We see them on T-shirts, coffee cups, and stickers. They are made into everything from stuffed animals to emojis. Everybody wants one, but no one can have the real thing. Since becoming a figment of man's imagination in ancient times, the unicorn has galloped to the forefront of modern man's own fantasy. Kids love unicorns, and when a teacher harnesses their magic, the unicorn can teach kids a great deal about how to use skills like critical thinking, classifying, inferring, analyzing, and drawing conclusions. While the unicorn may be a fictional beast, there is no denying that this creature can help kids learn.
Ancient people relied on stories from travelers to shape their knowledge of the world. What people did not realize was that real creatures, such as the Himalayan antelope, could be mistaken for unicorns if viewed from afar. Even though the antelopes had two horns, seeing a side profile gave the illusion of one horn. Likewise, horns from animals like the rhinoceros were often passed off as being from unicorns. People believed in the existence of unicorns because they did not know enough about the world around them.
The circumstances of the modern world allow even the youngest students to distinguish fantasy from reality when it comes to the animal kingdom. Prepare your students for a comparison-contrast activity using a Venn diagram by first reading about unicorns. Consider Shel Silverstein's poem "The Unicorn" and books like Geraldine McCaughrean's Unicorns! Unicorns! or Alison Lurie's Fabulous Beasts. Use two overlapping circles for the Venn diagram, one labeled "unicorn"; the other, "horse." Have students list attributes of each animal within the diagram. Shared characteristics such as body type or movement descriptions need to be recorded in the area where the circles overlap. The differences can be placed in the spots where the circles do not overlap. For instance, words like "make-believe" and "horn" are unique to the unicorn. Words like "domesticated" and "real" belong to the horse. If your students are older, consider using a Venn diagram to compare how unicorns are represented in the myths and legends of Eastern and Western cultures. Doing so is great practice for researching and organizing information.
In addition to literature, the unicorn has often been the subject of great works of art. Search for images using the keyword "unicorn" in art catalogs on the homepage of the Art Institute of Chicago, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, or your favorite fine arts museum. Once you have located a few key pictures, have students analyze what they see and infer what the parts mean to the whole. This practice is good for strengthening students' observation skills and supporting claims based on visible evidence. Consider practicing these skills together as a class by viewing the tapestry "Unicorn in Captivity." After analyzing the artwork and drawing conclusions together, students can repeat the process using artwork that they discover on their own.
Students can also create their own artwork featuring the unicorn as their subject. In addition to making their own pictures of unicorns, they can create puppets of them too. These can be used to act out either the plays their own groups wrote in class or the stories that you read together previously.
Bringing in the unicorn to your classroom opens the door for your students to be creative. Their imaginations can run wild as they write about this fantastic beast. For practice at informational writing, have students create pamphlets that explain how to care for a unicorn. Students can organize the pamphlet so it contains sections like what to feed a unicorn, where to keep it, and how to groom the animal. For creative writing practice, have students compose a narrative with a plot about the day they saw a unicorn in the wild or the time they freed one from captivity. Students can individually write such stories in prose or in groups as a drama that can later be performed for the class.
While we know that the unicorn is a magical creature from man's mind, the animal brings to the classroom a real potential for learning. Even though it is a thing of fantasy, the unicorn has a place in the real world.