Telling stories through math with ‘Peg + Cat’

The PBS KIDS series “Peg + Cat” features the spirited Peg and her sidekick, Cat, as they embark on adventures, solve problems — and learn foundational math skills and concepts along the way. In each episode, Peg and Cat’s adventures take them to imaginative settings that range from a distant planet to a prehistoric valley, and from an island of pirates to ancient Egypt. The series has been delighting — and educating — preschool age Arizona PBS viewers since 2013.

Show creators Jennifer Oxley and Billy Aronson put a lot of thought into how to build the math concepts into each story in a way that feels organic. “Every episode, the characters find themselves in this wacky word problem,” says Oxley. “They can be anywhere and we don’t ever stop for a lesson. The math is just folded right into the story.”

As they develop new episodes, Oxley and Aronson pair the math concept and the story idea right from the start. “We keep lists of our favorite characters and stories we’d like to tell,” says Aronson. “Could we do ‘Romeo and Juliet’; could we parody our favorite film?” But it’s important to the two creators that the story and the math are a perfect fit.

In the case of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ they decided to use the tale of two lovers only when they realized that they could use it to tell a story about horizontal and vertical lines that need to reach each other. Suddenly, they needed math to tell that particular story, and it became an episode called “The Romeo and Juliet Problem.”

“Her dramas are shaped like equations — you know, problems to solve,” Aronson says. That’s reflected in the animation, too. Peg’s world is quite literally made up of mathematics: shapes are geometrical, the clouds are infinity signs, there are faint equations everywhere.

Although Oxley and Aronson both reminisce about having enjoyed math in school, they’re artists by profession: she began her career as an animator, he as a playwright. But, Aronson says, sometimes there’s an advantage to not being an expert in math: Approaching concepts as though he knew nothing about them can suggest fresh ways of presenting the material. And of course, the “Peg + Cat” team includes math education experts who can suggest ways of teaching the various math concepts and ensure that everything is clear and correct.

Ultimately, in addition to teaching math, Oxley and Aronson hope to give their young viewers the sense that it’s possible to solve the problems that are ahead of them in life — and that it can be exciting instead of oppressive.

“What we always aim for with ‘Peg + Cat’ is to work the way a piece of art works,” Aronson says. “So while you’re getting the information, it also works its way into your heart. There’s something about a good story, a good song, beautiful imagery that all goes together that just, we hope, stays with you.”

This story was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Arizona PBS magazine.

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