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We did it our way

Sending children to an outdoor centre for school activities week may not be anything new. But one Highland primary got the children to organise the trip themselves, reports Jean McLeish

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Sending children to an outdoor centre for school activities week may not be anything new. But one Highland primary got the children to organise the trip themselves, reports Jean McLeish

The panoramic view is breathtaking - lochs, forests and mountains still with deep clefts of snow in early summer. It makes a powerful impression on 11-year-old Brendan Whittenham: "Oh, the view was wonderful. I thought I was in heaven, I literally thought I was that high I was in heaven."

A gale is blowing further on at the top of the Cairngorms and it is not a good day to do gorge walking as planned. Instead, the children head up the hill to explore and take in those views - the sandy beach of Loch Morlich far below and snow high up in the mountains behind them.

Later, they will head down to the loch for some team-building games and activities. It is a big deal for the P7s from South Lodge Primary at Invergordon - it is the first time some of them have hiked in the Scottish mountains and they are not used to looking down on the landscape from this height.

Brendan's class will be going on to Invergordon Academy after the summer and everything will change. But right now it is the school's activities week at the Badaguish Outdoor Centre in the Cairngorm National Park near Aviemore.

"This has taught me that there's more things to do than just run about and walk outside. There are things to explore," says Brendan, eyes alight with excitement. Tomorrow he's looking forward to the canoeing and high ropes - new adventures.

The first few days have been a success: "It's been really exciting. The orienteering was fun but tiring," he says. "I am used to going outside, but not that much and not that far a walk - but it was fun."

These children are not used to this much outdoor activity and they are excited to be away from home with their friends. "It's been good fun and really different from what I usually do, but it's so tiring," says Brendan's classmate, Kayla Coghill, 11.

"It's just the way that you get up in the morning and it's breakfast and go. Usually I lie about and watch TV before school - just relax," says Kayla.

Staff at their school are keen to encourage outdoor activity - the P7s did their John Muir Award last year and P3 pupils have worked on a Forest Schools venture with the Forestry Commission.

Trips like this can be emotional for pupils who are away from home for the first time alone. Kayla's never been away this long from her mum and dad and two wee brothers, but she's upbeat and happy. "The best thing so far would have to be the team building. I really liked the bit where we had to untangle a knot in the string without letting go of the whole of our piece of string. That was really fun."

The children have spent the past academic year planning this week - discussing options, costing activities and planning menus with advice from chef Mike Crooks from the Good Highland Food Company. Pupils have effectively project managed the week alongside outdoor training company AdventuraScotland, as a cross-curricular Curriculum for Excellence project.

As the crocodile of children winds up the hill, deputy headteacher Lawrence Bews talks about what they'll gain from this week. He is passionate about outdoor activity and about the benefits children derive from a residential experience.

Out here they ask questions about the wildlife and the mountain landscape, and they will learn more about themselves when they have to cope with canoes and high ropes. They are encouraged to do chores, try new foods, support each other and discover new friendships when they see their classmates in a different context.

"The whole aim of this was based on Curriculum for Excellence and was to give them a holistic approach whereby the planning, the development, the execution is something they have ownership of," says Mr Bews.

"So right from the start, the planning of the experience, organising, fundraising, deciding what they were going to do, and making phone calls to book the rail seats, all these types of things had to be understood by the kids and were built into the activities they did from week to week."

The children also devised ground rules for behaviour and learned how to plan a balanced menu for action-packed days. They chose the activities they would prefer and discussed what equipment they would need and how they would cope.

It's been planned like any family holiday - with one eye on the budget and the hope that there will be something for everyone to enjoy. "They'll remember it as a worthwhile and valuable experience - all the more so because they've put so much into it," says their teacher.

"Obviously they were aware of the four capacities in Curriculum for Excellence - `How do you think you are being a more confident individual?' etc. For that reason, they were more aware of how important each step of the process was - that, for instance, we needed to get the railway seats booked at a cost we could afford or we wouldn't be going," says Mr Bews.

Eighteen children made the rail journey here from Invergordon and, like 11-year-old Hannah Baird, have organised fundraising activities to help towards costs.

"I've never been up high mountains, but I have been walking around lochs. But I've never actually been up a mountain - it's actually really cool, but I can hardly breathe up here it's so windy," says Hannah, as the children break for a snack.

"I didn't really enjoy the orienteering, but I enjoyed the rest of Monday and Tuesday morning when we made mini-golf courses out of junk and we got to play with them at the end - that was real fun."

AdventuraScotland offers outdoor experiential learning for adults and children and is running the team-building events and activities this week. Additional providers have been bought in to run the canoes and high ropes activities.

Lawrence Bews' wife, Irene, is a former teacher who runs AdventuraScotland with retired headteacher Ally Sangster. They are eager for these children to enjoy themselves - they do not want to put them off outdoor activities by pushing them too far in miserable weather or giving them activities they cannot handle.

"It's very unusual at this time of year for the wind to be quite so strong. It's usually a very pleasant wee stroll up here as opposed to this," says Mr Sangster. Winds are gusting over 80mph further up on top of the hills and around 45mph lower down at this level, just off the approach road to the Cairngorm Ski Centre.

The conditions are fine for hill walking, but not for gorge walking with young children. "Sometimes you have to alter your plans because conditions dictate that," says Mr Sangster. "What's a breeze down by Loch Morlich is a howling wind up there," he says.

Mrs Bews says this is a reminder that risk assessment always has to be dynamic: "You can write risk assessments but ultimately you have to make that decision and that call on the day."

In the evenings, the children enjoy games, a quiz night, talent contests, a ceilidh and barbecue. Eighteen-year-old Hayley Ross and 17-year-old Jasmine Murray, who have just finished sixth year at Dornoch Academy, are helping out as part of the residential element of their Duke of Edinburgh's Award.

Another member of the adult team this week is Active Schools co-ordinator Gavin Mackenzie, 26, who promotes physical activity and sport across the Invergordon cluster of primary and secondary schools. "There is quite a big focus on transition within the Invergordon area. We have four associate primary schools and this ties in perfectly," he says.

He will be a familiar face when the children start at Invergordon Academy after the holidays and believes opportunities like these help children find activities they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.

"I think that's the key - giving them as broad a range of opportunities as possible so they find an activity that suits them that they are maybe more likely to do when they are outside school and in later life."

Mr Mackenzie works with these children in school and has helped them prepare for this trip. "You just build up a really good bond and relationship with them before they get to the academy, so when they come up that transition is so much easier. They're also recognising that being fit and active isn't about being super-brilliant at sport - it's just about being able to give things a go."

Softly, softly is the key to winning confidence

This is the second year South Lodge Primary has held a residential activities week at Badaguish Outdoor Centre. Adventura-Scotland has supported the children to plan the week in class over the past nine months.

The young people can choose from a huge range of activities, such as mountain biking and gorge walking. But aside from the fun, there's also an emphasis on team building and personal growth.

Pupils stay in wooden lodges at Badaguish Outdoor Centre at Glenmore.

"We start off the week round the centre and that's just to get them orientated being somewhere away from home. They get to know the centre and where their rooms are," says Irene Bews from Adventura-Scotland.

A treasure hunt familiarises them with the area and they move on to team work and co-operation skills.

"We follow that with orienteering, which takes them about a mile radius round the centre. That's out into the forest in small groups of two or three with an adult," says Mrs Bews.

More challenging activities come at the end of the week, after the children have gradually built up their confidence.

"If you suddenly hit them with high ropes and canoeing at the beginning of the week, they wouldn't do it," she says.

"But by the end of the week they have confidence in being away from home, with each other and with the staff and they will push themselves much further than they would at the beginning.

"A lot of them have never been away from home before, so even being away from mum and dad is quite something, never mind doing stuff they've never done before - walking up a hill, walking round the loch or being in a forest."

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Photography Simon Price

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