Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Folktales and Ecology: Animals and Humans in Cooperation and Conflict

Created September 17, 2010


The Lesson


Folktales and Ecology

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory

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

Preparation Instructions

  • Review each lesson in this unit and select the materials you'd like to use in class. The resources included here can be used alone or in combination with your own or your school's materials. When locating these resources online, bookmark the materials, along with other useful websites; download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student use. **If you teach in a laptop program or have access to a classroom computer with internet access and a digital projector, consider creating a simple website that includes links to all online materials, as well as your own notes and items of interest for the students.
  • Familiarize yourself with the following resources: Extinction Crisis and Why it Matters from Bagheera.com, accessed through the EDSITEment- reviewed resource The Internet Public Library Youth Division

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introducing Helpful Animal Tales
  • Begin by introducing students to the basic elements of a helpful animal tale: a problem/conflict, the people or animals in need of aid, the helpful animal, the helpful animal's solution to the problem, and a moral or lesson learned at the end. Give students a copy of the Elements of Helpful Animal Tales Chart, provided in .pdf format, to familiarize them with these elements; they can keep track of these elements as they appear in the folktales they read. Inform students that not every story will have all of these elements. For example, the two stories in Lesson 1, "Coyote Brings Fire" and "The Long Winter" are animal tales with no significant human characters involved.
  • Read aloud with the class the tale "Coyote Brings Fire", located on the website Animals, Myths and Legends accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Internet Public Library.
  • Ask the students to complete the story chart alone or in groups, and then go over responses as a whole group. Next read "The Long Winter" from Absolutely Whootie: Stories to Grow By, accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website AskAsia, and have students fill out the story chart again.
  • After discussing the elements of each story, ask the students for their ideas of what might happen in the story if the "key animals"-- the coyote and the lynx --were taken out of the story. What would happen to the story if any of the animals were removed from it? Ask the students to come up with an explanation of the animals' importance to the two stories. Your class's response might look something like this:
    • Because the animals in these stories rely on each other to accomplish their tasks, removing any one of them from the story would be disastrous, and the goal would not be accomplished.
Activity 2. Introduction to "Keystone Species"
  • Introduce students to the concept of Keystone Species from Bagheera.com, accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Internet Public Library. Keystone species are ecologically helpful animals that maintain balance in their ecosystems. Protecting keystone species is a priority for conservationists because the loss of these species causes destructive ecosystem changes. The keystone species page includes links to case studies of specific keystone animals.
  • Construct a visual diagram to share with students that illustrates the way the "keystone animal" in an ecosystem literally supports other plants and animals in that ecosystem. Then, remove or cross out that animal as if it were extinct, and ask students what would happen to the "tower" of animals and plants that rested on the keystone species. For example, you might place people on top of fish on top of kelp beds on top of sea otters, the keystone species in that system. If the otters were removed, sea urchins would move in, destroying the kelp beds, which eliminates the fish, which leaves less food for people. Remove or cross out the kelp beds, fish, and people as you go, in order to illustrate the effects of extinction.
    • You can also search for the images you need to construct the diagram on an Internet search engine.
  • Review with students your statement about how animals are important to animal folktales, and ask them to make comparisons between the roles animals play in helpful animal tales and the roles they play in the ecosystem.
  • Break students into two groups, and assign one group to "Coyote Brings Fire" on the website Animals, Myths and Legends at, accessed through the EDSITEment reviewed website The Internet Public Library, and assign the other group to read "The Long Winter" from Absolutely Whootie: Stories to Grow By, accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website AskAsia. Ask each group to construct a keystone species tower using the characters from the story. If you have computer and printer access in your classroom, you might ask students to search for pictures of the animals they need, or they can simply have fun drawing them!
Activity 3. Animals and Humans in Cooperation and Conflict
  • Read aloud the tale "The Slave and the Lion" on Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts, accessed through the EDSITEment reviewed resource AskAsia, and fill out the story chart as a class. The animal stories in which humans are involved will be more difficult at first, because there is usually more than one conflict, and while the human might help the animal, the animal will also help the human. Point out to students that even very powerful animals, like the lion, sometimes need the help and protection of humans.
  • Break the students into two groups. Instruct one group to read "The Kaha Bird" from Tales of Wonder accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Internet Public Library, and the other to read "The Fisherman and His Wife" on Grimm's Fairy Tales, accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Internet Public Library. Students should fill out their story guides, either individually or as a group, when they are finished. Ask each group to retell their story; the other group can listen and complete their story charts. (You might have the students do this part of the exercise in pairs to encourage more cooperative learning.)
    • Ask the students to think about what the consequences are when people are not grateful for their relationships with animals, according to these stories. Responses might look like this:
    • The disappearance of the Kaha bird at the end of that story could represent extinction.
    • In both stories, the people are poorer or worse off because they were ungrateful towards the animals.
  • Discuss the roles of humans in the animal tales you read, starting with the Fire Beings in "Coyote Brings Fire." Ask the students to consider how each human could potentially harm the animal in the story. For example, the Fire Beings hog all the fire and warmth, so that the animals are freezing. The fisherman is a type of hunter, etc. Then, discuss with students the problems that people pose for animals today: human growth and consumption, hunting, poaching.
  • Finally, introduce students to the work that "grateful humans" are doing to protect animals and their rights by discussing the Endangered Species Act from Bagheera.com, accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Internet Public Library.

Extending The Lesson

  • As a culminating activity, have the students write their own helpful animals folktale based on the elements of those tales learned in the three lessons (the students could work in small groups of four or with partners). Either in class or as homework, the students should write a rough draft, edit the draft, and write a final version including illustrations. The students could then read their folktales aloud to other groups or act out their folktales in class.
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Anthropology
  • Art and Culture > Subject Matter > Folklore
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Modern World
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Fables, Fairy tales and Folklore
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Megan Corse (AL)


Activity Worksheets