In my TK/Kindergarten classroom, as I was introducing different versions of common fairy tales and folktales to the children, I realized the stories offer a comprehensible way to look at life. Most cultures have versions of fairy tales and folktales that reflect cultural values and norms and learning them provides a common cultural base of knowledge for children. As my students are learning to read and write, fairy tales and folktales are a way to motivate young children to create their own stories.
We began by learning many versions of Gingerbread stories. Most children know the traditional version of the story, with the Gingerbread Man as the main character trying to run away from the little old man and woman and a cast of characters usually including farm animals and farmers chasing him. We then compared different versions of Gingerbread stories, including a Gingerbread girl and a Gingerbread baby. We read Gingerbread stories that take place at a school, a fire station, farms, and forests. By the time we had read a variety of stories, the children were well versed in character development, setting and storylines (plot). They enjoyed the repetitive language, joining in with “Run, run, run as fast as you can. You can’t catch me I’m the Gingerbread Man,” and compared the variety of endings, learning that some endings work out better than others.
Next, we began reading multiple versions of fairy tales and folktales that have a moral, or lesson for the children to figure out and we discussed the beginning, middle, and end of the stories. The children constructed their own stories and illustrated them including all of the parts of a book including a title page, dedication page and, best of all, an “About the Author” page complete with a photo of the young author/illustrators. We are all authors of our stories and as the children began to write their own stories, I realized the stories offer a parallel to life.
Fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time…,” a favorite with children who like to know how things begin. When we talk to our children about their own lives, they love to hear the story of when they were born, their own beginning. We then introduce the main character of the story and describe the character in detail including their physical appearance and their personal qualities.
Children love to hear stories about themselves when they were younger, giving them an opportunity to realize how much they have learned and grown. If a secondary character enters the story, we describe them and their relationship to the main character.
We often reflect on the people in our lives, the way our relationships are interconnected and how we have an impact on each other’s lives; we notice the setting and describe it in detail. Children like to know where they have lived, if they have lived in different houses, they like to be reminded of the different homes they have lived in, or different cities or states.
Once the characters and the setting are established, the plot begins to develop, usually with a problem, or challenge for the main character. The plot continues with the main character working through their challenge. Often, at this point in the story an element of magic enters the story and then a resolution ensues. In fairy tales, the story usually ends happily; in folktales this is not always the case. In our lives, the turn of events does not always entail magic, but when we learn to focus on positive thoughts, work on manifesting our own dreams and desires, and work towards our goals consistently, it often seems like the synchronicity of life, the way things suddenly seem to line up by coincidence, is a little magical.
Fairytales were created long ago to help children understand their world and the dangers in it. Life lessons such as “don’t talk to strangers” (“Little Red Riding Hood”) and “respect the privacy of others” (“Goldilocks”) can be found in fairy tales. Complex family relationships are explored (“Cinderella”) and children are taught to be kind to others (“Snow White”). We are taught to be strong in adversity (“Rapunzel”), to fight for what we believe in, and look beneath the surface when we meet new people, as people are not always what they first appear to be (“Beauty and the Beast”). Through fairy tales, we learn to think creatively when in a difficult situation and to problem solve in order to persevere. Fairy tales and folktales can teach children to work hard and not take the quick and easy way out (“Three Little Pigs”), to be helpful (“The Little Red Hen”) and perhaps the most important lesson, you cannot always get what you want (the original “Little Mermaid”), even if your intentions are good and you are talented.
We are the main characters in our own stories, our own lessons, and though we have supporting characters, we must often use our own ingenuity to solve problems and overcome challenges we encounter. We live in our own settings, but we can also choose to move, to create our own homes in a setting we prefer, and though we often encounter villains, bullies, and other characters trying to interject negativity, we can develop our own strength, the courage of our own convictions. We can learn to surround ourselves with positive, supportive people, and focus on the good we can do in the world.
Fairytales offer us the opportunity to use the stories as a vehicle to explain life to our children. They are also fun to share, and as we read the familiar stories aloud to our children, we get to relive the stories we grew up with that might even help us, as adults, with the lessons they offer, as we live our own stories, evaluate our setting, make choices about the characters we interact with, and construct our own journeys.