Peter Pan was written by James M. Barrie a century ago as a play and then as a novel. You can find the text online at The Literature Network, but there’s also a beautiful book illustrated by Michael Foreman, or a Little Golden Book version based on the Walt Disney film.
Barrie’s original contains offensive terms for a variety of ethnic groups and a fair amount of bloodthirstiness (Peter Pan, for example, “thins” the Lost Boys when they begin to grow up and they’re all very frightened of him). The cleaned up versions may be more suitable for young children.
Peter Pan is a boy who refuses to grow up, choosing instead to live in Neverland. He visits the children of the Darling family (John, Michael, and Wendy) and loses his shadow in their house. Wendy sews his shadow back on for him, he teaches the children to fly, and they head off together for Neverland.
Wendy is to be the mother of all the boys in Neverland, but they shoot her with an arrow before realizing who she is. The boys get together and keep her alive, and she settles down to be their mother.
Neverland is populated by pirates, Lost Boys (those who fell out of their prams as babies), Native Americans, mermaids, and beasts of various kinds, including a crocodile. Peter Pan cut off the pirate captain’s hand, which was replaced by a hook, so the captain is now known as Captain Hook. Peter threw the hand to a crocodile, which has followed Captain Hook around ever since, hoping to eat the rest of him. The crocodile also swallowed a clock, so the ticking sound alerts Hook when she comes near to him.
Adventures are, in Neverland, “a daily occurrence,” and much of the book tells about those adventures.
The pirates capture Wendy, Peter Pan leads the boys to save her, and Captain Hook, the captain of the pirates, is eaten by the crocodile. The Darling children return home at the end, bringing a few Lost Boys with them, and there is a bittersweet moment when Peter realizes that the joys of ordinary family life are not for him. Depending which version you read or watch, you may also see him coming back to visit Wendy and meeting her daughter Jane.
Our Classroom Pirate Theme Ideas can work well with Peter Pan.
- “All children, except one, grow up.” This is the first line of Peter Pan, and of course Peter is the one child who refuses to grow up. Use this idea as a writing prompt. Have students list all the consequences of remaining a child forever. Then have them use the list to write a first person essay from the point of view of someone who has been a child for a long time.
- “I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind,” Barrie writes in the first chapter. He goes on to describe what a child’s mind is like, implying that Neverland exists — though differently — in each child’s mind. Have students describe the Neverland in their minds. This would also be a good time to introduce the technique of mind mapping, which can be very helpful for pre-writing. A good book on the subject is Visual Tools for Transforming Information Into Knowledge by David Hyerle. You can use use Mind Maple software for this purpose, or Edraw has a free option.
- A word search introduces some basic vocabulary from the story. WordMint has an assortment at different levels of difficulty.
- Printable bookmarks are good for keeping your place while reading the novel, and for collecting new words to look up. Have students write new words on their bookmarks as they see them during reading time, and look them up together to finish up.
- In the musical, there is a song called, “I Won’t Grow Up.” In it, the singers argue about whether to say “Not I” or “Not me.” Have students research this grammar question and come to a decision.
- The Darling family has a dog for a nurse. The novel explains that the Darling family had to have a nurse in order to fit in, but couldn’t afford a human one. Have students research the position of nurse or Nanny and list reasons people choose to employ them now, and in 1904 when the play was first produced. Older students might consider why this servant position is still relatively popular, when few households now have other servants.
- Discuss the female characters in Peter Pan. The play was written in 1904, the Disney movie was filmed in 1953, and the musical was written in 1954. Ask students to imagine that they are going to update the story for a new generation. How would they approach the position of women through the characters of Mrs. Darling, Tinkerbell, Wendy, and Tiger Lily?
- The “redskins” in Peter Pan also deserve discussion. The depiction of Native Americans in the story is clearly racist. It’s also clearly imaginary — Neverland is not America and Barrie actually states that the “redskins” are “not to be confused with the softer-hearted Delawares or the Hurons”. Replacing the word “redskins” with “Native Americans” is not really a solution. Should we avoid reading Peter Pan for this reason? Is it possible to overlook the problem and remember that this is a story from the long-ago past? Can we rewrite the story to make it less offensive? This kind of question has come up many times over the years with many different beloved pieces of literature.
- A map reading lesson has kids search for Captain Hook’s treasure.
- Barry describes the situation when the Darling children arrive at Neverland like this: ”The lost boys were out looking for Peter, the pirates were out looking for the lost boys, the redskins were out looking for the pirates, and the beasts were out looking for the redskins. They were going round and round the island, but they did not meet because all were going at the same rate.” Use manipulatives to demonstrate the problem.
- Time is different in Neverland, though: “As time wore on did she think much about the beloved parents she had left behind her? This is a difficult question, because it is quite impossible to say how time does wear on in the Neverland, where it is calculated by moons and suns, and there are ever so many more of them than on the mainland.” Have students calculate the ratio of Neverland days to “mainland” days.
- Time “is calculated by moons and suns, and there are ever so many more of them than on the mainland.” This could be a good opportunity to talk about the rotation of the earth and how it creates day and night.
- Peter loses his shadow. Eye on the Sky has a good basic lesson plan on shadows. ReadWriteThink has a more complete one.
- One of Peter Pan’s main characteristics is conceit. Compare self esteem and conceit, using Venn diagrams.
- Leadership is a topic in Peter Pan. Have students identify the characters who show leadership (it will vary from one version to another) and the characteristics they have. Discuss the different approaches to leadership in the story.