Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Helpful Animals and Compassionate Humans in Folklore

Created September 17, 2010


The Lesson


Helpful Animals and Compassionate Humans in Folklore

Mrs. Calvin Coolidge and Friend

Credit: From the American Memory Collection of the Library of Congress

Animals of all kinds feature in rituals, legends and folk tales throughout world culture, reflecting the curiosity humans have always had about other species with which they share the earth … and the desire to share the remarkable powers of other species."

(David Pickering, "Animals." A Dictionary of Folklore. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1999. 10-11.)>

Unlike Aesop's fables, which involve strictly animal characters and illustrate a particular moral truth, in folklore the relationship between humans and animals is often a central theme. There are numerous helpful animal tale types, such as animal nurses who rear great heroes after they have been abandoned as infants, and beasts that lend supernatural aid to humans. Characteristic of these tales is the animal characters' power of speech and the presence of other distinctly human attributes. Often they are believed to possess great wisdom, which they impart to a struggling human.

Through examining several examples of helpful animal tales from around the world, students will learn about humans living in cooperation with the land and sea and with the beasts that inhabit them. In many helpful animal tales, the animal only offers its aid in return for a kindness done by or promised by a human. The cooperation between humans and animals, then, is seen to be mutually beneficial, as the animal's life is often spared, the human's living situation is improved in some way and, in some cases, the animal is transformed into a human as a result of kindness it has done or has received.

Guiding Questions

  • What is a folktale?
  • What are particular characteristics of helpful animal folktales?
  • What roles do the humans play in helpful animal stories (human in distress, compassionate hunter, seeker/companion)?
  • What are the conditions for animal transformation?

Learning Objectives

  • Define folktales and identify elements of helpful animal stories
  • Recognize the animals' various motivations for helping humans; sometimes aid is given selflessly, and sometimes the animals offers aid only in return for a favor or service provided by the human. Students should be able to provide textual examples of each case.
  • Recognize the various types of aid animals give, and give specific textual examples. Distinguish between an animal with natural abilities and an animal with supernatural abilities.
  • Discuss what happens if the human is grateful for the animal's aid and the consequences for being ungrateful.
  • Compare and contrast themes, characters, conflicts, and outcomes of helpful animal tales from different cultures by filling out the story charts and noticing similarities in stories from different cultures.

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.
  • For a general overview of folktales and tale types, visit the site "Folktales: What are they?" accessed through the online Merriam Webster Dictionary, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. An Introduction to Helpful Animal Tales

Begin by discussing with students the definition of a folktale and list various tale types they will likely recognize, asking them to fill in examples of each type: wicked stepmother tales (students might respond with "Cinderella" and "Snow White"), brother and sister tales ("Hansel and Gretel"), and helpful animal tales ("The Fisherman and His Wife"). You might ask students if they remember any stories or movies in which animals provided aid to humans. (Animal characters in many Disney movies still fill this role.)

One possible definition of folktale comes from the Encarta Online Encyclopedia, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library:

  • "A generic term for the various kinds of narrative prose literature found in the oral traditions of the world. One of the many forms of folklore, folktales are heard and remembered, and they are subject to various alterations in the course of retellings. As they are diffused (transmitted through a culture), some folktales may pass in and out of written literature (for example, the "Rip Van Winkle" story), and some stories of literary origin may cross over into oral tradition (for example, the anecdote about George Washington and the cherry tree). Nevertheless, an essential trait of folktales-and all folk literature-is their diffusion, and their passage from one generation to another, by word of mouth" ("Folktales" at Encarta.com).
  • Next, read aloud with the class the Inuit tale "Crow Brings Daylight". Using copies of the Story Elements chart, provided in .pdf format, or one of your own design, have students identify characteristics of this story and use this list of elements to collaboratively devise a working/preliminary definition of a "helpful animal tale" (a short narrative in which clever animal characters with the ability to speak bring aid of some type to humans). Students should also note that this type of animal tale explains the presence of some natural phenomenon, in this case, daylight.
  • Ask students why they think Crow brought daylight to the Inuit people. Responses will indicate that Crow has some of the same personality traits as humans, even though he is not human himself. From this discussion, introduce students to the definition of personification.
  • If you teach in a laptop program, students can fill out the story elements chart on their laptops alone or in pairs.
  • After completing the story chart for "Crow Brings Daylight," break the class into two groups. One group should read "Coyote Brings Fire" (Native American) while the other reads "The Four Dragons" (Chinese). Each group should work together to list the important elements of the story on their story charts, just as they did with "Crow Brings Daylight."
  • Ask each group to work together to retell their story to the other group, emphasizing the important elements on the story chart. Once all squares on the story chart have been filled in, use these elements to write a definition of a helpful animal tale.

The following questions can be answered as a class, in small groups, or assigned for homework. Note that students must use the story chart to help them complete the questions.

Once the students have completed the chart for all three stories, have them answer the following questions:

  1. Although these stories come from three very different cultures, how are the problems that the humans (in the case of "Coyote Brings Fire," other animals) face similar?
  2. How are the animals' reasons for helping the humans similar? In other words, what motivates the animals to be helpful in these stories?
  3. Which animal uses the most realistic way to solve the humans' problem? Explain what you find realistic about the solution.
  4. Which of these stories did you like best and why?
Activity 2. Animal Brides and Bridegrooms: The Role of Transformation in Helpful Animal Tales

  • Begin by reviewing terms from the previous lesson: folktale, helpful animal tale, personification. Introduce the term "transformation" as a way of presenting the next set of stories.
  • These tales are longer and more complex than the first set of tales. As they read and discuss them, students should notice that the characters are more complex, as are the relationships between the humans and the animals involved in each story. Each of these stories also involves the transformation of a character at the end of the story, which implies a lesson to be learned about the benefits of a cooperative relationship between humans and animals.
  • Read aloud with the students the Brothers Grimm folktale "The Frog King", and identify the important story elements of "The Frog King" using the Story Elements Chart #2, provided in pdf format. Ask students to compare this story to the animal tales of the previous lesson. How is this tale more complex?
  • Break students into small groups to read "The Girl Who Married a Bear" and to fill out the second story elements chart. They should note several contrasts with "The Frog King." As they begin to puzzle through the similarities and differences between the two tales, it might be useful to have them plot the points of comparison and contrast on a Venn Diagram, provided in .pdf format.
  • The following questions can be answered as a class, in small groups, or assigned for homework. Note that students must use the story chart to help them complete the questions.
Once the students have completed the chart for all three stories, present them with the following questions:
  1. At the beginning of each story, what personality traits do the two girls have in common? Why do you think the storytellers chose to start their stories in this way?
  2. How are the conditions for the animal's aid similar in both stories? In what ways are these conditions slightly different?
  3. What must each girl learn about animals and about herself before the transformation can occur at the end of the story? Would you say that both girls are better people by the end of the stories?
  4. Why do you think the Native American storyteller chose to end the story the way he did-with the bear-husband dying and the girl being the one to transform? Do you like this ending more or less than the ending of "The Frog King"?
Once students have had time to think about these questions, come back together as a whole class to arrive at a theme for this type of helpful animal tale. Ask the students what makes transformation possible for the frog and for the girl. You might arrive at something like: Cooperation and respect between humans and animals leads to the miraculous transformation of one and the happiness of both parties.

Based on the elements of the second story chart, ask students to construct a definition of a helpful animal transformation tale. If more reinforcement is desired, assign the students to read "The Princess and the Mouse".

Activity 3. Helpful Animals and Ungrateful Humans
  • Review the theme from lesson two: Cooperation and respect between humans and animals leads to the miraculous transformation of one and the happiness of both parties. Ask the students what might happen if that cooperation and respect never occurs. What might be the consequences for ungrateful humans?
  • Read aloud with the class "The Fisherman and His Wife", "The Bachelors and the Python", and
  • "The Kaha Bird". This time, give students a blank story chart, provided in .pdf format, and ask them to identify the important elements of "helpful animal/ungrateful human stories." You may want to allow the students to do this work in groups.
  • Once the students have finished this story chart, as a class discuss how these stories differ from the previous two sets. Students will need all three of their story charts to do this. To summarize, ask students what types of behaviors lead to what types of endings in these stories?

Extending The Lesson

  • To see how folktales teach universal lessons about human and animal relationships, try another lesson on this site: Folklore and Ecology: Animals and Humans in Conflict and Cooperation (Grades 3-5).
  • Have students write their own helpful animal tales using their story charts as a guideline. The story charts remind the students which elements they should include in their stories.
  • Assign other helpful animal tales for outside reading and analysis, using the websites listed below as sources for more tales. "Tales of Wonder" is a particularly fine resource for tales from many cultures.


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
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions

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