Trust me, I'm a team-builder

13th February 2004 at 00:00
How would you fare in the adder pit? Or leading blindfolded groups along a woodland trail? Chris Fautley accepts the challenge

If you go down to the woods todayI don't be surprised to find teenage lumberjacks pushing each other around in wheelbarrows. The woods are Bedgebury Pinetum, 10 miles south-east of Tunbridge Wells, home to Britain's National Conifer Collection. The teenagers are enjoying Bedgebury's Team Challenge - a day of bonding and building.

Groups of 12 and 13-year-olds from Marlborough House school in Hawkhurst, Kent, put themselves under the supervision of David Holloway, Bedgebury's education officer. "The overarching aim," he says, "is very much the social skills, the teamwork. It links well with citizenship and a number of the areas for personal, social and health education."

The day starts with five ten-minute team tactic challenges - which is where the wheelbarrow comes in. In the lumberjack chase, one person dresses as a lumberjack, dribbles a football to the barrow and climbs in. The others weave the barrow through a row of markers, the passenger climbs out and then lobs the ball into a bucket held by a final team member. The process is repeated, rotating roles.

Other challenges require lateral thinking. In the adder pit, participants must bridge an area, as a group, using planks and crates. Points are lost should either plank or contestant touch the ground. Not every team cracks it - but then failure, handled positively, can be extremely motivating.

"It's remarkable the number of groups that are in that situation," says David. "They pick themselves up and they get better and better. I think it's partly because we try and do everything with a big smile; we try and say that, at the end of the day, life goes on. I would say the outcomes are fantastic - and you can see that among the pupils too."

For those who fail that test, there is a chance to bounce back on the communication caterpillar. Blindfolded pupils form a human chain but one person has to act as their eyes, guiding them along a marked woodland trail, offering instructions, advice and encouragement. Points are lost if anybody trips or stumbles - there are plenty of tree roots and low branches to trap the unwary. "Right leg up! Left leg up!" It's like doing a slow-motion conga . Nor is it easy - but what a test of communication skills and, most importantly, trust.

More than 6,000 pines, firs and conifers - many critically endangered - grow in the 320-acre Bedgebury Pinetum. They represent some 60 per cent of species in the temperate world. The place is surrounded by 2,600 acres of forest. And it is deeper into its welcome shade that we now move - for shelter building.

The aim is for each group to use natural materials to build a survival camp to accommodate their team. "Think creatively about using the mediums you have," calls David, before the allotted one hour starts. There is no shortage of building material: a veritableI wellI forest, of fallen branches, bracken, leaves, twigs and, of course, living trees against which to build.

One hour and five shelters later, judging begins with points awarded for design, strength and water resistance. "This is very cosy," David says as he inspects one. "A good ridgepole design. This is never going to move."

Why build here? Because the trees offer overhead shelter, its architects respond, pointing out that they have built seats, an "animal trap", and a "toilet".

But is it waterproof?

The builders scramble inside and David tosses a bucket of water over it. A shriek from within and six damp pupils emerge, which suggests room for improvement.

"The variety of structures is something which never ceases to amaze me," says David. "We've had bunkers built, and upturned tree roots used as one side of a construction. This is absolutely in the design and technology curriculum area."

After lunch, we transfer to the pinetum proper for orienteering. Compasses are not provided; pupils calculate the most efficient path using a map.

Points are awarded for completing the course within the prescribed hour.

However, such is the pinetum's jaw-dropping beauty, it is a miracle anybody returns at all. There are conifers of every size and form, knee-high and sky-high, and breath-taking views.

"Team-building exercises are tremendous for getting youngsters to bond with each other," says Paul Tooze, the deputy head of Marlborough House. This was their sixth visit, he said, reflecting that the start of the school year is be a good time to come.

And the students? "I've learned to listen to other people, and to work as a group rather than individually - which is what we're used to," said one.

As the day draws to a close, David tots up the points. There might only be one winner, but one thing is certain: at Bedgebury there are no losers.

Team Challenge is suitable for older key stage 2 pupils and upwards.

Admission costs pound;3.50 per pupil per day, pound;2.50 per half-day.

Minimum charge pound;70. Bedgebury Pinetum, Goudhurst, Cranbrook, Kent TN17 2SL. Tel: 01580 211044;;

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