The Unicorn in Captivity, ca. 1495–1505; South Netherlandish
Credit: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
Children live in a world of magic, where unicorns, dragons, and other imaginary creatures inhabit their everyday lives through imaginary play. This lesson takes advantage of students' interest in all things magical by helping them learn about fantastical creatures within a cultural and historical context. By drawing upon young students' boundless imaginations, the activities encourage students to discover similarities and differences in traditions and symbolism that exist in cultures around the world and to understand how different social meanings are embedded in make-believe creatures.
This lesson will explore images of magical creatures from around the world. After discussing the special attributes of such creatures, students will view images of specific mythological creatures from two cultures--a unicorn from the South Netherlands and a dragon from Korea--and listen to stories about them. Finally, students will create puppets representing magical creatures of their own invention, or ones based on the creatures they've learned about, and put on puppet shows, dramatizing original stories about their creatures.
After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to
This lesson requires you to access images of various works of art through EDSITEment reviewed Web sites. Images may be presented to students online at individual computer stations or in small groups sharing computers; to individual students or groups in printed form; or to the whole class by means of computer-projected images.
Buttons Beads, Cardboard, Cloth scraps, Colored paper, Fake fur, Feathers Felt, Popsicle sticks, Glue Scissors, Crayons, and markers
Consider beginning the lesson in one of two ways:
Carnival masks from Puerto Rico, located on the EDSITEment reviewed resource A Collector's Vision of Puerto Rico; a Mesopotamian dragon image, located on the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Detroit Institute of Arts; Mesopotamian Eagle-headed deity, located on the EDSITEment reviewed resource Detroit Institute of Arts; or an Egyptian anthropomorphic creature of a goddess, located on the EDSITEment reviewed resource Odyssey Online. Encourage students to describe the pictures and note what makes the creatures in them seem magical. Begin a discussion with the class the meanings of the words "magical" and "creature" by asking students to brainstorm about what they think these terms mean and writing down their ideas. Then write the definitions of each word on the chalkboard or chart paper:
Ask students: "What makes a magical creature special or unusual?" You can point out that magical creatures often have something unusual about their appearance and may have special powers, such as the ability to fly, grant wishes, or change their looks.
Ask students to give examples of other magical creatures they have heard of. Some students might be familiar with mythological creatures, such as Pegasus the winged horse.
Reinforce student's understanding of the term magical creature by visiting the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Metropolitan Museum of Art's Explore and Learn. From the top of the Homepage, select "Just for Fun." On the next page, select the top activity, "Carpet Hunt." This activity features a section of a 350-year-old Indian carpet depicting a variety of realistic and fantastical animals.
To enhance this activity, share with the students some background information about the history of carpet weaving and about why some carpets are perceived as magical and by whom:
"A tradition in Anatolia (Turkey) since the thirteenth century, the art of carpet weaving has played an important role in Islamic culture throughout history. It is the oldest form of Islamic art, and carpets are still the most valuable type of art object in Turkey. Marco Polo wrote about the wonderful and beautiful carpets woven by the Greeks and Armenian states in Turkomania. Like Marco Polo, westerners, and others outside the Muslim culture, view the carpets as "magical" because of their exotic, rich colors and intricate designs. But to the Muslims the carpets serve a valuable and functional purpose -- they are used to cover the floor on which they kneel in prayer." (From "Magical Carpets of Turkey" by Katherine Blair)
Ask students to find and look carefully at each of the animals on the carpet and, judging by appearance, decide whether they are magical creatures or not. By clicking each animal, students can access information about that animal online. Allow the class to determine whether they were correct about the animal being real or fantasy. Click the animal at the center of the carpet's top section, for example, to learn that it is a mixture of a lion and a tiger, with a bushy tail and flames shooting out of its sides. Students should recognize that this is a magical creature. While some of the other animals may be unfamiliar to students (e.g., ibexes and cranes), they are not magical -- only unusual.
As an extension of this activity, invite students to turn one of the realistic animals into a magical one by drawing it with new, magical features. Encourage students to write or dictate a caption describing their new animals.
Review the definition of a magical creature with students. Find out what students already know about unicorns and jot down their ideas on chart paper. Then describe their role in fairy tales and the cultures they come from. Share with the class some background information about the history of unicorns:
Sources: The Unicorn Treasury, written by Bruce Coville and illustrated by Tim Hildebrandt (Doubleday, 1988); Fabulous Beasts, written by Alison Lurie and illustrated by Monika Beisner (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999); The Columbia Encyclopedia, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library.
Next, show students a reproduction of the famous "Unicorn in Captivity" tapestry from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Cloisters, which can be accessed through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Metropolitan Museum of Art's Explore and Learn. Click on "The Collection" in the left sidebar. On the next screen, click on "Permanent Collection" and select "The Cloisters." Click "next" to move through the collection to find the image of "Unicorn in Captivity." Click on the picture for more information and to enlarge the image.
Ask students what they notice about the animal in the picture. Let them know that this famous picture was created 500 years ago in the Netherlands and is called "The Unicorn in Captivity." Explain what the word "captivity" means and ask them to discuss why someone would want to capture a unicorn.
Read a story about a unicorn to students. (See the Resource List at the end of the lesson for suggested titles.) After reading the story, present the following questions. Then re-read the story.
Unicorn Questions to ask Students:
When you finished reading the story a second time, elicit students' answers to the questions. You might wish to have older students answer the questions by writing in a journal. Have younger children to draw pictures of unicorns and then dictate sentences about them to the teacher or classroom aide.
At the start of this activity, ask students to describe dragons and whether they know of any stories that have dragons in them.
Share with the class some background information about dragons.
Sources: Fabulous Beasts, written by Alison Lurie and illustrated by Monika Beisner (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999); The Columbia Encyclopedia, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Internet Public Library.
Show students a reproduction of a carved image of a dragon from seventh-century Korea from the EDSITEment-reviewed Metropolitan Museum of Art's Explore and Learn Web site. Select "Just for Fun" at the top of the page. On the next page, select "Discover a Korean Dragon."
Ask students what they notice about the animal in the picture, and let them know that this carving was made more than a thousand years ago in Korea. Roll the cursor over the image and select a highlighted area to learn more about each part of the dragon. Read a story about a dragon to students. (See Resource List at the end of the lesson for suggested titles.) After listening to the story, present the following questions and read them aloud. Then re-read the story.
Dragon Questions to Ask Students:
When you have finished reading the story a second time, elicit students' answers to the questions. You might wish to have older students answer the questions by writing in a journal. Invite younger children to draw pictures of unicorns and then dictate sentences about them to the teacher or classroom aide.
In this activity, students create their own magical creatures. Inspire the class by reading a story about magical creatures (see the Resource List for suggestions)
Before crafting their puppets, students may wish to draw pictures of their magical creatures with crayons or markers, or by using the "Make Your Own Art" section of the EDSITEment-reviewed Art Safari Web site. Click anywhere on the page to enter the site. On the left side of the next page, click on "Make Your Own Art." Choose "Fantastic Animals" from the list that appears on the following page; Henri Rousseau's painting The Sleeping Gypsy will appear on screen. After viewing the image, students may click on the area at the bottom of the screen to access the computer graphics program.
Have students create their own magical creatures in the form of puppets, using a variety of colorful materials (e.g., cardboard, colored paper, felt, cloth scraps, Popsicle sticks, feathers, fake fur, buttons, or beads). Encourage them to incorporate the features of unicorns, dragons, and other magical creatures that they learned about in the lesson.
As they work on their puppets, help students think about the ways in which their creatures will be magical. A magical creature might look like a real animal (e.g., a horse, a lion, or a bird) but have unusual features such as fiery breath, long claws, or beautiful wings. Help each student think about the special powers of his or her creature. Perhaps the creature can fly, change its form, or come back to life over and over again. Encourage students to invent names for their creatures, and to give them personalities.
When the puppets are complete, invite students to present their puppets to the rest of the class, introducing the creature by name and explaining what makes it magical. Some students might wish to present in pairs, introducing each other's creatures.
The following published texts contain background information and stories about a variety of magical creatures:
The Unicorn Treasury, written by Bruce Coville and illustrated by Tim Hildebrandt (Doubleday, 1988).
Fabulous Beasts, written by Alison Lurie and illustrated by Monika Beisner (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999).
The Unicorn of the West, written by Alma Flor Ada and illustrated by Abigal Pizer (Atheneum Books, 1994).
Unicorns! Unicorns!, written by Geraldine McCaughrean and illustrated by Sophie Windham (Holiday House, 1997).
Unicorn Dreams, written by Dyan Sheldon and illustrated by Neil Reed (Penguin Putnam Books, 1997).
Mei Ming and the Dragon's Daughter, written by L. Baily and illustrated by M. Springett (North Winds Press, 1990).
Matthew's Dragon, written by Susan Cooper and illustrated by Joseph A. Smith (Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1991).
Saint George and the Dragon, written by M. Hodges and illustrated by T.S. Hyman (Little, Brown and Co., 1984).
The Dragon's Pearl, written by Julie Lawson and illustrated by Paul Morin (Houghton Mifflin, 1993).
The River Dragon, written by Darcy Pattison and illustrated by Jean and Mou-Sien Tseng (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1991).
Beware the Dragons!, written by Sarah Wilson (Harper Collins Children's Books, 1985).
Eric Carle's Dragons, Dragons: And Other Creatures That Never Were by Eric Carle (Putnam Publishing Group, 1996).
Other Magical Creatures
The Little Mermaid & Other Tales, written by Hans Christian Andersen (Hippocrene Books Inc., 1998).
The Rainbow Goblins, written by Ul DeRico (Thames and Hudson Inc., 1994).
Prince Ivan and the Firebird: A Russian Folk Tale, written by Bernard Lodge (Charlesbridge Publishing Inc., 1996).
Fabulous Beasts, written by Alison Lurie (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999).
The Magic of Mythical Creatures by Colleayn Mastin (Grasshopper Books, 1999).
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper Collins Children's Books, 1984).
5-6 class periods