Folktales and Ecology: Animals and Humans in Cooperation and Conflict

Animal tales are an important part of the folklore of many cultures. While some of these tales involve only animal characters, many involve cooperative relationships between people and animals that are ultimately beneficial to both. Others demonstrate the consequences when people and animals fail to peacefully coexist. Mostly, though, the study of helpful animal folktales recalls a time when people and animals shared the earth and when humans respected their animal companions. However, the ever-growing list of endangered species and ongoing concern with the fate of our environment reveals that humans and animals do not longer share the cooperative relationship portrayed in the folktale world. More often than not, human beings are in conflict with their environment and the animals in it.

Study of humans and animals in cooperation and conflict within folktales lends itself well to a simple lesson on ecology and endangered species, where students can explore how humans' cooperative relationship with nature has been compromised. By studying basic ecology, students can make connections between the relationships between human beings and animals in folklore and the relationship between people and the environment in our world.

Note: While intended for grades 3-5, this lesson could easily be adapted for K-2 by omitting the group work in favor of whole-group discussion and more teacher direction.

Guiding Questions

In what ways do animals help each other and humans in animal folktales?

In what ways do animals help each other, humans and the environment in the real world?

Why should we help protect animals in our environment?

Learning Objectives

Identify elements of helpful animal stories such as problem/conflict, roles of specific animals, conflict resolution, and moral/lesson

Discuss what kinds of problems would arise in folktales when an important animal such as a lion or bird is harmed or hindered

Define the term "keystone species" and give an example of a case study

Compare the problems faced by the animals in the tales with problems faced by the animals in a "keystone species" cycle

Discuss what happens if the human is grateful for the animal's aid and the consequences for being ungrateful within folktales

Compare the type of aid humans give to animals with current attempts to protect endangered species