Travelling Around the World Through Stories

These past couple of months, I have been taking our Reception and Key stage 1 children on a round-the-world journey through traditional tales and they have LOVED it!

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Using a globe to track our progress, we have spanned most of the continents (I haven’t found one from Antarctica yet!). This has tied in well with Year 1’s current topic on traditional tales and has proved an interesting idea. I say this because the books I used, while they have pictures, are not illustrated in the same way as picture books. Each tale might have one or two illustrations but the focus is mainly on the words, and I have used storytelling techniques to try to bring the story alive even more for the children – involving them with repeated refrains and actions.

Incorporating traditional tales is an excellent way of incorporating tales into wider learning about countries and continents.

The stories we have read are as follows:

Ghana, Africa: Too Much Talk!

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This is a marvellous tale, which I never tire of telling. Whenever I have read/acted it, the children have been totally involved and have laughed their heads off at the pure silliness of what happens. The plot follows a series of people who are alarmed when, as they talk to themselves, their nearby objects or animals talk back. This makes them scream with alarm and run off until they meet the next person, who doubts their story until they, too, are proven wrong. We have a farmer with a talking yam, a swimmer with talking water, etc, and the children’s delight grows with each encounter.

Scotland, Europe: Mr Hedgehog and Mr Hare

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When children first hear this title, they automatically make the connection with ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’, which isn’t too far a ‘leap’ (sorry) as both tales involve a cocky hare thinking that he can beat a slower animal. However, in this story, it is the Hedgehog who challenges the Hare to a race, with the rule that, WHEN he wins (not IF) the Hare has to stop making fun of his tiny legs. The Hare, of course, agrees to this bet because how could something with little legs beat him? In ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’, the Tortoise wins by sheer determination and commitment, while the Hare loses because he is too confident – and thus a moral is taught. In this, there is no such moral, unless using trickery can be applauded. For the Hedgehog gets his wife to help him fool the Hare into thinking that Hedgehog is moving so fast that he’s speeding past his rival unseen. The children liked this story but they disapproved of ‘lying’ and ‘cheating’ which I suppose as educators we should be happy about!

Guyana, South America: How Turtle Lost Her Sandals

This is a hard tale to track down anywhere except in the collection of stories that I used to tell this tale: The King With Dirty Feet and Other Stories by Mary Medlicott and Sue Williams. In this story, retold by Grace Nichols, Turtle has a beautiful pair of sandals that make her ‘one of the fastest animals in all the land’. These shoes are the envy of many animals, especially Deer, who had claws at the end of her feet, which made her move ‘in a slow scraping kind of way’. Deer’s jealousy and envy get the better of her and, one day, she visits Turtle and is super-nice to her, complimenting her on her beautiful sandals and asking in the politest way possible if she could just try them on. Turtle is rightly worried but, being a generous soul, takes off her sandals and gives them to Deer who runs off in them. Turtle waits a fair amount of time until she sadly realises that her beautiful sandals will never return. She dons Deer’s clawed hoofs instead and, to this day, moves slowly across the land, while Deer prances and races. The moral of this story is perhaps don’t share your shoes with anyone else ESPECIALLY DEER.

India, Asia: The King With Dirty Feet

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The image you see above is the cover of the book where I have found many of the traditional tales that I am writing about today. It’s a wonderful book and well worth a read! In the titular story, the one thing the king absolutely hates is taking a bath and so he waits for a week, a month, a year before he stinks so badly that even he can’t live with himself. So he takes himself down to the river for a wash with the Royal Soap (imagine if our Queen had to do this in the Thames in sight of everyone) and, when he is satisfied that he is clean, he gets out to dry himself with the Royal towel. However, when he looks down he realises that his feet are dirty and thinks that he can’t have washed himself properly. He repeats the process with the same results (at this point the children were all shouting that he needs SHOES). He returns to his home and commands his servant Gabu to find an answer to his conundrum in three days otherwise ‘ZUT!’ (the noise of a person’s head coming off, apparently). Poor Gabu tries brushing the streets but creates such a cloud of dust that everyone chokes on it. He then tries washing the streets with water and floods the town. He has one day left and decides to cover the land with leather so there is always something clean underfoot, until a wise old man points out that nothing can grow. The wise old man comes up with the solution – leather on the feet, not on the land, and thus is born the concept of shoes!

England, Europe: The Hedley Kow

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It is very difficult finding a picture of the Hedley Kow because it isn’t something that has a defined shape! Thus is the story behind this peculiar English tale, which I had never come across before. As Maggie Pearson says, ‘What sort of creature is the Hedley Kow? It’s not a cow, that’s for sure – well, only sometimes. Sometimes it looks like a cow. Sometimes like a horse … Then it’s likely to turn itself into a bale of straw, or a pool of water, or… You may see the Hedley Kow and never know it…’ The children all thought it was a cow when I asked them (you can understand why) and they thought the story of an old lady finding a pot of gold, which then turned into silver, which then turned into a lump of lead and then ran off, bizarre and very funny. We’ve all wondered ever since if we have seen the Hedley Kow or not…

Australia, Australasia: Cherry Tree Hill

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This is actually a settlers’ tale and it concerns a cherry tree atop a hill in Australia which only produces a healthy crop every two years. We join the farmer one year where he can see the fruit developing but then a group of birds descends and starts eating the cherries. Furious, the farmer decides to paint glue on the boughs to trap the birds so he can shoot them and, when his plan works, he is so overcome with delighted laughter that he takes his time rejoicing with his son. In the meantime, the panicked birds flap their wings so much they actually uproot the tree and fly off with it. So the farmer loses everything because of his complacency and, if you look carefully, you may spot the tree with the birds flying over your heads, if the RAF isn’t scrambled to get rid of enemy aircraft.

North America: The Great Rain

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The book never specified whether this story originated in the United States or Canada, simply calling it a Native American Indian legend. In this story, the Great Earth Spirit Nokomis is alarmed when Thunderbird, the Weather Spirit, decides to take revenge on humans because they worship Nokomis and not him. He declares he will send a flood to cover the Earth (echoing Noah’s Flood) and Nokomis tries to speak to humans to warn them, but they cannot hear her. She transforms into an elderly lady and succeeds in warning most of humankind but one particular village, fond of dancing and shaking rattles and drums, laughs at her and tells her to go away repeatedly. The rains are falling and she refuses to let humans die but she cannot let their rudeness go so she turns the humans into rattlesnakes because of their love of rattly noises. Thus is the story behind the creation of rattlesnakes!

What I have learned

Apart from learning some amazing and funny and interesting stories from around the world, I have also learned that the children love these tales. They don’t mind really that there are relatively few pictures to look at – they are interested in the rhythm of the language, the images the storytelling evokes and the tantalising tension in some of the tales. How will it end? Will Gabu have his head chopped off – ZUT!? Will Turtle ever get her sandals back?

One child, who isn’t a reader, adores storytelling and responds with eager fascination. He is totally involved in how everything will unravel and pays more attention during these sessions than when we share picture books. It goes to show you that a well-written tale, with some audience participation, can keep young audiences engaged.

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