Adventures in Homeschooling in Southern Indiana

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Fairy Tale Education: How to use Fairy Tales and Folk Tales to teach Geography, History, World Cultures, and Biology

Kids need background knowledge to understand the world. Reading won’t make sense if they can’t connect the words in front of them to something they’ve already encountered. History and geography need to be more than memorized lists of facts. So, how does a conscientious homeschooler make sure that her youngest students encounter the world and learn about more than their immediate environment?   

You could invest in a grueling and expensive curriculum for your pre-school and kindergarten-aged children. You could spend hours a day grinding through workbooks.  You could focus on academics from the time your tots first pick up a crayon. 

 You could do all those things, but they’re not much fun, and they’re not even developmentally appropriate.  When I want to introduce my children to the world in all its variety and drama, I skip the textbooks and head straight to folktales and fairy tales.

Why Folktales?

For thousands of years, people around the globe have used folktales to introduce their children to basic morals, themes, and ideas. As homeschoolers, we can use these tales to educate our children.  Public libraries often have excellent collections of international folktales. These stories combine beautiful illustrations, complex language, and exciting plots to draw in even the youngest children.  Best of all, you can use them for free.

When you read the folktales of many nations, you get an education in geography and culture. The tales talk about local clothing, housing, foods, animals, and landscapes. Many illustrators adopt the style of local artists, so you can even give your children a taste of the art of many nations. Yet no matter where the tales come from, they address the same themes. Folktales let your children see that, no matter what their languages, traditions, and lifestyles, all people are basically the same, with the same needs, desires, and fears.

There are other ways to introduce your young children to world cultures, but folktales are interesting, inexpensive, and memorable. Even your older children will find them fascinating, and you can tie them into crafts, meals, and field trips. Best of all, folktales are flexible. You can read seasonal tales, tales from a specific country, or just any story that looks interesting. You can educate your children while keeping ‘school’ light and fun.

How to Choose Your Books

My family uses two different approaches to building a folktale curriculum. Sometimes, we’re studying a particular part of the world with my older kids. Then, I try to tie our folktales into the big kids’ work. So, for instance, if my eldest has been studying China, I’ll come back from the library with an armload of Chinese folktales.

At other times, we take a more serendipitous approach. My little ones and I will hit the library, and pick out any folktales that look exciting, interesting, or beautiful. Then we learn a little about the cultures whose folktales appealed to us.  I try to use a mix of the planned and serendipitous methods to make sure that we don’t neglect continents or countries as we travel around the world with stories.

How to Read a Folktale to Your Children\

Before you read a folktale to your children, preview it. Keep an eye out for any parts that might be too scary or disturbing for your children. If you find that a tale doesn’t match your values or your children’s temperaments, skip it. The point of learning through folktales is to have fun, not to cause lasting trauma.

When you sit down to read with your children, give them a little background information first. You don’t have to overload them. A simple introduction like “This story is from China. This is where China is on the map. This is where we live. China is far across the ocean,” is enough to get them started. If you’re reading the creation myths of another culture, you might want to explain how the myths relate to your own religious beliefs.

In our family, we remind the children that not everyone knows about the Bible, but every person wonders about who made him and why he was made. Creation myths are other cultures guessing about the truth. Sometimes, they get parts right, sometimes, they get parts wrong, but all people want to know more about their Creator. Sometimes, these myths helped prepare people so that when missionaries came, they were ready to hear and understand the truth about God.

After you’ve set the stage, snuggle up on the couch and read. Take time to enjoy the artwork and to answer your children’s questions. Remember, the point is to expose them to new cultures, countries, and geographies, not to prepare for a test.  If the story is an especially exciting or funny one, your children may want to listen to it again and again, act it out, or draw about it. These are all good ways to help them remember the folk tale. If, however, a story turns out to be a dud, don’t worry. There are thousands of folktales at your library, and your children won’t like every single one.

If your kids enjoy a story, invite them to compare it to other folktales they’ve heard. How is Brer Rabbit like Anansi?  How is Pecos Bill like Hercules? Many themes, like Cinderella, tricksters, and fools, repeat across cultures. Your kids may begin to see patterns in the stories.

Talk about how the people in the story eat, live, and dress. Talk about the animals, and take the time to learn more about them and their habitats. Let the stories serve as a window to the world.

Some of My Family’s Favorites

  • Everyone has favorite folktales. As we’ve worked through our folktale curriculum, some books have become family favorites.
  • My sons especially love the Norse Myths and tales from the Vikings. Their favorite version is D’Aulaire’s Norse Myths. D’Aulaire’s Book of Trolls is also a crowd-pleaser.
  • All of my children enjoy Steven Kellogg’s retellings of American Tall Tales. Johnny Appleseed, Mike Fink, and Paul Bunyan have made a huge impression on our family. The often come up in our discussions of American history.
  • Trickster tales send my sons into gales of laughter and encourage them to come up with their own stories. Almost every culture has stories of tricksters who overcome brute strength with clever thinking. Look for Anansi the Spider, Loki, Brer Rabbit, Reynard the Fox, and others.
  • Don’t forget the Brothers Grimm! They were some of the world’s first folklorists, and their stories are an integral part of our culture.
  • Challenge yourself- try to find stories from all 6 inhabited continents. 
  • When you read American Indian folklore, get a variety. Stories vary substantially between tribes, and the difference in folktales can help your children learn about the differences in the various Indian cultures.

There’s no reason that young children can’t learn history, geography, and basic ecology in a gentle, age appropriate way.  The next time you’re at the library, take a stroll through the 398.2 section, ask your librarian to point you to some excellent folktales, and get ready to see the world through stories.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

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