Making Weapons and Group Agreements

in Forest School, Theory and Ideas

Making Weapons 1I am, by nature a peaceful sort. However I often find myself building and making weapons. I do like the satisfaction of seeing a stick shooting off into the distance fired by a home made bow and we have made some constructions (that could best be described as siege engines!) that would fire pebble a good distance.

I have written before about the theory of recapitulative play and I feel that weapon making fits alongside fire making and shelter building. In the regular, day to day life of the average 21st century child in a developed country these are skills that have very little practical application. But there is something about them that has such a strong impulse and compulsion for children (and adults).

I also feel it is important to allow children to explore this compulsion, especially when we live in a world where children are exposed to so many images of war. Through play a child learns to make sense of the world they experience and inhabit, so there is a value of them being able to ‘play it out’. However this sort of play can upset or even hurt other children so needs to be carefully observed and managed.

Making Weapons 2

Making bows and arrow sets is one of those things that I rarely introduce deliberately into my sessions but I respond to with glee if it emerges with a group. It is great for self esteem and children feel powerful and trusted being allowed to have a bow and arrow. I wrote an article about dynamic risk management recently. When something like this emerges in a session I feel it is important to be able to respond and reset some new rules and conditions For me it means you get to establish rules with one or two children and support them a lot. Another sees what we are doing and joins in, we repeat the rules we have come up with, repeat ad infinitum, so by the time the whole group is involved (if they are) we all know the rules intimately. That way it is easier than me banging on about safety, as they are having to do that themselves, for each other.

I aim for bow and arrow sets with an element of built in obsolescence. That gets us round the inevitable question of ‘are they allowed to take them home?’ which wouldn’t be appropriate in some instances. Beyond that on the most basic level you can get a stick that is just slightly thicker than your thumb and about the length of your arm and has some flex in it and a piece of string. Trying different string to see which works best is a good exploration of materials. Whittling a notch in the end of the stick stops the string sliding off The string is tied to one end and then that end is placed to the ground and the stick is bent as much as you can before tying the other end of the string onto the stick. The stick bends back into place putting the tension on to the string. This will then fire another straight-ish stick, which you can whittle a bit to make a point, a reasonable distance. Holding and pulling back the arrow stick rather than the string is easier for some kids to manipulate.

Making Weapons 3

Setting group agreements on safety normally starts with me trying the first made bow (and hopefully getting it into the long grass a good 15- 20 feet away followed by a bit of woooah from everyone, including me.) Before I hand it over i say, “This comes with responsibility. What do you think the rules are?” I then go with every safety rule than seems logical and we agree those. As a minimum I look for firing away from people or animals, or firing at a target if there is a bigger group. The ideas they come up with might include shouting “ready-aim-fire” so people know you are firing and don’t walk into the line of fire, shooting out of the boundary that normally applies but being allowed out to fetch arrows, watching out for people walking through the woods if it is a public wood.

The trickiest point comes if you have a target and people want collect arrows whilst other people are firing. So getting them to put a system in place is important. (Flag up for fire, flag down for collect / Having an adult say when you can collect)

By establishing the rules by collective agreement the children are no longer passive participants in their own safety and well-being. They are actively identifying the risks, thinking of solutions and most importantly reminding each other and me. I used to try and spend time at the start of sessions getting all the ground rules in place that would last us for the rest of time. Children would be bored and fidgety, they found it hard to imagine the situation let alone understand the potential ways that rules should apply and would just repeat the rules they had had drilled in to them elsewhere. The point when a child who was asked what they thought the rules should be for a session in the woods said “no running” was when I realised, they were on ‘ground rule autopilot’! Now I rely on spontaneous group agreements that respond to the situation we are in. It starts from the assumption children know what to do and works forward into the new situation.

Making Weapons 4

Targets with bells on.
Set up to respond to a group who loved throwing stones

With bows and arrows or any made weapon in Forest school, I always add my own rule. Once we have agreed the rules I get to claim the weapon as my own for ever and ever if a rule gets broken. I very rarely need to use my rule.

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