When my children see any moss-covered rock, they point and yell, “Trolls!” As they learned in the movie Frozen, trolls turn into rocks when the sun comes out.
Forget those nasty Internet trolls. Kids love the originals—gnome-like mythic creatures who are everywhere in Scandinavia (and the world, thanks to Frozen and Trolls). As an American mom living in Sweden, I’ve been surprised by all the ways Scandinavian parents have been putting trolls to work for hundreds of years to teach children valuable lessons about empathy, kindness, perseverance, and more.
By borrowing some of their strategy, imagination, and storytelling, we all can!
When you hear “troll,” you probably imagine one of those small plastic dolls with the large eyes, shock of bright hair, and bejeweled belly button. A huge toy fad in the 1960s and again in the 1990s, troll dolls originated in Denmark when a man named Thomas Dam carved one out of wood for his daughter.
He managed to make something cute out of what’s always been ugly and often threatening. Oral stories about trolls have been passed along for generations across Scandinavia. During agrarian times, for example, farmers believed in tomte or nisse, troll-like creatures who live in houses and barns to act as their guardian. If treated well—meaning the house was well-kept and the animals were provided for—tomte protected the family from misfortune. But if the animals were treated poorly, tomte would play tricks on the family and might even harm or kill the animals.
Today, though, parents and teachers use updated, less scary versions of troll tales to help teach kids lessons like these:
Using trolls to teach about germs
On the mirror above the sink in my children’s Swedish preschool, a picture of Bassiluskan, a germ troll, gently reminds the kids to wash their hands. It’s based on the storybook Ingrid och Bassiluskan by Katerina Janouch, in which Bassiluskan makes the main character get sick.
Another form of Bassiluskan is the “tooth troll” who will set up camp on unbrushed teeth and start to turn them yellow and stinky. These germ trolls are nasty, and you don’t want them living in your mouth, kids are warned.
Try this at home: Motivate toothbrushing and handwashing (and nag less) by posting reminder pictures in your own bathroom. Online you can find lots of free coloring pages depicting both scary and cute trolls to press into service.
Using trolls to learn and play in the outdoors
Remember the Three Billy Goats Gruff? Kids learn that while the hungry troll protecting the bridge may be big and intimidating, he can be outsmarted. The first two billy goats convince him to let them cross the bridge to greener pastures and wait for the next, bigger goat. The troll’s greed leads to his ultimate demise as the last billy goat, the largest of them all, overpowers him with a fierce butt off the bridge.
The lesson of this Norwegian classic: A smart group is stronger than a greedy, ignorant troll in a position of power. (There’s actually a Billy Goats Gruff Bridge in Bergen.)
Try this at home: Bring this fable to life at your local playground bridge. Play the part of the scary, disgusting troll—and get ready for the shrieking laughter of your children as they try to run past you before you grab and eat them.
You can also use trolls as a way to inspect nature more closely. Search for these creatures of the landscape together in rocks, caves, and tree roots!
Using trolls to inspire positive behaviors
Moomin are a friendly troll family widely loved across Scandinavia since the 1940s. They’ve appeared in comics, books, a live-action TV show, cartoons, and even, in the 1970s, a Helsinki opera. In a departure from the usual grotesque depiction of folkloic trolls, these characters are drawn simply—bulbous round bodies, big eyes, and long tails. (They look a bit like hippos!)
Created by Finnish children’s book author and illustrator Tove Jansson, central character Moomintroll is kind and brave, and his friends (all who have a penchant for adventure) inspire kids to explore their surroundings and ask questions.
The characters of Moominvalley teach life lessons like:
- It’s OK to be alone.
- A good cry can be healing.
- Try unorthodox methods to problem-solve.
- One needs friends, not things, to have a home.
Try this at home: Introduce the Moomin into your home as a fun new way to explore lessons of friendship, independence, and adventure—much the way France’s Tintin, Canada’s Anne of Green Gables, and England’s Harry Potter transcend children’s literary borders.
Popular Moomin books available in English include the classic stories, comics, and lift-the-flap beginner books based on Jansson’s characters. If you and your kids become real fans, Moomin.com offers all things Moomin, from items like clothing and dishes to news and an official Moomin fan club.
Some newer books about pro-social trolls:
- The Danish children’s book series called Trolleliv puts a kind spin on trolls. Peter Madsen and Sissel Bøe have created a world of mystery for children to explore—inspiring them to look for trolls in their backyards. Paja and Pajko are twin trolls who romp around the forest with their large family living in a troll cave under an old oak tree. Through their adventures, children learn lessons about friendship, generosity, acceptance, and tolerance.
- The beautiful The Stroll Troll (originally a short film) by Norway’s Aleksander Nordaas teaches children empathy. The Stroll Troll may look shabby and tired, but that’s because he has been walking for a year and is looking for a place to rest. None of the woodland animals will give him food and shelter for the night—until some unlikely characters (who don’t judge him by his appearance) give him comfort. They’re rewarded in a wonderful way—a friendly reminder of why we should be kind to people in need and offer our help when people ask, even if we don’t have much to give.
Photo at top: Eirik Solheim/Flickr