You want your kids to really love Little House in the Big Woods. Maybe you loved the book yourself, and you want to pass its joys along to them. You probably want them to love all great books – well-written books that can pull them into another world, turn time upside down, and gobble up whole Sunday afternoons. Books that lead to incidental learning about history, geography, math, science, people and character. Books that will stay with your kids for the rest of their lives.
We do too! That’s why we founded LitWits.
In our popular workshops, we share sensory objects and experiences straight from the story — and weave in some academic handouts and writing activities. It’s like a field trip into the book! Kids get into the characters’ world from the inside out, sharing its sights, tastes, textures, smells and sounds. By engaging with a great book in these tangible, memorable ways, kids learn without trying. Most importantly, they want to read more.
We want your students to have this experience too! Everything in this kit is a product of our workshop planning, but you don’t have to hold a workshop. Decide what works best for your classroom or family! Your quest is to make great books real and fun for kids – so they’ll want to read more.
This LitWits Kit is your trusty guide, but the adventure is up to you. Off you go!
This all-original kit includes everything you need to help your kids soak up this book in experiential, academic ways. It has our lesson planning tips, sensory prop suggestions, project and activity ideas, takeaway topics, and academic handouts with keys. It has buttons for downloading our unique templates and handouts, and links to others’ info and images you might like to use. And because it lives online, we can easily add new ideas, activities, and tips as we’re inspired.
We’re sharing the unique results of our 80-plus hours of workshop creation. Take what you need, and change it to suit your goals and your students’ ages, interests, and abilities. All ages love hands-on learning! The experiences and academic handouts in this kit have been enjoyed by kids 6-13, but you know best what your students are ready for. Do what works! It’s all about getting kids to feel the story, identify with the characters, and truly enjoy great books!
Suggestions for homeschool and classroom teachers
Read the book! You may have read it as a child, but you’ll have a completely different perspective as an adult, and a new appreciation for its enduring value – and it helps so much to have the story fresh in your mind! We encourage younger kids or reluctant readers to listen to an audio version or read an abridged edition as a “way in” to reading great books; that may or may not suit your own goals.
Check out our Pinterest board. We’ve collected dozens of images and videos about people, places, things, and events in the book. Choose some you’d like to show to the kids, if audiovisual technology is available. If not, you might want to print and mat a few pictures. We find that these audiovisual aids come in extra handy during discussions.
Take full advantage of our Learning Links collection. These links will take you to informative, useful websites we discovered in the course of our research. Read up on the subjects you’d like to focus on, for the age and interest levels of your kids.
Decide which props matter most. Gathering an inspiring collection of props is one of our favorite things we do to prepare for a workshop. Sometimes “propping” becomes a scavenger hunt that spans counties and time zones! It’s easy to get carried away.
Your hunt, however, doesn’t have to be expansive. The key is to think creatively and resourcefully, and to not be shy. Businesses, especially specialty shops, are often very generous on behalf of education and children. Do you know someone who collects items from the book’s culture or era – or will your local antiques store loan you a few? Can you schedule your reading experience to coincide with the season featured in the story, when the relevant produce or holiday items abound?
Don’t spend too much time or money on props – really, 3-5 important ones are enough.
When choosing props, we always try to focus on two important categories: props that are unique to the setting, because they help kids understand “what that was like,” and props that are symbolic of themes, because they make big ideas visual and tangible. Both kinds of props generate those wide-eyed, “aha!” moments.
Below are the “straight from the story” props we used for our experience of this book. Some props are easier to find or create than others – don’t feel your collection has to be this complete! Choose props that you think will have the most appeal to your kids and relevance to your goals.
Click on any image to expand it into a slideshow.
Ma and Aunt Eliza exchanged these spicy-sweet gifts at Christmas, and Grandma had one beside her in her kitchen while she stirred the giant kettle of syrup during the sugaring-off dance. Just as the spicy-sweet aroma of cloves and apples reminds the author of home, Christmas, and sugar-making, so will students be reminded of their experience of this book.
Ask the kids what happy-homemaking need Ma might have been addressing with her clove-studded apple. If they need some help getting the picture, brainstorm together about what the inside of the “Little House” might have smelled like at the end of the week in the middle of winter. Have them think through the things that filled the Ingalls’ lives – the foods, habits and activities that created their daily rituals and environment, from the sausages and cheeses in the larder to the wood smoke, log walls, animal-care duties, Jack the (sometimes wet) dog, kerosene lamps and just-once-a-week baths. A sweet smelling “settlers’ air freshener” would have been pretty and efficient, just like Ma.
When you ask the kids if they’d like to make one their own, they’ll go nuts! They’ll especially enjoy coming up with reasons why the cabin might have been stinky.
So simple! Give an apple and a pile of cloves to each child. Before starting, ask the kids to take a good look at the cloves, noticing that they’re shaped like little nails. Show them how to push the stem of the clove all the way into the apple skin, and point out how good it will smell while they’re doing it. That’s all they need to know. If tiny fingers are having a hard time poking cloves into hard apples, show the kids how to use toothpicks to make holes for the cloves.
Some of them will figure out on their own that it’s fun to make patterns – we’re pretty sure Ma would have made pretty designs with her cloves. Play some of Pa’s fiddle music (you can purchase the official collection) and revel in this shared multi-sensory experience!
Ma does a great job making the most of little — she literally uses that pig from head to tail! She’s also got a knack for making ordinary things quite special. What better way to get in her shoes than with a Big Woods “cooking” competition, making the most of strange (to us) ingredients?
This fast-thinking activity got kids using their imaginations, working as a team, and seeing potential in the ordinary.
This simple project let us “do what Laura and Mary did,” and gave us a great opportunity to talk about frost and the conditions that create it. We chose to do a slow-reveal, and not to show the kids a sample or tell them what they were working on until the prep work was finished. They were completely intrigued, and delighted when they realized what we were actually doing.
PHASE 2 (after the paint is dry)
It’s hard to read this book without wanting to dance a jig, even before you hear the happy sound of fiddle music. The scene where Grandma and Uncle George face off and try to out-jig the other is priceless. Chin up, hands on hips, eyes sparkling, she did him in.
We told our kids we were pretty sure they couldn’t jig like her, and they happily took us on. So we put on some extra fun fiddle music and let them wear themselves out — it didn’t take long!
BookBites is the part of our literary experience when we get to “taste the story.” We choose a food right out of the book, and it has to meet at least one criterion:
Though there were many, shall we say interesting foods in this story, vinegar pie hit on all three points. It’s definitely unfamiliar to most of us, and it’s important to the conflict in the plot (how will the Ingalls survive the winter? By eating things that don’t tend to rot!). It also exemplifies the themes of “preservation” and “making the most of little.”
Vinegar pie was made from inexpensive ingredients anyone might have on hand, and it tastes a lot better than you’d think — sort of like a bland custard. Our fearless kids were relieved — they’re used to us offering them interesting foods, but this one had sounded ickier than most.
You’re not likely to find vinegar pie in your local bakery, so here’s the recipe, along with a little Laura love.
We also offered a taste of venison sausage, because it too was connected to the core conflict and those same two themes, as well as the theme of “nature as friend and foe.” The kids found it quite tasty, though some said they’d rather be friends with living deer — and indeed, though the story opens with two deer being slaughtered, it closes with three being spared.
That fact gave us a chance to talk about narrative license, and the plot point of falling action — leaving readers with a happy ending, never mind what we know must happen afterward, as another winter arrives.
Little House in the Big Woods is chock-full of wonderful topics to explore, from the botany of the Wisconsin woods to the history of fiddle music to animal tracking and more. You could easily spend a month or more flushing out all the learning opportunities this book introduces. But such abundance can also sound pretty overwhelming! We’ve narrowed the focus to three bite-sized (but rich) areas, and based most of our activities and prop choices around these “takeaway topics.”
Hands-on connections in this kit: “Cloven Apples” project, “Jack Frosting” project, BookBites snack, natural resource props like the stump, wood chips, cowbell; lantern as illuminating a foe vs. a friend in the dark; history and creative writing handouts
Things to talk about: This story is barely under way when we’re brought up against the reality of settlers’ lives: most had to kill to survive. Laura’s tone makes it clear that nature is not just to admire, but to use — she gives us matter-of-fact descriptions of the deer Pa has hung from the trees, the pig Ma turns into food for the winter, and the skins Pa takes to town for things they need. But she also lets us know, through events and tales, that Nature is to be feared. What role does weather play in their lives? How did the “big woods” both provide and threaten? What did they have to fear in the forest? Ask the kids why the Ingalls didn’t just drive to the local supermarket, or order their groceries and other needs online.
Point to the props, and ask which ones are natural. Talk about the meaning of the phrase natural resources, and, as a class, list several from the story — many, like logs and maple sugar, come from trees. Ask the kids if they noticed the frequent mention of stumps in the story. Settlers like the Ingalls cut down what they needed to use or to clear land for crops, but by the late 1800s, loggers had cut down far more. As the Wisconsin Historical Society puts it, by 1905 the”amount of pine harvested from the Black River Valley alone [just southeast of the Ingalls’ home] could have built a boardwalk nine feet wide and four inches thick around the entire world.” Use our Pinterest board and Learning Links to learn about the animals of the Wisconsin forests and the nineteenth century logging industry, which greatly impacted other resources as well.
Hands-on connections in this kit: “Cloven Apples” project; “Big Woods Chopped” activity; “Jack Frosting” project; BookBites snack; props that convey the joy in “just enough”: the peppermint sticks, mittens, fiddle, the kerosene lamp; vocabulary and math handouts
Things to talk about: The Ingalls family doesn’t seem to have much — and yet, as the story goes on, we see that they do. Yes, they have the riches of a loving family, but they also know how to stretch and embellish material things. Not just to increase volume or shelf life, either — sometimes just to increase attractiveness, which is especially important to Ma. Remember she “had been very fashionable, before she married Pa”!
Ask the kids for some examples from the story of ordinary things made special. What is it that makes something special, anyway? Why did Ma put red felt in the kerosene oil, and go to the trouble to color and mold the butter?
What turns a corncob into a doll, besides a handkerchief? What’s so fascinating about a frosted pane? How do the girls play with the pig’s bladder, and why do they look forward to Pa’s fiddle playing? Would you be excited about just getting mittens and peppermint sticks for Christmas?
Point out that imagination and appreciation can make almost anything wonderful. How else, after all, can one explain headcheese?
Hands-on connections in this kit: “Cloven Apples” project; “Grandma’s Jig” activity; BookBites snack; props that convey the idea of making tangible and intangible things last: the peppermint sticks, fiddle, hickory chips, china doll; creative writing handout
Things to talk about: .From food to memories to human life, this story is steeped in the concept of preservation. Ask the kids if they understand why the Ingalls must preserve fresh food, and what it is about salting, pickling, smoking, and canning that keeps food safe to eat without refrigeration. Talk about Ma’s passion for preserving non-food items: her lovely delaine from her “fashionable” days, her china doll from her former life, and her standards of cleanliness and beauty no matter where she lived. What kind of preserving does Pa do by telling his stories and playing his songs?
Ask the kids why Laura remembered these kinds of details six decades later. What is it about those things that makes them memorable?
And what did she do to preserve those things forever — along with her life?
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The LitWits Kit for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods
Copyright 2017 by LitWits Workshops, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Becky Clendenen Kimball is a literature-based homeschool teacher, a journalism major who spent four years as newspaper staff writer, and the creator of a study skills curriculum. She is a homeschooling parent of twin daughters who love and learn from great books.
Jenny Clendenen Walicek has a BA in English literature and is completing her MFA in creative writing. She’s been a K-6 teacher and K-12 tutor, and her essays, poetry, and scholarship have appeared in various journals. She has a son and a daughter, both English majors and excellent writers.
Becky and Jenny are sisters, best friends, and founders of
LitWits Workshops, LLC | www.LitWits.com