the beads Powka wears around his neck - black, black, black, black, white - and realise that both patterns are based on the number five.

Song: A funny thing is five, a funny thing is five. No matter how you make it up, you still end up with five. As four and one, dum diddley dum, or three and two, dum diddley dee, or one and four, dum diddley door, you'll get no less, you'll get no more, you still end up with five.

2. Down on the Farm BBC 22 Jan 1980
  Maths content: Sets

Powka reappears while Tracy and Paul are playing a game of animal snap, and they decide to teach the computer how many legs different animals have. Powka transports them to a farm and begins counting the number of horses, but Paul points out that the animals he can see are actually a mixture of horses and donkeys.

They go to visit the pig-sty where they can count seven pigs including six piglets (the other one is a sow), and in the farmyard they see a set of birds including chickens and pigeons. The set of animals they can see includes all of the bird as well as the farmyard cat.

Powka also learns the number of legs that each animal has, and when he finds an animal with no legs (a worm) he needs to add 0 to his trustock to be able to count it. Powka passes on all of the new information to the computer, but he mistakenly tries to add the number of horses he saw to the total number of animals in the field.

Song: "I've got four" said the horse, said he, "won't you come and dance with me?" "Sorry ," said the milking stool, said she "we'd be out of step, for I only have three." Said the horse to the chicken, "well how about you?" "I'd love to sir, but I've only got two." The dovecote cooed out a very sad song, "dancing's very hard when you've only got one." And the worm shed a tear as she squirmed along, "I'll never learn to dance for I've got none."

3. The Big Cover Up BBC 29 Jan 1980
  Maths content: Area

Powka and the children return to the farm and find a workman laying paving stones around the cow trough. They disagree about whether there are enough paving stones to cover the necessary area - Powka thinks that by laying the stones in a different direction they could cover more ground. They magically experiment with laying them in different directions and discover that the amount of ground covered is always the same.

Next Powka thinks that if the huts in a field were spaced out differently there would be more grass for the cows to eat, but the children show him that the spacing makes no difference. From the magic box they all watch Tracy's bedroom wall being painted by her mother, and are concerned about whether it will take the same amount of paint to cover a wall with a door as a wall with a window. The computer overlays a grid of squares on each wall to help them compare the area.

Song: Tiki tiki tox in our little box we can travel up and down and around. But wherever it lands, on soil or on sands, it still needs the same amount of ground. It does, exactly the same amount of ground.

4. At the Seaside BBC 5 Feb 1980
At the seaside

Maths content: Place value

Paul and Tracy explain their game of marbles to Powka and introduce him to the number ten. Powka mentions that all games in Sooter are played with machines, so Tracy persuades him to equip them with buckets and spades and transport them to the seaside to play in the amusements. They play a ten-pin bowling machine and after two rounds both children's scores are 15 - so they have to tell Powka about the numbers from eleven to twenty, and how they can be expressed as ten and some more.

The children make lots of sandcastles on the beach, and when Powka tries to count them Paul helps him by circling each group of ten sandcastles. With a bit of help the computer can count two sets of ten sandcastles and three more - twenty-three.

Song: I went down to the seaside and I took my bucket and spade. I started making sandcastles, and soon such a lot I'd made. I counted castles up to ten, and then and then to ten again, and after that there was one, two, three, how many castles can you see?

5. Winning and Losing BBC 12 Feb 1980
  Maths content: Numbers to 100

The trio are back at the seaside and Tracy has spent most of her money in the amusements. Paul still has a pound note that he was keeping for emergencies, and uses it to buy three drinks. Powka is amazed that Paul can exchange his piece of paper for three drinks and a lot of coins.

Paul lays out the coins and shows how five pennies can be added to eight pennies by rearranging them into a group of 10 and 3 left over. Powka has now extended the trustock up to nineteen, and with the help of the computer he can do sums such as 8 and 5, and 6 and 7. He catches sight of the bingo number board and is horrified at the idea of learning so many new numbers, but the children show him how the numbers all use the same ten numerals and develop in a regular pattern.

Song: 10, 20, 30p, buy an ice cream for you and me. 40, 50, 60p, take a cake and a cup of tea. 70, 80, 90p, save it up and soon you'll see. 100p all nice and round, change it quick for a paper pound.

The trustock extended up to 19.
6. A Long Story BBC 26 Feb 1980
  Maths content: Length (comparisons)

Powka looks at the plasticine models that Paul is making and reveals that animals in Sooter are bigger, as in longer, and bigger in another way. They go to meet Tracy at Brownies and find her skipping. Powka tries skipping but his rope is too short, and the children show him how to compare two lengths of rope properly. They determine that if one rope is longer when the two are measured together, then it will still be longer when the ropes are moved.

Powka discovers that he is taller than Paul, and Paul is taller than Tracy. Powker is amazed that, having made just those two measurements, the children can deduce that Powka is also taller than Tracy.

Powka uses a rope to measure the distance that Tracy can throw a ball, and compares it to the distance that another Brownie can throw. The computer helps him to understand the distance around the curved running track by straightening it out. Tracy has to go home along the zig-zag roads, but Powka and Paul travel in a straight line in the magic box, and they determine that a straight line is always the shortest route.

Song: If Paul is taller than Tracy, and Powka is taller than Paul, you don't need to measure, it's plain as can be, that Powka is taller than Tracy, so Powka is tallest of all.

7. Racing and Pacing BBC 4 Mar 1980
  Maths content: Length (measuring)

The Brownies are having their sports and garden party. Powka and Paul have to prop up a broken table, and Paul measures the height against his body then fetches the correct number of bricks to reach that level. Powka helps Tracy to work out how many water troughs she will need for the obstacle race by measuring the distance she can jump with his footprints and then marking the same distance along the line of water troughs. He even works out what length of hose is needed to fill the troughs by pacing the distance to the tap.

Tracy has made three paper darts, and Powka measures the best flight with paces and a handspan to more accurately check the distance. He realises that paces are not always suitable for measuring because different people have different strides.

Finally Powka guesses the length of a ball of string after Paul shows him a metre stick - for which he wins some chocolates.

Song: Down in Sooter where I come from I can measure how far, I can measure how long. I can use my feet, I can use my hands, just as they do in other lands. I can measure how high, I can measure how low, but today I learnt what I need to know. If you want to measure neater use a metre.

8. Weight-Watchers BBC 11 Mar 1980
Powka emerging from the magic box

Maths content: Weight (comparisons)

Paul has rigged up a small pulley to lift up shells from the ground, which the children are using to decorate Tracy's dolls' house. Powka is interested in how the shells go up as the string is pulled down on the other side of the pulley, and he is also interested in the shells so they all go back to the seaside.

Paul and Tracy explore the rocks and have a competition to collect the most crabs. There is a stone on the beach which is too heavy for Paul to lift up, and Powka says that this is because the stone is too big, but Paul explains that heaviness and 'bigness' are not the same thing.

The children use a see-saw to weigh a bucket of crabs against a large cardboard box, and Powka observes the lighter box going up as the bucket goes down. They use the cliff railway, which uses a pulley system and weights in each of the two cars to move up and down the cliff. Back in the box they set up a balance to compare the two crab collections. Tracy has fewer crabs but still wins the competition because hers are heavier.

Song: See-saw, see-saw, we took a tram from the cliff to the shore. Down we went, all lickety-splick, because it was heavier, ever so quick. Saw-see, saw-see, we came up again just in time for our tea. Up from the beach right into the town, we were pulled up by the tram coming down.

9. Plum Crazy BBC 18 Mar 1980
  Maths content: Weight (measuring)

Powka helps Paul and Tracy to make a sponge cake. They need an equal weight of eggs, margarine, sugar and flour so they use a balance to weigh out each ingredient. They also use the balance to split the mixture exactly in two, to make twelve small cakes with one half and one large cake with the other. Later the children balance the smaller cakes against the large one to show Powka that they both provide the same amount to eat.

Tracy's mum provides some money to buy plums to make some plum jam to put in the sponge. Powka takes the children to the farm in the magic box so they can pick their own plums. He is surprised when they weigh the fruit they have picked using kilogram weights instead of by balancing against another ingredient. Between the three of them they have eight kilograms of plums, and they determine that they will still have the same weight no matter how the plums are divided amongst their bags. FInally they work out the cost of their haul at 10p per kilogram of plums.

Song: Tomorrow morning when I wake, I have it in mind to bake me a cake. I'll take four eggs and balance them true with the flour and sugar and margarine too, with a pinch of salt for flavour's sake. I've got the lot for a fine sponge cake, in a mixing bowl I'll beat and beat. Pop it in the oven, that's a real good treat.

10. Evens and Odds and Ends BBC 25 Mar 1980
The computer

Maths content: Symmetry

Powka arrives to find Tracy and Paul putting paint on sheets of paper and then folding them to make symmetrical patterns (where one side is "the same as" the other). Then the children set off for a picnic in the park on their bicycles. Powka follows but on the way he takes note of several symmetrical things with the trustock. Separated from the children he gets lost on the way to the park because he doesn't understand that odd and even numbered houses are on opposite sides of the street. When he arrives and the children explain about this, he makes the odd and even numbers appear differently on the trustock.

Powka is interested in the reflections in the lake in the park and Paul compares them to his bike mirror. They go into the box where Powka tells the computer about the symmetrical items he registered, but using a mirror the computer proves that not all of them are actually symmetrical. The children point out there will be an even number of each item in an object with mirror symmetry.

When the computer has been given all of this information it announces that it has enough information to function properly and Powka doesn't need any more help from the children. Before they leave the box for the last time Tracy and Paul put together all of the clues and riddles they have been given about Sooter.

Song: 2, 4, 6, 8, who do we appreciate? P-A-U-L, he's the one who served us well. 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, come again another time, we don't want to say goodbye to T-R-A-C-Y.

Theme Tune & Titles

The animated opening titles show the magic box landing in a field and all sorts of numbers and mathematical symbols emerging. The letters to form "Maths-in-a-Box" also emerge.

The theme tune was the computer singing Tiki tiki tox it's Maths-in-a-Box, as easy as one, two, three. Tiki tiki tox it's Maths-in-a-Box, as easy as one, two, three.

Here are a few alternative spellings of the rhyme, to aid web searches (the spelling used on this page is as given in the music in the teacher's notes): ticky ticky tocks, tikki tikki tox, ticki ticki tocks, tiky tiky toks -- into the box!


The series was first shown in the spring term of 1980, on Tuesdays at 9:58am and repeated on Fridays at 10:15am. On both days it was paired with the revival of the Look and Read story The Boy From Space - on Tuesdays it was shown immediately before The Boy From Space, and on Fridays The Boy From Space was shown immediately before Maths-in-a-Box!

It was repeated in the following academic year, but instead of showing each episode twice a week they ran through the whole series twice in separate terms - it was shown in the autumn term of 1980 and then immediately the whole thing was shown again in the spring term of 1981, both times in the Friday timeslot only.

Feedback from teachers evidently reported that they needed more time to build on the mathematical content of each episode[4] and so from the 1981-82 school year the programmes were shown fortnightly, spread out over the autumn and spring terms. Episodes were shown on alternate Thursdays at 11:05am, with episodes of the geography series Near and Far] shown at that time in other weeks.


Paul, Powka and Tracy

Eugene Geasley as Powka
Clark Flanagan as Paul
Melissa Wilks as Tracy Dixon
Alex Glasgow as the computer
Pippa Sparkes as Mrs Dixon

Written by Alex Glasgow
Consultants Prof. Geoffrey Matthews
Julia Matthews
Producer Morton Surguy


Teacher's notes

Maths-in-a-Box was accompanied by a detailed 24-page A4 booklet of teacher's notes printed in green and black, covering the storyline and maths content of each episode. It gave both the lyrics and sheet music for all of the computer's songs and the series theme tune, and included photographs and diagrams. It also contained extensive background information for teachers about the mathematical themes covered, suggested activities for teachers to conduct in the classroom, and problems for children to solve after each episode.

Later editions of the notes apparently included a section on language development for use with children learning English as a Second Language or just generally in need of language development[5].

The notes were edited by Leslie Foster, with drawings by John Gilkes and cartoons by Paul Cemmick.


Sources & References

  • BBC (1979) Broadcasting and Mathematics: The contribution of BBC School and Continuing Education Broadcasting from 1958 to 1979. London: BBC. ISBN 0-563-16403-4 p.7
  • BBC (1980) BBC Annual Report and Handbook 1981. London: BBC. ISBN 0-563-17928-7 p.25
  • Choat, Ernest, Griffin, Harry & Hobart, Dorothy (1987) Teachers and Television. London: Croom Helm. ISBN 0-709-94819-0
  • Fawdry, Kenneth (1974) Everything But Alf Garnett: A Personal View of BBC School Broadcasting, London: BBC. ISBN 0 563 12763 5
  • Foster, Leslie (1979) Maths-in-a-Box: A mathematical story in 10 episodes teacher's notes spring 1980. London: BBC. ISBN 0-563-31077-4
  • Langham, Josephine (1990) Teachers and Television: A History of the IBA's Educational Fellowship Scheme. London: John Libbey & Company ISBN 0-861-96264-8 pp.173-175 - basically a summary of Womack (1983)
  • Radio Times television listings, 1980-1983
  • Womack, David (1983) Maths on Television: Doing or Viewing? The Role of Television in the gaining of Early Mathematical Concepts - with particular reference to Slower-Learning Children. London: Independent Broadcasting Authority
  1. Alex Glasgow was introduced as "Northumbrian singer & songwriter" in the teacher's notes to Countdown, autumn 1972 p.2
  2. Womack (1983) p.30: "Maths-in-a-Box has a generous spread of topics throughout the curriculum, although the price of its undoubted popularity with children is indicated by the 15% of series time devoted to strictly non-mathematical material included to keep the story-line credible." Also p.4: "Although some teaching time is inevitably 'lost' in the process of keeping the story-line viable, the three personalities in the series are genuine and likeable and the songs and music undoubtably 'catchy'." David Womack's report was delivered in 1983 but his survey work was completed during 1980-81, during the first (and second!) repeat runs of Maths-in-a-Box.
  3. The survey covering the use of the series in different ways was that carried out by Choat et al (1987). "Curious phenomenon" quote and the statistics to support wider use of the series from p.110. I don't quite understand the statistical analysis made in the book, but this is probably because I have only read specific pages and not the whole thing, but it seems to suggest the interpretation made on this page. Reported numbers were: 27 teachers used the series "for mathematics", 28 "for language" and 23 "for general interest". These were presented as 38%, 14% and 15% respectively (percent of what?!)
  4. That the move to fortnightly broadcasts was made in response to feedback from teachers is stated in Womack (1983) footnote to p.4. The information may have come from contemporary teacher's notes, but Womack was also in contact with the programme producer.
  5. Womack (1983) p.4 describes a section of the teacher's notes covering language development as "an interesting and insightful additional section". This section is not present in the spring 1980 teacher's notes which I have seen, so it must have been added in later reprints. Choat et al (1987) p.59 also describes the teacher's notes but does not go into sufficient detail to cover any language development section.


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