Some background to the story…
The story of Hansel and Gretel is one that most of us heard in childhood, and it has a long history in traditional storytelling dating back probably far further than the Grimm brothers earliest recorded version in the nineteenth century. Set during a time of famine and hardship, life and death balance on a knife edge. Hansel and Gretel are both names that were common in Germany and represent ordinary children, much as Jack and Mary are used in folk tales in the English tradition.
Already quite chilling in the well-known version of the story, the Grimm’s telling has the children’s own mother ordering their father to abandon them in the woods for the good of the adults, as ‘we can always have more children.’ Hansel overhears his mother twice in her plot to rid herself of the two inconvenient mouths to feed, and the first time he can collect white pebbles from outside the house that enable him and his sister to return to their home under the light of the moon. The second time he isn’t so fortunate and has to make do with crumbs from the meagre ration of bread he is given. When night comes, and the children are once again abandoned, the breadcrumbs have been eaten and there is no way to find their way home. The next part of the story proceeds in the familiar pattern – the children, lost and hungry, find a cottage made of gingerbread and tasty treats. They start to devour the house, and are soon discovered by its occupant, a seemingly kind old lady, who takes them in. The next morning, she reveals that she is planning to eat Hansel and makes Gretel her slave. Hansel and Gretel maintain a trick that he is too thin and not ready to eat, until the witch loses her patience and decides to eat him anyway. There’s a trick and a scream and the children get the upper hand. The Grimms provide a long ending to the tale. Once the witch has died, the children search the house, find treasure, with which they fill their pockets, and rush home. Reaching a river they can’t cross on their own, they have help from a passing swan. Eventually, they arrive home to be reunited with their delighted father, who informs them that their mother died or left him (depending on which edited version of the Grimm brothers you’re reading, honestly, this research stuff is interesting) shortly after the children were abandoned.
Notes on the Activities
The games and activities are great as warm-ups to sessions or as short bursts of activity in themselves. Some of them you may recognise from similar games, but I have given them a special twist to fit with the theme. Children like familiar games, so if you know some other games like this, don’t be afraid to add them to your session or part of your day – if you spook them up to keep them fresh!
Gather your group together, and read, recite or otherwise perform the opening part of the story to get everyone focussed and ready to work or play. I find a story, or a poem, gives everyone a chance to sit down and settle down, as well as for boundaries to be established. However, I wouldn’t go through the whole story in one sitting. For one thing, if you are going to be performing yourself, you’ll more than likely run out of puff if you do the full version of the story. The most important thing is that the children have a meaningful experience. Take time to savour the story, and enjoy it, and that includes you too. Discuss it. Talk about why the stones would be good as a way to show the way home, compared with black ones, for example.
It’s probably best if you choose your own pause stops in the text, but if you want some hints, here’s what I would do:
- Introduction to the story and go into the story up to the part where the children are left in the woods for the second time/or if you are going with the shorter version, the part where they are left in the woods (it creates a bit of tension). Do reassure the children if you need to about the happiness of the ending btw. Discuss the key events and characters, and record them on an ‘ever after tree’ – draw a tree and have a leaf for each bit of the story or key feature. Do fire pit activities, light and dark activities, make pathways using breadcrumbs and pebbles etc at this stage
- Finding the gingerbread cottage – go over the part when the children find the cottage, nibble and are caught by the little old lady and go to bed. Decorate gingerbread biscuits, design and build a gingerbread house, make sweets, design and make a feast
- Life in the cottage – cover the lives of Hansel and Gretel at the house. Don’t dwell on the grim aspects with the youngest children obviously. Drama time – act out the story, do the Witches’ Spell activities, etc at this stage
- Going home – finding the treasure and the journey home. Design and make treasure. Act out the story with the treasure finding and the journey through the woods and over the river. Problem solve the way over the river, with and without swan assistance. How did the children find their way home this time?
PART ONE – GRETEL’S GREAT GAMES (short warm-up activities)
- The Magic Treasure Game – put the group in a seated circle, both fists tight in their laps, select one member of the group to be the witch. The witch has to leave the room or move away to where they can’t see or hear what happens next, while you select a child to hold a fake ‘sweet’ in a tightened fist. When the witch returns, they have three guesses to find the ‘sweet’ – if they guess correctly they can choose who goes next, if they don’t, the successful sweetie hider gets to be the witch. Feel free to substitute the sweet for any other goodie you prefer. A good game for concentration and creating calm.
- Shake Them Bones – a physical warm-up. Everyone is Hansel shaking at the sight of the witch! Shake a hand, an arm, two hands, two arms, a head, a body. Shake a hand, an arm, two arms, a head, a foot, etc, until the whole body is shaking and a-shimmying. To calm it down again, or to keep it gentle, make the movements stretches – stretch up one hand and drop to the ground, slowly pull the head back up again, all slowly and gently.
- Woodland Walk – basically a Follow-The-Leader game. Start with a slow walk and a sensible leader to make sure that everyone has the idea…, then build-up the complexity of the movements and speed, direction etc. Great at Forest School, but can be done pretty much anywhere (within reason, obviously). Add a path to follow with cones or pebbles or breadcrumbs… the options are endless here!
- Behold the Enchantress! – a cross between Simon Says and Beware the Witch below and you can make it as hard or as easy as you like. The Enchantress/Sorcerer (I’m an equal opportunities employer of the supernatural and those gifted in the dark arts), waves a magic wand and enchants the rest of the group, who then have to do as they command (touch your nose, hop, hop like frog, slither like a snake – the instructions can be as specific, or not, as your children are able to follow). BUT the rest of the group can only obey when the wand is waved, NO WAND = NO CHANGE
- Beware the Witch – an un-Musical Statues game, or with spooky music themed music, the children mime the Gretel’s jobs as instructed by the leader (adult or nominated child), until the shout goes from the leader ‘BEWARE THE WITCH’, and they have to hide. Witches have terrible eyesight, so as long as they stand still they’ll be fine (that’s where the statues bit comes in). This is a great game as it gives the reluctant dancer something to do, as Musical Statues can be a challenge for them
- Who’s in the Wood? – as an alternative to the above, the children move around until the call goes out ‘HERE COMES THE WITCH’, and they all curl up in a ball. One of the children is then covered with a cloth by an adult, and once covered, the other children can move around them in a circle and have a guess at who is missing. BEWARE – lots of peeking can occur. Keep an eye out for sneaky peekers!
PART TWO – A FOREST OF IDEAS (Forest School/outdoor ideas)
Create a bonfire like Hansel and Gretel’s father did for them, and make it a nice experience for your class with bread to dip in hot chocolate
Make a pathway into a forest area (if you have one or can imagine one), using ‘pebbles’ or breadcrumbs – real or imagined (newspaper or tissue paper, cones etc. are good substitutes). Use the instructions for Woodland Walk above for more clues here. Get the children involved in making their own pathways and giving instructions to each other around the outdoor area once you get there, as they love nothing better than bossing each other about and exploring their space
A wooden spoon is great for outdoors, as it is strong enough to take the weather (wind, rain, blizzards, heat – whatever that is) and the forces of power and greatness that reside in little children:
- Use spoons as masks or puppets – with the witch on one side (the dinner lady with the hairy mole at school as a model is NOT allowed BTW) and the nice old lady on the other side. Point out that Hansel and Gretel’s father was a woodcutter and he would’ve made spoons like this and that the witch would have used them to stir her cauldron… Use those permanent markers if you can (I’m talking Sharpies, but I’m not advertising for them or anything, though they are the best) or good felt pens to make faces and add googly eyes, felt, wool as you feel
- Carve the spoons using vegetable peelers (UNDER CLOSE ADULT SUPERVISION if your class are having a go. You’ll probably be OK by yourself. Probably)
Design and make treasure – ask the children to think about what the witch might have in her house. Using what they can find in the natural environment, ask them to select the elements they want and create a design with them for ‘treasures’, before putting them together. Use sketchbooks or paper on clipboards for the designs. Take a store of pencils, pens, string, glue, tape and scissors. Glitter glue was made for this. And as your outside, no messy classroom either!
Make your journey back to the classroom, Hansel and Gretel’s journey home… pause for mini-adventures on the way. Remember/share the problem of crossing the river. How can they cross the river safely with all their treasures?
PART THREE – INSIDE THE COTTAGE (indoor activities)
Light and dark experiments – find out if the white pebbles would really work to guide the children home in the dark. Make the classroom or a space in the school as dark as possible and add white elements and use a torch to create moonlight. Get the children involved in the planning and experimentation as much as possible. Think about the materials you have available and which would be the most effective at keeping out light and which would be the most effective at guiding the children through the dark. Consider that dark is the absence of light.
The Gingerbread Cottage
Make a very simple Gingerbread Cottage – make a gingerbread mix (or buy the premade stuff) and roll out with the children, then using house shape cutters, cut out enough houses for everyone, plus a good few extras to account for accidents. While they cook and cool, ask the children to design decorations and suggest the elements they need to include, such as windows, a door, etc. Decorate with sweets and icing
Build one of the more complicated Gingerbread Cottages in groups. There are kits with the constituent parts to build the cottage and instructions about how to bake and construct it. You’d have to be brave to do this, but I know there are people out there with the ability to do this!
Ask the children to design and build Gingerbread Cottages using ‘found materials’, such as cereal boxes and so on
Find recipes and make simple sweets such as peppermint creams and coconut ice – good messy fun
Have a Gingerbread Cottage feast – make jam tarts, fairy cakes, iced buns, etc. I like this activity. No children need be invited. Just teachers
Act out the story – do this in parts, just as you would with the telling of the story. Give the children roles in small groups and swap them about to keep it fresh and interesting for them. They will need lots of prompting here and go over the warm-up games for about half a session to get them ready. Work on empathy and how the characters feel, but keep them focussed on what they have been asked to do and keep everything short and lively.
PART FOUR – THE WITCHES’ SPELL GAMES
If you don’t know it already, Shakespeare’s Witches from Macbeth are amongst his best ever creations. Evil, malevolent, and altogether intoxicating, they are delicious in their use of language and in twisting the lives of the characters in the play. In Shakespeare’s day, witches and the supernatural weren’t as remote and ridiculous as they may seem today, and the spells uttered during the course of the play were considered by many to be ‘real’. This led to the belief that they were cause of misfortune if the title was mentioned in the theatre and it being widely referred to as ‘the Scottish play’. So, let’s totally tempt fate by using an extract here then.
The Witches’ Spell from Macbeth
By William Shakespeare
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Read/recite the extract (choose the bits you want to use from this – very young children love the ‘Double, Double’ rhyming couplet, and honestly, that’s probably enough for them). Repeat it and pick out any tricky words if necessary, or show objects/pictures to go with the ingredients.As that’s a bit gory though, I’d just go with a plastic animal or act out the animal as you read/recite the first-time round.
‘Perform’ the spell and tell the children that you can make them do anything – go to sleep, clean the house, carry water, perform the chores that Gretel had to do for the witch.
Children take it in turns to ‘Double, double, toil and trouble’ and perform their own spells – make a house of sweets, have a shiny red car, run like the Flash, jump like Thor etc
PART FIVE – RECOMMENDED BOOK LIST
My, by no means, exhaustive list of recommended books for grim reading:
- Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller, excelling at adapting Germanic and Norse folklore, so look out for his version of the Hansel and Gretel story, and his short story collections Smoke and Mirrors, Fragile Things and Norse Myths.
- Michael Morpurgo and Anthony Browne have both written their own very individual takes on the story, and for a great twist on the tale, look out for the version by Bethan Woollvin
- If you want to know if you have a good collection of the Grimm Tales, look for the name Jack Zipes and you’re in for a blood-thirsty treat. But do read the stories first before shocking the children and yourself.
- Phillip Pullman has written a brilliant adaption of the Grimm Tales (btw The Shivers is my favourite tale in his collection, although it is particularly gruesome and in no way suitable for anyone, let alone children)
- Alternatively, just hire me and I’ll come over and tell a story at the appropriate level for the age of your children, as there is nothing better than an oral folk tale being passed on the way it was meant to be 😊 My advertising is so subtle, I bet that almost passed you by, didn’t it? #sorrynotsorry x