by Linda Booth Sweeney

Book author:     Margaret Bloy Graham 
Publisher:          Harper & Row, 1967
Format:              picture book; fiction 
Age range:        4 years old and up

Systems Thinking Concepts:
Simple interrelationshipsunintended consequences, reinforcing and balancing feedback, time delays, “fixes that fail”

A Quick Look at the Story
A little boy is moving to a new apartment that doesn’t allow pets.  Not having a place for his pet spider “Helen” to stay, he decides to leave her in a box at the front gate of the zoo.  Inside the box is a note asking that the zookeeper take care of her.   When the zookeeper opens the box, Helen escapes and makes her way into the lions’ cage.  Before the arrival of Helen, the lioness and her cubs were miserable, covered in flies from mane to paws.  Helen, whose favorite meal is flies, sets up her web in the corner of the lions’ cage and begins to feast.  A week later, Helen has eaten all the flies in the lions’ cage and so moves next door to the elephant house.  

This weekly migration of spinning, eating and moving on continues and the zoo becomes a peaceful, fly-free place for all.  The harmony is broken when the zookeeper decides the zoo needs to be cleaned up for an upcoming inspection by the mayor.  Despite a protest from one of his assistants that “spider webs are supposed to be sort of useful,” the zookeeper decides that all spider webs must go!  With that, the balance among flies, animals and Helen is broken.  To avoid the cleaners, Helen disappears into a crack in the ceiling of the camel house and remains hidden there for several days.  At first, the zoo looks spotless. However, with Helen gone, the flies begin to come back after a few days.  Helen spins her web at night in the camel’s cage but does not travel around to other cages for fear of being swept away by the zoo attendants. All the other animals once again begin to look miserable, except for the camel.  The zookeeper and his assistant finally realize the role Helen has played in maintaining harmony within the zoo.  The “ah-hah!” leads the zookeeper to establish a new rule at the zoo:  “Be nice to spiders.”

Teaching Tips
There are numerous exploratory paths that can lead to a systems-based analysis of this story, such as the connection between humans and nature, a focus on short-term vs. long-term consequences of decisions and actions, and the web of interrelationships within a seemingly straightforward system.

The Intersection of Human and Natural Worlds
In general, any point at which humans and the natural world interact provides a rich source of teaching opportunities about the behaviors of systems. You can begin exploring this story by simply talking about one’s “mental models” or assumptions regarding the natural world.  A good way to start is to ask students what comes to mind when they think about spiders.   It is almost guaranteed that some one (or two) will cry: “Yuck! Spiders are creepy!”  This is a fairly common opinion among children as well as among many adults.  Yet what many don’t know is that spiders help humans and animals by trapping bothersome or harmful insects.  In fact, studies in England and Wales show that spiders kill 200 trillion insects in those countries annually.  Yet the perception of spiders as disgusting, harmful insects looms large.  By not knowing the value of a spider, the zookeeper makes a decision that has noticeably undesirable and unintended consequences.

To explore the intersection of humans and nature in this story, you could also use the iceberg, a systems thinking visual tool. (The event: prepare for inspection; pattern over days:  wipe away webs;  structure/policy:  eliminate webs and Helen, if can;  mental model:  spiders and their webs are not a positive/useful part of the zoo’s existence[i]

Expanding Time Horizons 
We see that the zookeeper focuses on his short-term need: cleaning up the zoo for an upcoming inspection by the mayor.   This focus on the short-term vs. long-term provides a good opportunity to look at a behavior over a set period of time.   The time horizon in this story is approximately 10 weeks, beginning with Helen’s arrival and ending with the birth of Helen’s baby spiders.  What behaviors shall we graph?  Students might graph the volume of spiders and spider webs.  Another perhaps more pertinent variable is the harmony level of the zoo.  A graph of the harmony level in the zoo might look like this: 


At week O, the harmony level is relatively low.  When Helen arrives, the harmony level slowly increases as Helen begins the slow process of reducing the number of pesky flies in the zoo.  At week five or six, the harmony level begins to decrease as the zoo attendants clear away the spider webs. By week nine, the animals in the zoo are miserable once again. Finally, in week ten, Helen, and ultimately her babies, is welcome at the zoo and harmony begins to be restored.

A Look At the System’s Interrelationships 
The next question that one taking a systems perspective might ask is:  “What set of interrelationships might be causing this pattern of behavior?” You might begin with a simple feedback loop:


Taking some license with the story, we can say that the more spiders, the more the zoo attendants will remove the spiders and their webs. The more the webs are removed, the fewer spiders. The less spiders, the less the zoo attendants will remove the webs.  To more closely capture the dynamics of the “Be Nice to Spiders” story, we can map the interrelationships in a diagram that resembles an archetypal “story” called “Fixes that Fail” or “Fixes that Backfire.” The basic idea behind this archetype is that just about every decision has short and long-term consequences and very often, the two outcomes are at cross-purposes. [ii]


In this archetypal pattern of behavior, the problem symptom can be thought of as the “unattractiveness of the zoo.” When spider webs make the zoo appear messy, the zookeeper’s suggested “fix” is to remove all spiders and spider webs. (Thus, we can label the fix “removal of spiders/webs.” ) Here the zookeeper exhibits what we can think of as “open loop” thinking; he doesn’t detect or anticipate that his decision might negatively influence, over time, the appearance of the zoo.  At first, his decision results in a decrease in the number of spider webs and he sees an initial improvement in the appearance and attractiveness of the zoo.  Over time though, the number of pesky flies increases dramatically and the attractiveness and harmony of the zoo begins to decline. We certainly should have a healthy amount of empathy for the zookeeper. Many research studies with middle school students and adults show that people of all ages tend to focus on the short-term impact of decisions and tend not to consider feedback dynamics. (That is, people often consider how A influences B, but not how B eventually comes back around to influence A.)[iii]

After mapping out the causal loops in the story, you can explore with students where they see  “fixes that backfire” patterns either in the news or in their every day lives.    Here you might talk about road building programs (depending on the age of your group). A state highway department decides to build a new highway to ease traffic congestion.  Inevitably, the new highway solves the problem in the short term, but the system reacts to compensate (more people drive on the new highway), thereby undermining the impact of the intervention and creating additional pressure.  Students may also consider the “fixes that backfire” nature of adding additional ski lifts at popular ski resorts. For example, the more ski lifts, the more crowds, the longer the lines at the ski lifts. Or the impact of increased drug enforcement: as drug enforcement efforts increase, prisons become overcrowded, which then forces some criminals back on the streets sooner than originally intended. 

Additional Questions to Consider 
In other systems-based reviews, I have suggested questions the teacher or parent may ask the student.  In this story, let’s change perspectives and instead, ask the students to pose questions to the central figure of the story, that is, the spider herself.  This approach is drawn from the African Primary Science program and has been called by educator Eleanor Duckworth and others “the ask the things themselves principle.”[iv]  For example, students might ask:

  • What do you eat, Helen?

  • Where are the male spiders?  

  • How do you decide where to put your web?

  • Why are some people afraid of you? 

  • The teacher may also ask these questions of students: 

  •  What happened in this story?

  • Where else do we see decisions that cause unintended consequences or cause “things to happen” that were not intended and aren’t desirable?

  • If you were a zookeeper who understood the value of spiders but also wanted as attractive a zoo as possible, what rule(s) would you put in place?

Partner Stories
We can liken this story to the steady-state (or self-regulating) nature of The Old Ladies Who Liked Cats.  Ask students,  “What is the state of the system with the spiders?” If  “state” is too abstract a term, try swapping state for “condition” or “experience.” What is the state without the spiders?  Much of systems thinking involves attempting to understand the overall state or condition of a system. The Lorax is another good example of what occurs when a system in balance is disrupted.  (For a systems-based review of the Lorax, see p. 88 of When a Butterfly Sneezes). . For another book based on a true story of ecological disruption, see The Day They Parachuted Cats on Borneo: A Drama of Ecology by Charlotte Pomerantz (Young Scott Books/Addison-Wesley, Massachusetts, 1971, ages 8-12). Written in verse, this book tells how spraying for mosquitoes in Borneo affected the entire ecological system—including cockroaches, rats, cats, geckoes, the river, and eventually the farmers. There is also a short story on the topic for older readers called “Top of the Food Chain” in Without a Hero (and Other Stories) by T. Coraghessan Boyle (Viking, Penguin Books, New York, 1994).

 [i] To view a version of the iceberg, go to, and download the lesson “Going Below the Surface of a System.” There is an iceberg attached at the end.

[ii] For more information on the Fixes that Fail/Backfire archetype, see the appendix of Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, the Pegasus Communications, Inc. publication “Systems Thinking Tools” by Daniel Kim, page 20, and Senge, et alsThe Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, pg. 126- 129.

[iii] There is ample evidence to suggest that children and adults tend to misperceive feedback when feedback exists.  Instead, individuals tend to envision the natural (and social) world in terms of linear cause and effect or other forms of causality.  If you are interested in learning more about this research, here are several suggested readings: 

Dörner, D. (1980). “On the Difficulties People Have in Dealing with Complexity.”Simulations and Games 11(1): 87-106.

Grotzer, T. and B. Bell Basca (2000). Helping Students to Grasp the Underlying Causal Structures when Learning about Ecosystems:  How does it impact understanding? National Association for Research in Science Teaching Annual Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, Understandings of Consequences Project, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Hogan, K. (2000). “Assessing students’ systems reasoning in ecology.” Journal of Biological Education 35(22-28).

Sterman, J. (1989). “Misperceptions of Feedback in Dynamic Decision Making.”Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 43(3): 301-335

[iv] For more on this approach see Duckworth’s “The African Primary Science Program:  An Evaluation and Extended Thoughts” (1978, published by the University of North Dakota) as well as “Exploring, Sensibility and Wonder: Science with Young Children and Using the Senses” by Kees Both (1978, in Growing up with Science: Developing Early Understanding of Science, published by Academia Euorpaea, p. 146) and “Ask the ant lion: the growth of an African primary science unit” by J. Elstgeest  (1971, in New Trends in Integrated Science Teaching, published by UNESCO).


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