Often stories talk about the big, bad wolf... there is Red Riding Hood and the Three Little pigs to get you started... this has meant that in dialogues about animals wolves are always seen as bad. This fascinated me that the children would see things as wholly bad and wholly good - and when exploring friendship, relationships, empathy and emotions - this concept of good and bad can be really interesting.
The thing is wolves are really expressive, so they are a great example to use when exploring emotions. I find it almost makes it safer for the children to talk about emotions when they can explore them through an animal or a story about animals.
What I usually do is ask the children about wolves and what they think they feel... usually they say they are bad or angry or mean. Seldom have they equated wolves with dogs - because if asking about dogs then there is more variety in emotions - as some children have pets at home while others are somewhat fearful.
I prepare a series of photos of wolves that I basically get from googling "happy wolf" "sad wolf" "scared wold" "angry wolf" etc etc and selecting images that show a wide variety of emotions. (see photos below) - I will show the photos one at a time and ask the children what they think the wolf is feeling and we talk about why they think that. We also talk about which of the wolves would the children want to be friends with, which one they think needs a friend the most, why some of the wolves are angry looking. We will sort the wolves in a line from the wolf they would least like to meet to the wolf the would most like to meet... talking about why we are making these decisions.
(I will also point out that I do not do this all at the same time... these dialogues are done over a period of time - so that the children have time to digest and reflect over their thoughts and the thoughts of others).
We will talk about how do we make friends and how to we stay being friends... often the children will talk about only positive emotions so I will provoke thought by asking if they have ever got angry with their friends or their friends angry with them... or of their friends have ever made them feel sad etc... and does that mean you stop being a friend - so how does friendship survive such things...?
And as we reflect that a wolf is not always bad or angry - that it is one of many emotions - and we explore how wolves live in packs - we connect that to our own emotions and friendships.. that we have many emotions and that we too live in packs of a kind - that we have our family packs but also our preschool pack - and some children have their swimming school or football school or dance school pack too.
Are we friends with everyone in every pack. Do we need to be? What is the difference between friends and being friendly? What are the benefits of being friendly?
I have found these dialogues and the images of emotions really useful for autistic children - and often I will spend extra time with these children, and others that are interested, looking at photos of people with the same emotions as the wolves... can we match them.
When children experience the vast array of feelings and emotions I will scaffold by saying... I see from your expression (or the way you look/sound) that you are angry, sad, happy, excited - not every time but enough for the child to recognise their own feeling and also for others around to recognise it in that cild too... and also make a connection... as many will say I am also excited, or tired etc. That connection is part of creating bonds within the pack!
So as you see this has many complex ideas to explore, it takes time.
And during the time of this exploration I will tell various wolf stories - the two above mentioned stories are great for twisting... what happens if Red Riding Hood was the mean one and tricked the wolf into appearing bad to save herself from being told off for not doing what she was supposed to? What happens if the wolf was actually kind but had hayfever... or if it was the three little wolves and the big bad pig? I like to take the children to Skansen here in Stockholm (a large outdoor museum with traditional buildings and animals) as there is a life-size statue of a pig... and it is enormous... the children are nearly always taken aback by the fact the wolves in real life are so much smaller than the tame pigs - and that wild pigs (boar) often have tusks!!! They look pretty scary!
We also will visit the Natural History Museum to see the exhibition about Nordic animals where they can see wolves standing in their pack expressing many emotions. We walk around it trying to identify as many as we can and counting how many different emotions are being expressed.
I think sharing a new perspective of wolves like this is important for the children to understand that there is seldom a single story. This is an idea I have reflected on many times in the last few months... and has impacted the titles of my blog posts... "The story of..."
The danger of the single story... if wolves are always being portrayed as bad during childhood it is affecting our internal narrative about nature. So why not tell the many stories so that children can make better informed decisions now and also as an adult.
I am not teaching the children directly about "save the wolf" or nature conservation... but the seeds of such learning are implanted.
Which brings me back to Original Learning. I do not want to simply teach the children, I want to facilitate their learning. By exposing the children to a more holistic approach the children are able to not only build up their knowledge bank, but also understand this new knowledge through play and experiences - and also make connections with other experiences, and facts that they have learned - and will learn and experience in the future.
Wolves have been a great way for me to support children in their learning about emotions, about friendships, about different perspectives, about nature.
And this post is not an exhaustive list of things I do with children about wolves and empathy - but is merely an insight in how wolves have been my co-teacher when it comes to supporting children explore emotions, friendship and ethical values.
all images come from a google search.