Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

The Magical World of Russian Fairy Tales


The Lesson


Baba Yaga the witch, a staple of Russian fairy tales.

Baba Yaga the witch, a staple of Russian fairy tales.

Credit: Courtesy of Old Russia.net, through the Internet Public Library.

Many children are familiar with Snow White's evil stepmother and her poisonous apple, Cinderella's fairy godmother, and the witch in the gingerbread house waiting to eat Hansel and Gretel for dinner. But have they met Baba Yaga, the old crone who is both wise and cruel, who lives in a house standing on chicken legs, and whose servants bring with them the day, sunset and the night? Baba Yaga, the iconic witch of Slavic fairy tales, is one of the characters students will meet in this journey through Russian fairy tales.

This lesson, intended for 3rd grade children, focuses on several imaginative and exciting Russian fairy tales: Vasillisa the Beautiful, Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf, The Frog Princess, Fenist the Bright Falcon, and The Story of BabaYaga. Students will review some of the common fairy tale elements that are present within these stories, which also may remind them of more familiar European fairy tales. Students will also discuss these stories' distinctive characters and plots. This lesson will work well as an extension to EDSITEment's lesson plan Fairy Tales Around the World. This lesson could also be used as an introduction to fairy tales for students who already have some knowledge and experience reading the more familiar European fairy tales, or who have an interest in learning about Russia and its folk heritage.

In the lesson, students will listen to stories read aloud and then re-read some of them individually in small groups. Students will demonstrate their comprehension of the stories by working in small groups to create skits, illustrations, and comic strips to re-tell the stories. Students will then participate in guided group discussions to analyze themes and motifs of the fairy tales. They will compare and contrast these stories with better-known western European fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel or Cinderella.

Guiding Questions

  • What are some special kinds of magic and wonder in Russian fairy tales?
  • How do Russian fairy tales compare to other kinds of fairy tales?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to:

  • Give a simple definition of a fairy tale.
  • Identify some typical elements of a fairy tale, such as magical journeys, quests, evil and good characters, royal characters and peasants, talking animals, riches and good fortune as a reward for the good characters, death for the evil characters, and repetitive events.
  • Re-tell, in their own words, a Russian fairy tale.
  • Verbally describe and illustrate the iconic Russian witch, Baba Yaga
  • Describe some similarities and differences between Russian fairy tales and other better known European fairy tales.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Download the charts, available here as PDF files. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of any handouts you plan to use in class.
  • This lesson is a suitable companion to the EDSITEment lesson plan Fairy Tales Around the World. For students who have completed this lesson or who have had some experience in previous grades learning about fairy tales, the first set of activities will be mostly review. It may be helpful to review that lesson.

    See also EDSITEment's lesson plans Cinderella: Cinderella Folk Tales: Variations in Character and Cinderella Folk Tales: Variations in Plot for ideas on how to help students enjoy and analyze the Cinderella tale type (see Activity 6).

    A useful book for the teacher to read to learn more about literary characteristics in folk tales is The European Folk Tale by Max Luthi (National Plan Service: 1981). The article "Slavic and Baltic Countries" in the Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes (Oxford University Press: 200) is also a useful source of background information for the educator.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Defining a Fairy Tale
  • Review with the class the definition of a fairy tale. Students will listen to a well-known fairy tale such as the Perrault version of the Cinderella tale, available on Folklore and Mythology, or read a version of Cinderella with illustrations by Edmund Dulac.
  • Show a print version of Cinderella, pointing out the word "retold" on the front cover. Discuss the concept of oral tradition and the fact that no one knows exactly who the original author of this story might have been. Ask students to identify examples of magic in the story. Help students to brainstorm a definition of what a fairy tale is. A definition that is useful for young students is "Fairy tales are very old stories of magical events often passed down by word of mouth."
  • Review with the class typical elements of a fairy tale. A helpful book for the teacher to read to prepare for this lesson and to learn more about the folk and fairy tale elements is The European Folk Tale: Form and Nature by Max Luthi (Indiana University Press: 1986).

    Ask students to brainstorm a list of typical fairy tale elements (see sample list below) by thinking about basic fairy tales they have read (Cinderella, The Frog Prince, etc.). Ask them questions about types of characters (who?), settings (where?), and plot (what?).

    If some students have forgotten some important elements, the teacher may suggest additional elements and ask students to think of examples from the stories. Compile and distribute the resulting list of typical fairy tale elements or write them on the blackboard for students to copy.

    Students should use the compiled list of fairy tale elements and make notes of examples of the elements as they read the stories. Students may work in small groups to read these stories and then report to the rest of the group on their findings.

Sample List of Fairy Tale Elements:

Characters: Typical fairy tale characters often include the following: princess, peasant, youngest sister, cruel older sisters, simpleton, cruel stepmother, giant, witch, talking animals, and magical helpers.

Settings: Typical fairy tale settings include: castles, cottages, mountains, rivers, forests, and gardens.

Fairy tale plots include:

  • Hero (or heroine) heroine has bad luck
  • Hero (or heroine) must perform impossible tasks
  • Hero (or heroine) must fight a villain
  • Hero (or heroine) meets magical helpers
  • Hero (or heroine) is treated badly
  • Hero (or heroine) is in danger
  • Magic spells
  • Transformations—animals turn into humans or humans turn into animals or objects such as trees or buildings.
  • Villain is punished.
  • Hero (or heroine) is rewarded with wealth
  • Hero (or heroine) is rewarded with a happy marriage
  • Things happen in threes (three battles, three tasks)
Activity 2. Introducing Russian Fairy Tales
  • Explain to the students that the stories they will be studying over the next few days all come from Russia. Call up a mapping feature in a website such as National Geographic Education, where you may click on Asia, then Russia, to show students where the country is (alternatively, you may show the students the location of Russia on a classroom world map). Point out to students that Russia is a country comprised of an enormous territory, and that it can be found on maps of both Europe and Asia. Ask students if Russia is an Asian or a European country. Discuss with students Russia's place as a geographical and cultural crossroad between the two continents. Explain that there may be elements in the stories they will be reading which will sound like European fairy tales, others which will sound like Asian fairy tales, and still others which are particular to Russia.
  • Read one of the five suggested stories aloud to the students and encourage them to identify the presence of the fairy tale elements from the lists compiled during the review section of this lesson.

    This lesson focuses on five Russian fairy tales: 
  • Ask students to begin by identifying the basic components of the story.
    • What is the setting?
    • Who are the characters?
    • What traits do these characters posses?
  • Ask students if there is anything about the story that reminds them of other fairy tales they may have heard. For example, Vasilisa the Beautiful might remind them of Cinderella, or The Frog Princess might remind them of The Frog Prince.
  • Using the list of fairy tale elements above as a guide, ask students to try to identify some words or details in the story that might suggest that the story comes from Russia. Help students to identify the features of the setting, characters and other elements that place this tale in Russia. This might include descriptions of the setting (usually set in forests such as those that once covered much of Russia), the characters' names and titles (such as Tsar for king or Tsaravitch for Prince), Baba Yaga ('baba' meaning old woman or wise woman, and 'yaga' meaning horrible or evil), Koschei the Deathless, and the firebird. Explain the meanings of the words with which students are not familiar.
  • Over several days, repeat this process with the remaining stories.
Activity 3. Re-Telling a Tale
  • Give students an opportunity to individually re-read their favorite of the Russian fairy tales selected for this lesson. Have students retell at least two of the stories using one of the following methods: illustrated comic, skit, or oral presentation for retelling.

    Students may use the PDF Retelling Fairy Tales to write plot points and draw pictures next to each event that they include in their retellings. The PDF worksheet has a space for a plot description and a large space for the student to draw a corresponding picture.

    Students might use "Retelling Fairy Tales" to plan and stage a skit based on the story. Students may work collaboratively on a small skit for a particularly story, or students might sketch a new fairy tale using the worksheet and then present it dramatically to the class.

    Alternatively, students might use the Elements of a Fairy Tale (from Activity One) to draft a new fairy tale appropriate for their setting. Since oral storytellers often adjusted fairy tales according to the setting of the audience, students—in groups or as a class might attempt to write a fairy tale set in school, town, or state. In doing so, students should recognize the importance of setting for the fairy tale. They should then return to the Russian fairy tales to examine how those tales effectively use particular settings, in preparation for Activities below.

    Depending on student needs, the teacher may provide different levels of scaffolding for the retellings. Some students will need the teacher to provide an example of a very simple retelling before they can create their own retelling of a different story. Other students may need a partial retelling given to them for their story with spaces for them to fill in a few missing episodes. Students may use their list of fairy tale plot elements to help them recall the story.
Activity 4. Baba Yaga
  • The figure of the witch in Slavic fairy tales is often called Baba Yaga. She is often described as having bony legs, a voracious appetite for humans, and a long, curled nose. She is said to fly from place to place using a mortar and pestle, and is said to live in a small cottage raised up on chicken legs. In some stories Baba Yaga is an evil, threatening character, as in Vasillisa the Beautiful, in others she plays a helpful role, as in Fenist the Bright Falcon.

    Students will recall examples of Baba Yaga's actions in Vasillisa the Beautiful. Have students work together to create a list of descriptive words for her personality, behavior, and probable appearance. Some possible responses might include: hungry, cruel, bossy, ugly, loud, and scary.

    They may find it hard to answer the question of whether or not she is a villain: in many stories she is threatening, and in some she even does harm to certain characters. However, she and her sisters very often come to the aid of the needy, such as in Fenist the Bright Falcon. Help students identify the circumstances in which Baba Yaga is threatening and when she is helpful. Guide them to finding a pattern in her behavior, and to see that while she is at times gruff, and certainly has the potential to do harm, she is usually helpful to those who are deserving.
Activity 5. Comparing Fairy Tales
  • Ask students to identify similarities and differences between these Russian folk tales and European fairy tales they have already heard. You may wish to read parts of European fairy tales which bear resemblances, but which also exhibit differences that can be used as a foundation for comparing and contrasting the tales. Some pairs might include:
    • Vasilisa the Beautiful and Cinderella
    • The Frog Princess and The Frog Prince
    • The Story of Baba Yaga and Hansel and Gretel
    • Fenist the Bright Falcon and Beauty and the Beast

    For examples, similarities between Vasillisa the Beautiful and the Dulac version of Cinderella include:
    • Heroine's mother dies and a cruel stepmother comes into her life.
    • Cruel stepsisters taunt the heroine and treat her unkindly.
    • Heroine receives magical help.
    • Heroine must do all the work of the house and is dressed in rags.
    • Heroine marries a royal person at the end of the story.
  • Divide students into small groups, and ask each group to focus on one or two comparative points, such as one character or one event. Ask each group to make one list of all the things that are similar and a second list of all the things that are different about the two characters or events.

    For example, using the PDF Venn Diagram: Comparing "Baba Yaga" and "Snow WHite", students might compare Baba Yaga and the evil stepmother in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Students might raise similarities such as their use of enchanted objects (Baba Yaga's house, the Queen's mirror), as well as their differences in appearance.

    One example of a comparative point that students will enjoy is the similarities and differences between the witch's gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel and Baba Yaga's house as described in Vasilisa the Beautiful. Using the PDF Venn Diagram: Comparing "Baba Yaga" and "Hansel & Gretel" (The second one down in the file), explore other similarities and differences in these two stories.

    Some similarities:
    • Both are home to witches who like to capture and cook children for dinner.
    • Both houses are located deep in a forest that is unfamiliar to the children in the story.
    • The kitchen is the most important room in both houses.

    Some differences:

    • Baba Yaga's house is alive, standing on chicken legs and turning its back to visitors, while the witch's house is inanimate.
    • The witch's house is made of gingerbread and other sweets in order to entice lost children to come closer. That exterior hides the danger that is inside the house.
    • Baba Yaga's house is decorated with human bones and skulls whose eyes glow in the dark, which seems to be designed to keep visitors away. The frightening exterior hides the potential help that is contained inside.

    For comparing and contrasting other stories, students can use the generic Venn Diagram.


Students will complete all the activities correctly.

  1. Students will be able to individually recall and state a definition of a fairy tale.
  2. Students will be able to identify at least 5 typical fairy tale elements from at least two Russian stories.
  3. Students will create retellings of fairy tales that will include at least 5 significant events from each story
  4. Students will be able to describe Baba Yaga as a witch often found in Russian fairy tales who lives in a house on chicken legs, and who is sometimes threatening, but who often helps those who deserve assistance.
  5. Students will be able to fill out a Venn diagram that shows some similarities and differences between a Russian fairy tale and a European fairy tale such as Cinderella.
  6. Students will be able to cite at least 2 details that might tell a reader that a fairy tale comes from Russia (Some possibilities would include: Russian names such as Ivan, Vasillisa, or Maryushka, appearance of the witch Baba Yaga, mention of a firebird).

Extending The Lesson

The Basics

Time Required

2-5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • 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 thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Discussion
  • Fairy tale analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Constance Vidor (AL)