The story is certainly among the most familiar of fairy tales. A poor woodcutter and his wife, faced with starvation, abandon their two children in the woods. The children find their way home once by leaving a trail of pebbles. The woodcutter’s wife, who is the children’s stepmother, persuades the woodcutter once again to desert his children in the woods. This time they leave a trail of breadcrumbs which is eaten by birds so they are lost, and they wander helplessly till they come upon a little house made of gingerbread and candy. When they take a taste of the walls, the inhabitant of the house — a witch — calls out some variation on, “Nibble, nibble, little mouse, who is nibbling on my house?”
The children answer, and the witch lures them in and imprisons Hansel. Each day she checks to see how fat he is getting, but he outwits her by presenting a chicken bone. Finally, the witch loses patience and decides to go ahead and eat the children. She builds up a fire in the oven and asks Gretel to check the temperature. Gretel tricks the witch into checking it herself and pushes her in. Gretel then rescues Hansel and the two find their way back home, where their stepmother has disappeared. The woodcutter and the children are happy to be reunited, and have the witch’s treasure, or at least her cottage, to live on.
There are modern picture books of the tale:
- Rika Lesser has suitably creepy pictures.
- Cynthia Rylant puts the focus in her version on “children who find the courage to protect themselves.” There may be kids in your classroom who need that message.
- Rachel Isadora sets hers in Africa.
- Lizbeth Zwerger illustrates the traditional story with her characteristic delicate paintings.
There are also online versions:
- The traditional Hansel and Gretel.
- Time for Kids has an easier-reading version.
- The Humperdinck opera version premiered in 1893, not that long after the Brothers Grimm wrote it down. It downplays the abandonment of the children, and is generally cheerful. Arizona Opera offers sound clips and a synopsis. There is also a thorough study guide available in PDF form. The opera is readily available on DVD and CD.
While we usually like to reenact stories after one or two readings, this story may just be too violent for that. One alternative might be to make tableaux. A popular party activity in the Victorian era, this involves having a group set up a still scene from the story. Divide the class into groups and have each choose a scene to portray. The actors take positions and stand still while a narrator reads a sentence describing the action. Several of these tableaux, done in the correct order, could provide a retelling of the story without the temptation to chaos of having kids push one another into an oven.
For young children, the gingerbread cottage is probably the best focal point:
- Use a Gingerbread House Kit to make gingerbread houses easily in the classroom (the link is to a set of two kits). We found these easy enough for everyone, as long as you have relaxed standards and don’t try to hurry.
- Smart Snacks Gingerbread House Sorter is a plastic gingerbread house with openings for the special candy pieces in different shapes. You can disinfect it, so let toddlers through kindergarten play with it freely. They’ll learn their shapes, too.
- One obvious lesson of the story is to stay out of strangers’ homes. Discuss with the children how the witch made her home seem tempting to the children, how she persuaded them to come in, and what circumstances in Hansel and Gretel’s life made them vulnerable to her.
- Hansel comforts his little sister, and Gretel rescues her brother. The story gives a good example of cooperation and support, even as it shows a desperate family and terrible childhood trauma. Have students design a “Hansel and Gretel Award” for courage, cooperation, or encouragement of others.
- This is a great story for problem-solving. Hansel and Gretel cope with a number of complicated problems, from how to leave a trail so they could get home to how to avoid climbing into the oven. Have students write their solutions as “how to” articles, or make flow charts showing the problems and solutions.
- While “Hansel and Gretel” has lots of examples of problem-solving, there are also some solutions that might not be our first choice. Brainstorm alternatives to leaving the children in the woods, and to shoving the witch into the oven.
- Hansel overhears his stepmother persuading his father to abandon him and his sister, and that is why he gets a pocketful of pebbles ready. He doesn’t confront his parents and ask them not to do this thing. Nor, when Hansel and Gretel find their way home, do the parents express dismay at seeing them and tell them about their plan. Have the students rewrite the story, adding open discussion about the problem. Compare the endings the class comes up with.
- Hansel and Gretel needed a good map! Suggest to the students that, after their first experience with finding their way home with pebbles, Hansel and Gretel could have realized that they needed a map of the forest. Let the classroom or another space represent the forest, and have students in pairs or small groups make maps. The groups can then trade maps and see whether the map provides sufficient information to help if they were lost.
- While it is unquestionably horrible to abandon children in the woods, the story also makes it clear that the family were starving. National Geographic has a lesson plan on world hunger that will provide a great starting point for discussing the problem of hunger today, and what kinds of solutions are being tried. This would also be a great time to bring in speakers from local food banks or agencies dealing with hunger.
- “Hansel and Gretel” is set in The Black Forest, a region of Germany which used to include an impenetrable forest. The Brothers Grimm collected their stories there, and it is not surprising that the fearful forest should be a major character in so many of them. Click the links to learn more about the Brothers, and about the Black Forest region.