There's a buzz in the air. Fifteen youngsters jump excitedly into go-karts and sit revving their engines. Beyond the race track, eight-year-olds in miners' helmets listen wide-eyed to the safety instructions for their cave walk. Year 6 chatter their way across the courtyard to a computer lab. Another group are off to perfect their "En garde!" positions in the fencing class.
It's change-over time between sessions at the Kingswood Educational Activity Centre on the north Norfolk coast. Pupils form animated mobs around instructors as they head off to their next activity.
Emma Cannell, head of Year 7 at St Thomas More RC middle school in Norwich, watches her pupils move off to perfect their Willam Tell imitations in the archery class, the last activity of their week's stay.
"It's been excellent for them," she says. "Not only what they've learned in the computer classes and other activities, but it's also been great for their teamwork."
The Kingswood residential centres aim to weave stimulating Information and Communications Technology (ICT) projects together with a huge array of activities, including quad bikes, climbing wall, flying fox, and orienteering - to integrate fun with learning. In this they are so successful that the youngsters hardly notice the skill-building in progress. As they bounce furiously on the trampoline ball game, aeroball, they are also gathering data on heart-rate increases during exercise for their project back in the computer lab.
"ICT runs through everything we do," explains Kingswood's project manager Mervyn Turner. "We want youngsters to consider ICT as a tool, albeit a very sophisticated one. The students don't need to know which package they're using. What they're doing here is using the PC in turn as a word processor, for animation, as a means of analysing data, for controlling Lego Dacta robots and so on."
Schools can choose from a selection of modular courses - ICT with numeracy, literacy, the internet, or multimedia. Kingswood can also tailor-make programmes. The various centres run a combination of programmes, all with a core of ICT, including Earthcare environmental courses, geography and science field studies, and a distance-learning computer club, a programme for gifted pupils, and teacher training.
All ICT courses are designed to dovetail with the national curriculum and form part of classroom work. Teacher Alison Leary from Saxlingham primary in Norwich has taken advantage of this. "I've built this term's geography projects in coastal erosion around this visit," she says, one eye on a small pupil dangling half-way up the 10 metre climbing wall. "And the IT exposure is great. We only have two PCs in our school's classrooms. Here pupils have five hours each on a computer."
As Mervyn Turner stresses, the labs each have 15 computers - one per pupil since the group maximum is 15. "This can be more ICT time than some pupils have in a term," he says. "And we can offer expensive software schools often can't justify buying."
Kingswood runs four residential centres in Britain - Norfolk, Staffordshire, Isle of Wight, and Wales - with Cumbria due to open in April. Most schools book for five days (Sunday-Friday) or three days (Friday-Sunday). Kingswood caters for primary, middle and secondary schools, but the most regular visitors are Years 5 and 6.
Ask the youngsters themselves what they have enjoyed about their stay, and the responses that tumble out are not surprising. "The go-karts and the quads!" shouts 8-year-old James. His classmate Natasha, aged 9, exclaims:
"I like the fencing!" What is surprising, however, is that the pupils exhibit the same level of enthusiasm for their computer work. "I've found out loads more things you can do on the computer, and making our own websites is brilliant," says James. The best thing for Natasha is the Dance eJay software where "you make your own music, and take pictures with the web cam".
James's and Natasha's teacher, Peter Adams, says he also liked the eJay software, but doubts his work will appear in the Top 10.
All of the week's work will be transferred to CD-Rom to take away and use back at school.
ContactKingswood educational activity centres. Web: www.kingswood.co.uk Tel: 01603 284284. Prices vary by centre and season, from pound;94-pound;242 per pupil for Sunday to Friday stay, pound;37-pound;78 Friday to Sunday. Free teacher per 10 pupils. Teachers encouraged to go on free preview.