Teach Kids About Classic Fairy Tales

I have rarely read fairy tales to my own children, since most of them are so disappointing: the sexism, the insistence on beauty (and fixation on “ugliness”), the often problematic morals. But so much of children’s literature alludes to fairy tales and assumes a basic knowledge of them, and there’s a certain power to them, too, I think. Also (critically!), many authors are rewriting fairy tales in wonderful ways.

I debated whether to read the classic versions of fairy tales in these explorations, but ultimately I decided to, in part because I think there’s value in talking about what seems upsetting to us, or not quite right, in the original versions, especially if you’re reading other, better versions after them. (And some of the rewrites don’t make much sense unless you read the standard version first.) That said, there aren’t many versions of standard fairy tales that I especially like, so I don’t recommend many specific ones here. We simply used a compilation we had for that.

Many of these activities are STEM-based, because why not use fairy tales as a way to explore science and engineering? All the same, I want to stress that it’s valuable (and enough!) to read the fairy tales and discuss them, to compare different versions of fairy tales — in short, to become comfortable reading and talking about what one has read. Kids will often have plenty to say, and you can let them be the guides for these discussions (or ask them some questions yourself, of course).

What Kids Will Do

In these explorations, kids might…

  • build a cookie house
  • make a motor
  • perform experiments with heat
  • make baskets
  • go on nature walks
  • build a house that can withstand strong winds
  • make puppets and put on a play
  • bake pumpkin bread and make porridge or congee
  • and more

(Designed for preschool and early elementary students, but many parts will be enjoyable for older children and adults, too.)

Read On

  • Interstellar Cinderella, Deborah Underwood [Amazon | Bookshop] — A feminist retelling of Cinderella: she’s a space mechanic here, dreaming of working on the biggest and coolest rockets in the galaxy. Instead of a glass slipper, she leaves behind a socket wrench, and although the prince would love to get married, she just wants her dream job (and she gets it). Told in wonderful rhyme, it’s a pleasure to read aloud.

  • Sootypaws: A Cinderella Story, Maggie Rudy [Amazon | Bookshop] — The pictures in Maggie Rudy’s books are exquisitely posed scenes featuring tiny mice in ingenious, elaborate sets. Here, Cinderella is a mouse and her stepmother and stepsisters are rats, and (thankfully) Rudy stays away from equating beauty with goodness. The stepsister are cruel, while the mouse has always been kind to her friends in nature. Instead of a fairy godmother, it’s these friends who help her, with a spider weaving lace for her collar and ants making her shoes with leaves and thorns (and her carriage features firefly lanterns). When she meets the prince, they do dance, of course, but more importantly, they laugh and talk with each other, truly loving the company. As she’s running from the ball, the mouse leaves her shoes behind — they were irritating her feet — and when she and the prince find each other, both decide to be rid of their fussy shoes forever, so they can run off together and have adventures. It’s a sweet, funny, lovely ending to the story. 
  • Cinderella Liberator, Rebecca Solnit [Amazon | Bookshop] — The marvelous Rebecca Solnit has written a children’s book, and a rewrite of Cinderella at that. It’s absolutely exquisite. It retains all the charm, magic, and simplicity of fairy tales, and it’s gorgeously paired with revered illustrator Arthur Rackham’s delicate silhouette illustrations. But the moral of this Cinderella is far more modern and beautiful: we should all be liberators, and we should all be free to live our lives authentically and well. You might find yourself wishing she would rewrite all of the fairy tales, but, then again, this version of Cinderella presents such a thorough philosophy of living… what else could one add? Solnit’s book is a wonderful one for a child, but her extraordinary compassion and empathy could touch adult hearts, too. (It’s quite a long rewrite, so this one is probably best for kindergarten+.)
  • Little Red Riding Hood, Jerry Pinkney [Amazon | Bookshop] — An excellent, completely classic version — better than you’ll find in most compilations — featuring a Black Red Riding Hood. Since it remains faithful to the original version, here the wolf is killed and cut open by the woodsman, though all we see of that is the shadow of an ax through the open cottage door. The illustrations are beautiful and largely serious, but the picture of the wolf squeezed into the grandmother’s bed is still pretty delightful.
  • Federico and the Wolf, Rebecca J. Gomez and Elisa Chavari [Amazon | Bookshop] — In this retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, Federico has just finished shopping for pico de gallo ingredients when he encounters the wily wolf. Here, the wolf impersonates his grandfather, and instead of being rescued by a stranger, Federico gets rid of the wolf by stuffing a hot pepper in its mouth. It’s a good retelling, written in very readable rhymes, and at the back there’s a recipe for pico de gallo, too.
  • Lon Po Po, Ed Young [Amazon | Bookshop] — Ed Young’s classic Red Riding Hood tale from China has many intriguing changes: here, there are three children, and rather than meeting the wolf on a walk, the wolf comes knocking at their door while their mother is away. The siblings are quick-thinking and clever and the wolf delightfully gullible. I think this is the scariest and most atmospheric of Red Riding Hoods, and it’s also the one that best conveys the mysterious magic of a fairy tale. 
  • Wolf in the Snow, Matthew Cordell [Amazon | Bookshop] — A child in red gets lost in the snow and encounters a wolf pup, also lost. The two companions support each other through their ordeal, and in the end, wolves and humans exchange kindnesses. The only words in the book are sounds, and a wonderful moment of loud howling near the end will delight lots of children.
  • The Girl and the Wolf, Katherena Vermette and Julie Flett [Amazon] — Vemette, an indigenous writer from Canada, was inspired to write this book after reading Red Riding Hood-style stories in European fairy tales. She wanted her book to present an alternative to clashes with wildlife: communion, peace, support, and thanks. In this book, a kind wolf helps a lost girl find her way out of the woods. Rather than simply guiding her, the wolf encourages the girl to think and feel her way back to safety. The gentleness and kindness these two creatures, the wolf and the girl, show to each other is heartwarming.
  • The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith [Amazon | Bookshop] — In this classic retelling, the clever wolf tells his side of the story. His intentions were innocent, maybe even good! If not for those pesky sneezes, none of this would have happened. He’s trying very hard to be persuasive, but do you believe him?
  • The Three Pigs, David Wiesner [Amazon | Bookshop] — Wiesner’s books are always beautiful and surreal, and here the pigs realize that they can simply walk out of the story pages and craft their own ending (rescuing other creatures that are typically killed in fairy stories, too). Older children will probably understand and appreciate this one more than preschoolers will.
  • The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig,  Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury [Amazon | Bookshop] — This version of The Three Little Pigs reverses the roles: here the wolves are sweetly building their homes and the pig is the one who is bent on destruction. The book starts with the brick house and moves to even hardier materials, and beware: the pig really is determined to ruin even concrete and steel houses (there is an explosion). No one is punished at the end, and although the pig’s conversion isn’t really convincing (that’s all it took?), I don’t think children will mind very much. (But if they do, that’s interesting to talk about, too!)
  • Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas, Natasha Yim and Grace Zong [Amazon | Bookshop] — This Goldilocks variation centers around the Chinese New Year: Goldy is instructed to bring a plate of turnip cakes to some panda neighbors, but when no one answers the door, she goes in (and one disaster leads to another). A nice thing about this version is that after she witnesses the pandas’ distress, she goes home and ponders the consequences of her actions. Nothing in her own comfortable home is enjoyable until she’s righted all the wrongs she caused, and once she’s made amends, there are joys waiting. The back of the book has a recipe for turnip cakes and some details about the Chinese New Year. You could make the turnip cakes, but in this version congee replaces the porridge, so you could make that instead, if you like.
  • Goldilocks and Just One Bear, Leigh Hodgkinson [Amazon | Bookshop] — Instead of a rewrite of Goldilocks, this is a sequel. Baby Bear, now grown, is on vacation in New York City and needs to escape from the noise and chaos. He wanders into an apartment… and you can probably guess whose apartment it is. This one rewards careful attention to the illustrations and can be quite funny. The lovely reunion between Goldilocks and the bear at the end is a nice resolution, showing that there really aren’t hard feelings between them anymore.
  • Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, Mo Willems [Amazon | Bookshop] — Here, three dinosaurs use their inviting house as a trap for a delicious and unsuspecting child. Willems’s re-write is properly zany, but some of the jokes might go over the heads of younger preschool readers. One nice element, however, is the consideration of perspective at the end of the book: there’s one moral for Goldilocks, but there’s a different one for the dinosaurs.
  • Fairy Tales for Mr. Barker, Jessica Ahlberg [Amazon] — Lucy is trying to read a fairy tale to her inattentive dog, but when he runs off and she follows, she finds that they’ve entered the land of classic fairy tales. Lucy warns the characters of the dangers in their plots, and they all escape together through clever cut-out windows in the book. A sweet book for children who are already familiar with many classic stories.
  • Nibbles: The Book Monster, Emma Yarlett [Amazon | Usborne] — The monster Nibbles loves to eat books, and in this creative picture book, he’s eating his way through a library of fairy tales: Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The book is filled with little “nibbled” cut-outs, and each fairy tale is a mini-book nested within the pages.
  • The Jolly Postman, Janet and Allan Ahlberg [Amazon | Bookshop] — A classic interactive book about a postal worker delivering mail from fairy tale characters to other fairy tale characters. The book is filled with little envelopes that children can reach into to retrieve the mail. It’s delightfully clever and quite fun to read other people’s mail, too (at least here!).
  • The Goldilocks Variations, Allan Ahlberg and Jessica Ahlberg [Amazon] — Another great Ahlberg book about fairy tale characters. This one is the most elaborate, the most like a work of art, and best suited for kids kindergarten+. Here, Goldilocks is retold several times, getting more and more unusual with each telling. The final retelling features loads of different fairy tale characters from other stories, too. This book has lots of amazing little flaps and pull-tabs, and in the middle is “Goldilocks the Play,” a mini-book to take out of a sleeve and read. Amazingly, this mini-book has flaps, fold-out pages, and an incredible, tiny 3D pop-up. The book is somewhat expensive, but it’s the product of a lot of craftsmanship and creativity.
  • Fairy Tale Adventure, Lily Murray and Wesley Robins [Amazon | Bookshop] — Similar to the choose-your-own-adventure books, this picture book acts like a fairy tale menu: choose your hero, your outfit, your path, your food… and children can provide the narrative to link them all together. It’s great fun to look through these menus and pick what suits your mood. (And this book is quite inclusive, too.)


I had a big fairy tale compilation book (just about any one will do) and every day let the kids choose a fairy tale to read. So while we did activities about the following fairy tales, we read many more (and that general knowledge of fairy tales is quite helpful for the final section here).



Watch: What Is a Fairy Tale?

Cinderella, Mythic Structure, and the Monomyth

Fairy tales provide a great opportunity to talk about story structure. You can discuss characters and setting, of course, and you can talk about repetition (especially in threes), but you can also introduce kids to the work of Joseph Campbell and the idea of the monomyth. It’s not the only way to approach stories, but it’s an interesting approach that even many elementary school students can grasp. For this, I used Christopher Vogler’s simpler and more gender-neutral terminology, from his book The Writer’s Journey [Amazon | Bookshop]. But you can also find plenty of explanatory materials about the monomyth online, for free. Cinderella is a perfect fairy tale for discussing mythic structure, so we start with that.

Read: A classic version of Cinderella (your choice)

Watch: What Makes a Hero?
The end of the video explores mythic structure in The Hunger Games, so feel free to skip that if your children aren’t familiar with that.
Activity: How does Cinderella follow the monomyth structure?
You could simply discuss this, but you could also use a printed guide. (You can find a graphic about Cinderella and mythic structure here.)

Read: Cinderella Liberator, Rebecca Solnit [Amazon | Bookshop]

Read: Sootypaws: A Cinderella Story, Maggie Rudy [Amazon | Bookshop]

Read: Interstellar Cinderella, Deborah Underwood [Amazon | Bookshop]
Activity: Build a motor
This activity only makes sense here if you read Interstellar Cinderella beforehand (in this version, Cinderella is a space mechanic who dreams of fixing rockets). Here is a set of instructions for building a simple motor, or you could always buy a motor kit. If you’d like to build more machines, you might try Snap Circuits, an impressive kit that comes with 300 ideas to build with the components.

Activity: Make pumpkin bread
This is a classic Cinderella activity, and a wonderful one, especially if you use Smitten Kitchen’s pumpkin bread recipe.

Red Riding Hood

Read: Little Red Riding Hood, Jerry Pinkney [Amazon | Bookshop] (a traditional version)

One way to approach Red Riding Hood is to think about animal habitats and what animals live in your own neighborhood. With this in mind, you might read two twists on humans and wolves, both of which reimagine the wolf not as an antagonist but as an equal in our spaces. While these aren’t explicitly Red Riding Hood tales, they both nod to the story by dressing the child protagonists in red.

Read: Wolf in the Snow, Matthew Cordell [Amazon | Bookshop]
The Girl and the Wolf, Katherena Vermette and Julie Flett [Amazon]

Watch: 6 Animals Living Their Best Lives in the City

Activity: Our neighborhood as a habitat
Ask children to list all the animals they can think of in their yard or neighborhood. They can go outside to make a list, and they can put it in a nature journal if they have one. You might consider categorizing the animals and making a food web. Ask them to pick one to learn more about. Where does it live (more precisely)? What does it need to make a comfortable home? What does it eat, and which animals might eat it? What would happen if that animal disappeared from the yard?

Activity: Go on a nature walk
Now, away from their regular neighborhood, go on a nature walk. The purpose here is to take note of all the animals the kids notice as they’re walking (for younger children, pretending to be Red Riding Hood here might be very fun). To make this special, I threaded ribbon through the spirals of pocket notebooks and made the notebooks into necklaces.

Perhaps noticing and cataloguing the animals is enough, but you could also go home and make a simplified bubble chart to depict which animals you saw the most of and which the least.

Alternate versions of Red Riding Hood:

Read: Lon Po Po, Ed Young [Amazon | Bookshop]
Federico and the Wolf, Rebecca J. Gomez and Elisa Chavari [Amazon | Bookshop]

Activity: Basketweaving
For the trickiest version, pictured here, see these instructions. Especially with younger children (first grade and under), I recommend cutting the strips ahead of time. For sturdier baskets, use cardstock. (Construction paper works but makes rather delicate baskets.) And pipe cleaners are terrific handles. Hot glue is pretty useful with this, since it dries so quickly.
For an easier activity, you might try simple paper weaving.
Or you can try a woven bowl.

The Three Little Pigs

Read: A classic version of The Three Little Pigs (your choice)

Activity: Make pig and wolf puppets
Courtesy of the Little Angel Theatre. Instructions here. After you finish, put on a play with them!

Alternate versions of The Three Little Pigs:

Read: The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig,  Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury [Amazon | Bookshop]
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!, Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith [Amazon | Bookshop]
The Three Pigs, David Wiesner [Amazon | Bookshop]

Activity: Make a tower that can withstand hurricane-force wolf breath
You can easily adapt this engineering challenge to make it Three Little Pigs-friendly. To create a pig for the structure, just wrap a tennis ball in pink tissue paper, fasten with a rubber band, and cut some ears. Decorate with eyes and a snout. Have kids construct a tower (perhaps at least 10″ or 12″ tall) that can hold the pig and not tip over when a box fan blows on it for a minute or so.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Read: A classic version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears (your choice)

Activity: Make porridge
If using this recipe, which is quite good, I would reduce the salt significantly (a pinch would do).

As Goldilocks found some porridge too hot and some too cold, I think it’s fun to explore hot and cold with this fairy tale. There are so many fascinating and impressive experiments kids can do here.

Activity: Play with liquid crystal sheets
Liquid crystal sheets might seem a little pricey, but there is so much you can do with these amazing sheets. Use them here to demonstrate to children that there is heat in their hands (in preparation for the next experiments). This video shows a range of cool things you can do with the sheets (see here for text explanations).

Activity: Thermal conductivity with cold metal
Why do some materials feel colder than others? Are they the same temperature? For this experiment (instructions here), you’ll need an infrared thermometer, like this one.

Activity: Ice melting blocks
Here’s a fun and impressive twist on the above experiment, but this one uses these ice melting blocks. Watch as one ice cube melts very quickly and the other remains frozen. Full guide here.

Activity: Desensitization and distinguishing hot from cold
This surprising and delightful activity asks children to plunge their hands into warm and cold buckets of water for a little while and then plunge them into other buckets with water of a different temperature. How does that feel and why? A wonderfully simple experiment that requires only water and vessels to hold it. Full instructions and explanations here.

Activity: Finger bath
A similar experiment, but this time using two fingers on the same hand. Get two cups of water, one warm and one cold, and place them side by side, right up against each other. Have children make the “peace” sign with the fingers of one hand and then stick one finger in each glass. The sensory signals run along the same nerve here, so what do the kids feel? Does one finger feel hot and the other cold? Or do they both feel the same? Is it a confusing sensation?

Activity: Inverted bottles
Fill bottles with colored hot and cold water, then let them mix. What will happen when the hot water is on the bottom? And when it’s on the top? Full instructions here.

Alternate versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears:

Read: Goldilocks and Just One Bear, Leigh Hodgkinson [Amazon | Bookshop]
Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, Mo Willems [Amazon | Bookshop]
Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas, Natasha Yim and Grace Zong [Amazon | Bookshop]
The last book here is my favorite, and if children want to talk more about the Chinese Zodiac, you can watch this good video.

Activity: Make congee
Congee features heavily in Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas, and so why not make it, too? There are so many recipes for this online (including vegetarian ones).

Hansel and Gretel

Read: A classic version of Hansel and Gretel (your choice)

Activity: Cookie architecture
Using a selection of cookies of various sizes and weights, try building a house. Who lives there? How does the house meet their needs? I found that these cookie combinations provided a lot of construction options: sugar wafers, graham crackers, Pirouettes (or another tube-like cookie), Verona biscuits (cookies with jam in the middle), and Kedem tea biscuits (lightweight rectangular biscuits). Candy melts are probably preferable to chocolate for the glue.

Fairy Tales About Fairy Tales

This last section is all about having fun with the fairy tales you’ve looked at thus far. There’s a wonderful thrill in recognizing allusions to other works in a book, so it’s a lovely way to wrap it all up.

Read: Fairy Tales for Mr. Barker, Jessica Ahlberg [Amazon]
Nibbles: The Book Monster, Emma Yarlett [Amazon | Usborne]
The Jolly Postman, Janet and Allan Ahlberg [Amazon | Bookshop]
The Goldilocks Variations, Allan Ahlberg and Jessica Ahlberg [Amazon]

Read: Fairy Tale Adventure, Lily Murray and Wesley Robins [Amazon | Bookshop]
This book is like an activity in itself: a series of fairy tale “menus” that help children pick their hero, their mode of transportation, their antagonist, their reward at the end of the journey.

This site uses affiliate links, and I might earn a small commission if you click through to purchase these books. I only recommend books I have used and love.

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