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Talking dirty

The name of the game is team-building when pupils turn up at a Highland outdoor centre. As Morag Fleming found out, that means getting muddy and wet

Suzy Milne and her sixth form peers from Monifieth high school in Tayside know what they want from an outdoor experience. "We want to get as dirty and muddy and wet as possible," she says. And with a weekend of activities planned at Lagganlia Outdoor Centre in the Cairngorms, she couldn't be at a better place.

The group from Monifieth could find themselves dropping 30 feet from a tree, firing arrows from a traditional bow, throwing themselves down the nearest waterfall, snowboarding on the artificial dry ski slopes in the middle of summer, clinging to a rock face, shooting the rapids in a kayak, mountain biking, hill walking or canoeing.

Lagganlia Outdoor Centre has been open for nearly 25 years. George Boyd Anderson, who gifted money to start Hillend Dry Ski Slope in Edinburgh, was looking for a property near the ski areas in the Cairngorms as a natural progression - he wanted to move to the real snow on the real slopes during the winter season. The centre started as a base with 12 beds and a warden, then doubled its accommodation, and eventually evolved into the educational outdoor activities centre it is now, sleeping 125.

Ian Ross, in charge of the centre this weekend, says: "We take all ages of pupils and tailor the activities to suit the demands of the group. We can concentrate on team building with senior groups like this one, or introduce younger children to the environment with fun stuff such as the Teddy Bears'

Picnic which explores how teddy bears, and other cuddly creatures, live in the woods.

"We can follow a theme, perhaps tie in activities to a project or a book the class is doing, or we can concentrate on self esteem and personal challenge with kids who have behavioural difficulties. The fun for us is seeing the huge impact a few days with us has on the child, I never get bored of that."

At the start of the weekend I ask the pupils the purpose of the visit.

"Team-building" they say quickly. Too quickly, I think, and immediately decide to ask them again later on. One thing that sounds a bit more heartfelt is the "dirty, muddy and wet" rationale behind the choice of activities. With those criteria firmly in mind there is enough consensus to form various groups. Since these pupils are older and are here only for a weekend, they choose what they want to do.

Younger groups who are usually in from Monday to Friday are split into groups of 10 and by the end of the week they have had a go at just about everything. The idea is that the youngsters may be surprised at what they enjoy or at what they excel at, although they may not have chosen to do it given the chance.

I catch up with the Monifieth pupils the next day amid archery, abseiling and canoeing. I ask how it has gone so far. Mountain biking was a big hit and some of the boys plan to continue with it when they get back to Tayside.

The gorge walk has been more popular though. This is essentially clambering up the river, but is punctuated with various challenges along the way: standing under a waterfall, sliding down a natural chute with the force of the current providing a helpful shove, and jumping off rocks into the deep, cold pool beneath.

Now they've been here a while I ask some more of those searching questions.

"How is the team-building?" I ask. "It's working," comes the reply from 17-year-old Pete Dixon. "We all got on before but in smaller groups, now everyone is talking to each other because we are living together, with joint responsibility without parents, and working together in the activities. Everybody is looking out for each other and everyone is pitching in like one big happy family." He may talk in cliches but it is clear he means every word of it.

And what do the teachers make of it? "You see the kids in a different light here, it not only breaks down their barriers but ours as well," says maths teacher Ian McFarlane.

PE teacher Louise Cuthbert adds: "The activities are very levelling because they are so different from what they are used to, and consequently the pupils respect each other more and look after each other. It's a very positive experience with any age group."

It all seems pretty conclusive to me. My only disappointment is that they don't do the Teddy Bears' Picnic with the older groups.

Lagganlia Outdoor Centre Tel: 01540 651265;

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