PRETENDING to be a hammer-wielding dwarf from The Lord of the Rings used to be strictly for introverted teenage boys.
But fantasy role-playing games based on JRR Tolkien's epic trilogy are at the heart of an after-school learning project in Leeds.
The scheme, designed to improve communication skills and numeracy, is being funded by Leeds education authority and the Government's Excellence in Cities programme.
Gaming is the main activity at a new learning centre in the city's White Rose shopping centre, which is being run this year with pound;88,000 in public funding, mostly from Excellence in Cities.
Groups of 13-year-olds from Morley high school and nine to 11-year-olds from Seven Hills primary are piloting the scheme.
They have been visiting the centre twice a week to take part in fantasy gaming, involving table-top battles and miniature characters. They also recreate scenes from The Fellowship of the Ring.
The project is led by full-time "innovations wizard" Rachael Cullinane, who regularly wears her witch's hat to work. She is assisted by model battle experts from the Games Workshop and actors from the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
"We've tried to make it seem like a really dramatic, magical place," Ms Cullinane said. "Lots of the pupils were already interested in The Lord of the Rings, but the gaming was new to most of them - and to me - but I'm starting to get hooked now."
The gaming can subtly boost numeracy, Ms Cullinane said, as pupils need to make multiple calculations during battles to work out their characters'
strengths and the effects of spells. Pupils have also been developing performing arts skills, including costume-making and set design, in order to act out scenes from the books.
Study support co-ordinator Sue Cassidy, who helped to develop the programme, said she had been delighted that half the students taking part were girls.
"When we asked them what characters they wanted to be, I had expected the girls would go for the elves, because they are elegant and serene," she said. "But no, they want to be Hobbits with furry feet."
The project is officially launched next week, and a further six schools want to take part next year.
However, many Christians are uneasy about the scheme. Similar schemes in America were closed in the 1980s after accusations that fantasy gaming led children to witchcraft and demonology.
Colin Hart, director of the UK's Christian Institute, said he was concerned the Leeds project would give primary children nightmares. "You don't need to play fantasy games to develop a child's maths and communications skills.
"Some people might think that these games are harmless, but no parents of a religious faith would want their child to be involved, because there is something sinister and antithetic to religion about them."
Mr Hart, however, admitted to a soft spot for Tolkien. He had even been involved backstage in a school production of The Hobbit.
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