Studying Fairy Tales: Jack and the Beanstalk

One of the things that is great about homeschooling is the ability to cater learning towards your child’s interests. My son asked if we could study fairy tales the first few weeks of school, and I have to admit, I was pretty excited. I love fairy tales and folk tales. I love the idea of stories being passed down year after year, generation after generation, until they are woven into the fabric of society.

He wanted to begin with Jack and the Beanstalk. We started by reading Joseph Jacob’s version and watching Mickey and the Beanstalk – a film I picked up on a whim of nostalgia from the library which my kiddo had been refusing to watch. Suddenly, he was all over it.

After we compared the story and the film versions, we started our discussion with what a fairy tale actually is. I love the explanation from the preface of Joseph Jacob’s English Fairy Tales:

As our book is intended for the little ones, we have indicated its contents by the name they use. The words “Fairy Tales” must accordingly be taken to include tales in which occurs something “fairy,” something extraordinary — fairies, giants, dwarfs, speaking animals.

The story of Jack and the Beanstalk is thought to be more than 5,000 years old, and as such, there are many reiterations of the tale. We read Molly Whuppie (also from Joseph Jacob’s) as well as the Grimm Brothers’ The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs (note to secular homeschoolers: we framed the devil as a mythical creature much like the giant and the ogre in the other tales). This left us with a lot to discuss!


Many fairy tales and folktales repeat elements of their stories; the magic number is often 3 but it does sometime vary. Jack goes up the beanstalk 3 times, Molly returns to the giant’s home 3 times, and while the boy in the Devil’s Three Golden Hairs only goes to Hell one time, he passes three people who require answers for his crossing. We talked about how repetition may have been useful to storytellers to help them remember the stories since these stories were passed down orally until writers began collecting them in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s also helpful to note how each repetition often intensifies the drama of the story.

Stock Characters

Fairy tales rely on stock characters as they aid the listener in recognizing the character quickly, allowing the teller to dive into the action. Jack, Molly, and the boy all come across antagonists who are stronger, larger, and more powerful than they are, but they use their wits to defeat them.

Protagonist vs Antagonist

I am really pushing for a move away from “good guy” “bad guy” talk. I think it’s important for children to see that there are areas of grey, and of course it certainly wasn’t kind of Jack to steal from the giant! I explained it to my son in the simplest terms: the protagonist is whoever you are rooting for, and the antagonist is whoever is getting in their way. Written from another perspective, Jack or Molly or the boy could be seen as the antagonist! (Which could be a great writing exercise!)

Kindness and Prejudice

On that note, we talked about which of the characters were the kindest, and which were the least and why. We made note of who the helpers were and why. The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs also allowed for an excellent subversion of the stereotypes of kings and robbers: kings are usually expected to be good, kind, and benevolent leaders while robbers are usually expected to be sneaky and dangerous. I asked my son if he would rather meet a king or a robber, when he answered a king, I asked how well that would have worked out for him if he was the boy in The Devil’s Three Golden Hairs. Not very well, we agreed.


One thing that sprouted (I couldn’t resist!) from our discussion about Jack and the Beanstalk was the question of how seeds grow. We collected what seeds we could from plants and fruits around the house, as well as some that I had saved. We talked about their differences, drew pictures of them, and watched this Sci Show Kids episode, How Does a Seed Become a Plant? We then placed a bean seed in a wet paper towel and sealed it in a jar so that we could observe the sprouting process. My son enjoyed it so much that he transplanted it into soil after it began to outgrow the jar, and has been taking care of it this past week. (Of course, we’ll see how much longer that lasts!)

At the end of our unit, we talked about what makes a “child defeats the ogre” tale and came up with what we felt were the most important parts. We decided that the protagonist must be a child who uses their smarts to outwit the antagonist: someone bigger, stronger, and more powerful than them. We also agreed that there should be a repetition of 3 events. We then each wrote our own tale based on the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale. Because my son is still working on his handwriting, I allowed him to tell his story to me while I wrote it down, which was a nice way to take our lesson full circle: from oral tradition to written tale!

Learning about Fairy Tales in your homeschool? This unit focuses on Jack and the Beanstalk and similar tales.


Are you studying Fairy Tales in your homeschool? I’d love to see what you’re up to! If you like what you see here, don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss a post. You can also find me lurking around the web on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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