Welcome to the best of our hands-on ideas for this book, taken from our live experiential workshops in Santa Cruz! Get ready for a bunch of wide-eyed kids having “aha!” moments—and you, grinning ear to ear because your students are happily engaged.
A heads-up: we love sharing all the fun we’ve had, but please don’t let our abundance of ideas bog you down. Just take what you need, and change it to suit your students, classroom setup, budget, and goals. Relax—you can’t go wrong! It’s all about inspiring kids to read for fun and learn for life.
Becky and Jenny
Sisters, best friends, and partners
YAY, no more surfing the Internet and patching together a plan! This all-original guide includes everything you need to help your kids soak up this book in experiential, academic ways. To jump to each section, click the menu bar above; the vertical one on the right will scroll with you wherever you go.
When to read the book
For our workshops kids read (or listen to) the book first, sort of like a book club; that way they’ve read the book “just for fun,” without an assignment in mind. If possible, that’s ideal. It’s hard to get caught up in the pleasure of a story when you’re supposed to be looking for something academic in it at the same time.
If that’s not possible, you can assign chapters to your kids and stop to do relevant projects and worksheets along the way.
Either way, you yourself will want to read the book ahead of time–for pleasure, without an assignment in mind! Once the story’s in your head and heart, you’ll understand the intent of the activities in this guide, and “what to do when” will jump out at you.
Here’s the agenda we generally follow in our 3-hour workshops:
Whether you do it all at once, like we do, or in pieces, we suggest you weave discussions of a Takeaway topic into each project or activity, and use our Learning Links to add interest to those conversations. Takeaway topics are also useful for planning a lesson around a major theme, because everything in this guide connects to one or more of them, and provides natural launching points for discussion. So the fun is packed into the learning and the learning is packed into the fun!
When choosing props for our live workshops, 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 guide: “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 guide: “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 guide: “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 Explorer’s Guide 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 working on a historical biography of Elna Lieb Wright, the astronomer’s wife. Becky homeschooled her twin daughters, who grew up on great books and are now in college.
Jenny Clendenen has a BA in English literature and an 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 is the author of MINE, the true tragedy of María Zacarías Bernal de Berreyesa. She has a son and a daughter who have degrees in English literature and are excellent writers.
Becky and Jenny are sisters, best friends, and founders of
LitWits Workshops, LLC. | www.LitWits.com