This term we added Archery to the roster of Outdoor Education activities here at Hazlegrove. Saturday mornings for Year 5 pupils are now spent with bows and arrows in hand, as they hone their technique and practise their aim. It has been wonderful to see children take up this ancient skill and follow in the hallowed footsteps of such archers as Robin Hood, William Tell and Legolas the Elf.
Archery is instantly appealing to children. The promise of wielding ancient weaponry, the thrill of launching sharp objects through the air, and the undying hope of hitting a bullseye combine to create an experience that lives long in the memory. It is open to all; you don’t have to be good at sports or overly athletic to do well at it. All you need is a steady aim, a clear eye and nerves of steel. Obviously a bow and some arrows are also fairly essential, as is something to fire at.
Once children have understood how to stand with a bow (at 90 degrees to the target, legs shoulder-width apart), they can begin to learn to shoot. Picking up a bow for the first time can be a heady experience for a child. Images of armies clashing on Middle Earth or medieval battle fields flash through their mind’s eye, and a sudden transformation takes place. They cease to be a mere schoolboy or girl and become Robin Hood, charged with defending Sherwood Forest against the Sheriff’s men.
Make sure loose clothing is tied back, and that the bows and arrows are the right size for the age group. Explain the whistle signals for shooting and collecting arrows. Nobody should cross the shooting line until all arrows have been loosed and the command given, unless they want to go the way of poor King Harold.
Archery is one of those things, like gardening or going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, that looks far easier than it really is. Nearly everyone who loads an arrow onto the bow for the first time suspects that they are secretly a highly skilled marksman and fairly certain they will hit the bull’s eye first time. They will then go on to split this first arrow with their second, and the third will fly through the air in a graceful arc before knocking off the Guy of Gisborne’s hat.
This is, sadly, not the case. Children may not even manage to hit the target at all with their first few rounds of arrows. They will need plenty of encouragement and practice if they are to become decent archers. But as they say, in archery as in life, it is good to have something to aim at.
Once the basics have been mastered, you can take it in any number of directions. Pin some balloons to the target, or tie a penny to a piece of string and aim for that. We recently created an experimental piece of artwork called ‘art-chery’ by filling balloons with paint and having them explode over a large sheet of paper. The finished product was somewhat reminiscent of Pollock, we thought. Great fun, if a bit messy to set up.
There are so many archery games you can play. Can children build an archery pizza by shooting an arrow into the white band of the target (for bread) yellow (cheese), red (tomato sauce) and then pick a topping (could be black olives?) Print out some cartoon villains or monsters and practice your aim on Disney baddies.
For those children who like card games, how about a game of pontoon? Pin some playing cards face-down onto the target and shoot two arrows each to deal your ‘hand’. The archer closest to 21 wins the game. Will you twist or stick? Broadly speaking it’s best to keep cash bets to a minimum, as this will often lead to fallings out, particularly if the children are under ten and wielding a bow.
Archery has been a huge hit with the girls, who seem to consistently out-shoot the boys by way of their superior concentration and cool temperament. Here is a sport with a full quiver of great female role models, from the ancient amazons to fiery Queen Boadicea and, of course, Katniss Everdeen, current archery poster-girl of Hunger Games fame.
Start-up costs can be kept low by getting hold of 3 or 4 entry level bows, and arrows can be bought very reasonably. You’ll need a couple of targets, quivers and some arm-guards to protect clothing.
It is a good idea for a member of staff to attend an Archery Instructors course through Archery GB, in order to comply with the safety and legal aspects. I attended a weekend course last year with the excellent Brixham Archers, in Devon. Alternatively, outdoor centres and leisure centres offer sessions tailored specifically to school groups.
So stand tall, aim high, and get those arrows flying! As teachers, we give children plenty of targets to hit in schools, but here is one that might well develop into a passion for life.