Communicate, then exterminate

19th December 2003 at 00:00
Firing balls of paint at classmates might encourage youngsters to work as a team and bring shy pupils out of their shells, but is it really of any educational value? asks John Rutter

Classmates firing balls of paint at each other is not every teacher's idea of an enriching educational experience. But Scotland's Bedlam Paintball launched a new product this year in the hope of attracting schools and youth groups to do just that.

Based on the ubiquitous Stag Night format of splitting adults into teams and getting them to run around fields shooting at each other, Game Bedlam allows youngsters between the ages of 12 and 17 to do the same at a reduced price. Managing director Roman Rock says the idea is to build teamwork and get them away from the impersonal world of video games.

"The product is designed to get kids out from behind their computers and back to the countryside. It gets them outside, improves their communication skills and is based on the thrill of computer games - it's a kind of reality computer game.

"Kids learn and use new skills in a completely different environment from the classroom or at home. With computer games they may sit next to each other but they don't communicate, whereas this gets them talking to each other."

To test the theory, I took a group of 10 PGCE geography students from Edinburgh university along to Bedlam's South Queensferry site to join members of the public and evaluate an afternoon's action in an educational context.

Three hours and a lot of paint later we all agreed it had been ridiculously good fun. Trying to find the educational value, however, was a bit more difficult.

Undeniably the game depends on developing teamwork. Participants are divided into teams numbering 15 upwards and, after the first game where the two teams were placed at opposite ends of a large field and had to attack each other and steal a flag, it became obvious that working out some tactics would be a good idea.

Natural leaders emerge and, with the anonymity of a mask to hide behind, it may not be the usual suspects who are most forceful in putting their ideas across.

As confidence grows with subsequent games, there are surprise stars and, in our final battle, it was the most unassuming member of the team who stole the flag and won the day for our side.

It is not hard to see how such instances could improve class spirit with the quiet pupils coming to the fore and discovering hidden talents used for the benefit of the team as a whole. Putting pupils in a completely different environment can give unexpected ones the chance to shine.

Then there are the benefits of getting youngsters outside to run around a few fields and through the trees in a controlled environment. Some may find the experience less threatening than they imagine.

The PGCE students were also quick to point out some of the negative aspects. First, and most obviously, there is the ethical question of whether it is a good idea to let youngsters shoot one another with guns - although Bedlam Paintball calls them "markers".

Bedlam Paintball counters this by saying that playgrounds are, and have always been, full of war games, cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers and so on. Slightly unconvincingly, Mr Rock adds: "Bedlam has steered away from the concept of games which just involve shooting each other. This is a game, but it's a futuristic game and not militaristic.

"There's no violence - we've moved away from that - it's a tactical game and we keep well away from using language that would be associated with violence."

The paintballs are quite painful when they hit. Even though the rules on what parts of the body to aim at are fairly strict and face protection is provided, they can still leave a bruise. Limiting the numbers of rounds per game available to youngsters does help to limit injury from a wayward shot.

The price of an afternoon's entertainment for youngsters is pound;30, for which they get five games and 50 paintballs to fire in each.

Clearly not something every parent can afford.

One unnamed Edinburgh high school enjoyed the experience so much this summer, it has already booked places for 150 pupils next May.

As for the PGCE geography students, who perhaps recognise more than most the value of fieldwork and getting pupils outdoors, they were unconvinced as to the educational aspects, team-building and helping quieter pupils aside.

But one thing we all agreed on was that there are a lot of laughs to be had by getting out into the trees and shooting at each other, although it may be of more benefit to stressed out teachers on a mid-term jolly than to their pupils.

Bedlam Paintball has sites at Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen Dundee, tel 07000 233526

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