Robin's wood

19th March 1999 at 00:00
Peter Graham takes his seven and eight-year-olds in search of a hero who stood for social justice

It was a dark, damp, windy evening. Deeper and deeper into the wood they went, trees creaking, slowly swaying. Watched by squinting eyes, trembling limbs controlled all motion as darkness stilled the air..."

This is a passage that conjures up mystery and intrigue. If any topic is to be useful as a tool for learning, it has to incorporate elements such as these, ingredients guaranteed to hold children's interest and to develop their curiosity.

Having lived in Nottingham, I realised the idea was staring me in the face: Sherwood Forest and the legend of Robin Hood, of course!

For adults, the story is connected to the study of history, the process of democracy and with literature, but for most seven and eight-year-olds the topic is more basic. Robin Hood's life was about right and wrong, lasting friendships, peer-group relationships and gender issues. For many children these are what matter, and if you can teach parts of the national curriculum too, then you are addressing the learning process head-on.

Robin Hood can be viewed as an adventure through which children are guided. My Year 3 class looked particularly at Sherwood Forest as a habitat and, more significantly, at relationships within the stories.

The TALES of Robin Hood There are many versions of the legend. Reading them aloud and discussing them in smaller groups allowed us to highlight differences and similarities. We explored the idea of tales and storytelling traditions.

Soon the children were bringing in their own versions, including the odd video, and the questions began to flow.

Did the wicked sheriff have a deputy? Was Kevin a common name back then? Why don't men wear green tights anymore? I could not believe it; we had just started and the children were already debating democratic systems, social trends and gender!

Into the greenwood walk in a wood or forest is an essential part of this project and generates enthusiasm. One way of approaching such visits is to investigate life-cycles, life in a tree, and the destruction of forests through acid rain, litter and other forms of pollution before you set out. This will give the children some relevant knowledge to call upon.

Alternatively, using an eco-system such as a wood or forest for a discovery approach is equally - if not more - useful. Collating information on types of trees, other plants and insects is excellent hands-on learning that can be extended using surveys, tables and graphs back in the classroom.

No doubt the medieval period had its own version of the modern eco-warrior. It wasn't long before facts were spiced up with the design, description and construction of some Robin Hood-age vehicles, using art straws, cardboard and other practical materials suitable for a model invention. The Sheriff of Nottingham's "Mean Machine" was polluting, ugly and barely big enough for him to sit in. Robin Hood's "Green Machine" was camouflaged, propelling him, Maid Marian and all the Merry Men around the forest in silence and safety. The models provided the class with hours of fun and invaluable information on forces, measuring and the use of colour combinations.

The wood itself provided plenty of ideas for display work. With adult supervision the children were soon boiling leaves and bark to dye fabrics, which were then cut into shapes for a background. Collages of the children's favourite characters in the legend were stuck on the display to reinforce the concept of camouflage.

Robin Hood and his gang were experts at the art of camouflage but it soon became clear that green is an extremely difficult colour to re-create naturally. Revision of colour blending and the spectrum was not sufficient to calm the frustration that the children felt at this point, but help was at hand with a few sneaky pinches of yellow and blue powder paint!

Greener than Green Green was slowly becoming the preferred colour to wear in class. We decided to formalise our dress sense and plump for a Green Day that incorporated a picnic in the greenwood. A trip to Sherwood Forest is a must - if practical - but any large tree could represent the Major Oak and any wood or forest Robin Hood's, with the use of a little imagination.

Off we went with green clothes, green shoes, green hair, green food. Environmental machines under our arms, the day was ours to enjoy. The picnic came and went, eaten with stories about our hero. This wasn't a time for clipboards so, looking up at the trees, we somehow felt at home - one class, one gang. Was it all going to our heads?

Throughout the legend of Robin Hood, the idea of a "woodland spirit" has often been mooted. This Green Man is said to draw nature and people together and was certainly an excellent catalyst for creative writing.

By mixing the reality of an endangered environment with fantasy and imagination inspired by the idea of an "eco-spirit", you can highlight the pressures that eco-systems are under, but in a way that younger children can explore.

This happy band Drawing people and nature together is one thing, but bringing people together with other people is much more complex. The theme of lasting friendships and the debate on rich and poor, so central to the legend, can be used with great effect in school. Discussion and role-play based on characters such as Maid Marian and the Merry Men can be used to tease out complicated issues that can then be applied at school council level, inspiring the children to make ground rules themselves on behaviour, co-operative play, tolerance, and even bullying.

Any school development plan with value should incorporate the views of children, particularly if they're the result of work in class.

The pupils in my class thought it would be a good idea to put all this talk of social relationships to the test by inviting their parents to an archery competition, a kind of social experiment.

The sharp ends of the arrows were replaced with suckers and a barbecue was on offer to smooth over any arguments about scores. Parents were pre-warned that their social skills and peer-group bonding abilities could well be under scrutiny and consequently everyone was wonderfully behaved. It's amazing what a bit of personal and social education can do.

The archery competition brought the topic to a natural conclusion and our adventure to an end.

Robin Hood across the curriculum

Literacy hour

Word level

* Write short scripts for drama, identifying phonemes and syllables through speech.

* Practice the use of apostrophes in "natural" speech during role-play.

Sentence level

* Select different versions of the legend and compare language styles, vocabulary and sentence construction.

Text level

* Write descriptions of characters in the legend.

* Produce "wanted" posters for Maid Marian and Robin Hood.

* Write an operator's manual for the Sheriff's Mean Machine or Robin's Green Machine.

* Produce a medieval newspaper, with articles and illustrations.

* Use writing frames for creative writing about the Major Oak.

* Write an invitation to a Maid Marian Ball.

Music and drama

Role-play and drama can be enhanced by using the following music:

* "Fantasia On Greensleeves" (arranged by Vaughan Williams).

* "Country Gardens" (Grainger).

* "Chanson de Matin" (Elgar).


* Look at seed distribution in nature.

* Make and investigate paper giro-copters and relate to sycamore seeds.

* Explore capillary action in trees by putting white carnations in coloured water.

* Use wood-grain patterns to identify tree variety, and use wood samples for sensory work on touch (texture) and smell.


* Visit a churchyard with yew trees and discover why yew was often the preferred wood for bows.

* Plot and survey plant variety and distribution in the playground.

* Survey a section of woodland as an extension activity and record information on a grid map in class.

Useful addresses

Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre and Country ParkEdwinstowe Nottinghamshire Tel: 01623 823202 City Information Centre 1-4 Smithy Row Nottingham Tel:0115 9155330 Peter Graham teaches at the German and English speaking Charles Dickens primary school in Berlin

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