Help children ‘follow their bliss’ to summer camp
While school holidays can be stressful for parents trying to manage their children’s free time – it can also be a great opportunity to expand their interests
Summer camps: getting outdoors makes for a change from school
Do you grin or groan when school’s out for the summer? If you’re a parent working outside the home, is it a childcare crisis or, if you’re at home, a seemingly unrelenting job of entertainment? And if you’re parents of teenagers, we know it’s something else entirely.
No matter what the circumstances, summer camps are seized on as a solution. And the most organised – or desperate – parents will have their children signed up to several by now.
In an ideal world, of course, these camps should be entirely about the children, not the parents. They offer opportunities to learn new skills, make friends and develop independence.
The diversity of camps on offer reflects both the level of economic activity and social preoccupations. While anything involving outdoor physical activity has long been popular, mind-stretching pursuits such as Lego building, science and coding camps have started to flourish in recent years.
Even if parents don’t “need” their children in supervised activities, chances are that they will want them to do at least one camp during the summer. Those with teenagers reckon it’s the only way they’ll get them out of bed in the morning – for one week at least.
With such a wide choice, what are the considerations and benefits to take into account?
“If you are using a summer camp it has to hold a specific interest for your child, rather than being seen as a form of childcare, which may be a secondary thing but can’t be your primary objective or it won’t work,” says clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune.
Not every camp suits every child, which is an inconvenient truth for parents looking for camps for several children.
“They are not a herd – they are individuals,” she points out. Your child’s interests are the first thing to consider; if they have expressed a desire to do an after-school activity, such as music, drama or tennis, this can be a cost-effective way to test their interest before signing up for a term of classes or paying a year’s club subscription.
Consider also your child’s learning style. “Generally, camps are experiential, which is a nice break after school where they are likely to have been doing more formal, cognitive-style learning. This is a new way of learning that gets them out of their heads and more into the now, into their bodies and ‘doing’,” says Fortune, who specialises in child and adolescent psychotherapy at her Solamh clinic in Dublin.
Older children, certainly, should be fully consulted when choosing a camp “so that it is happening with them and not to them”. Listen if they are saying they don’t want to do something.
“Don’t get annoyed but tell them you are curious to know why,” she suggests. For example, it may be because there is a peer doing it that they really don’t want to be with.
If you have given your child a say in the selection, you’re in a better position to insist that they persist if it turns out they don’t like it. Then, at worst, it will be a life lesson in resilience when dealing with the consequences of wrong decisions.
Parents are definitely looking for something local, says Geraldine Smythe of Kids Guide Ireland (kidsguide.ie), which organised two summer camp fairs in Dublin in April and May. They are also looking for quality and educational activities.
The “local” appeal explains the phenomenal reach of the GAA Cúl Camps, which claim the title of Ireland’s biggest summer camps, with a participation rate in 2017 of one in four of all children aged between six and 13 – a total of 142,467. The relatively wallet-friendly charge of €60 for the week, with discounts for siblings, also helps.
There are two schools of thought in choosing camps, says Smythe. The first is that for a younger child, where “you can sort of see what their personality is like but you haven’t got a clue about what they love yet”, trying them in a few, very different activities is the way to go.
Others would argue that it is better to keep them in the one thing, if they have shown some interest in it, and encourage them to persist even if they start saying they’re bored. This teaches commitment, she says, and helps develop a sense of resilience and work ethic “that actually accelerates their academics because they can sit and listen a bit better”.
While that might sound like it’s forcing a child to do something, it’s not, but rather, she argues, being aware of the balance between that and flitting around without focusing on any one thing.
Dublin-born Smythe left Ireland at the age of five and grew up in the United States, where the camp is a long-established feature of school holidays – both the traditional “sleepover” variety and day camps. She ran an art school in Austin, Texas, where they exhibited at an annual fair for summer camps.
“That is what gave us the idea to do it over here,” she explains, having returned to Ireland three years ago and organised the first fair in 2016. She’s convinced summer camps is a growing industry here but admits it has been a bit of a struggle to get exhibitors.
“I have personally been a little taken aback that people aren’t more interested in meeting customers face to face for their businesses.” She thinks perhaps it is a residual effect of the downturn, that small businesses have a very conservative attitude to spending on marketing.
This year they organised two fairs; the first, in Trinity College Sports Centre, was better attended than the second in Dún Laoghaire, when, she thinks, good weather on the day might have put people off an indoor event.
The fair in Austin, which has a slightly smaller population than Dublin, has about 100 camps exhibiting and 10,000 people coming out for the day. “We have about 2,000 people coming out between the two fairs and each had about 22 vendors.”
Are parents looking for something different from what schools offer children, or activities that might enhance their performance at school?
“Both,” she replies. Her advice for parents of primary schoolchildren is to ask themselves, “where do they play?” To consider what activities that might feel aren’t work, or are like an extension of play.
“You should be helping your child follow their bliss,” she says. There are many more speciality camps starting up – even ones offering things like Japanese classes. If your child is interested in some such speciality, she adds, “it is completely worth the pursuit”.
Smythe stresses the importance of looking for camps where staff are clearly able to connect with children, while Fortune recommends asking about ratios: “You don’t want your child helicopter supervised but you want to know it’s not Lord of the Flies either¨. There is a happy medium”.
For parents thinking beyond their local sports pitch or community centre, Camp Experts UK (campexperts.co.uk) offers to find the right camp for a child, for teenagers – or even one for the whole family. The “matching” service is free to parents as the company works off commission for any places booked.
Fiona Jakobi, the London-based agent for what is an American business, says they work with more than 1,500 camp programmes in various countries, including at least one horseriding spot in Ireland. But they only get the “odd inquiry” from parents in Ireland.
“Parents from the UK generally want their kids to have an ‘experience’ – two weeks or a month,” she says. For other European parents, learning a language is usually a priority. Speciality courses that Camp Experts source range from film, fishing, farming and forensics to robotics, veterinary science, all types of sport and, sadly, weight control.
They get a lot of requests for camps for children with special needs – primarily autism and Asperger’s – and there are not enough of these, she says, to meet the demand. Also, teenagers thinking of going to college in the US might be looking for a taster camp over there.
“I think the choice of camps is growing – a lot more fashion, more computers, IT. Things that are in vogue at the moment; old-fashioned holiday camps are still there but I don’t think they are growing.”
What does Jakobi think children get out of attending camps? “Independence and hopefully a break from electronics.” However, organisers are having “to give in and let the kids keep their phones but restrict the use”, she adds, as children simply won’t give them up.
Fortune also recommends finding activities that are not screen-related – unless your child has an interest in acquiring a skill such as coding, which is different from sitting passively at a screen. And she cautions against over-scheduling the summer weeks, which should be a time of freedom and creative boredom. She comes across many children who are doing three or four camps.
“That’s not cost feasible for many families but it is happening in some. You do want to look and ask is your child too busy? Is it too much?
“I would always recommend unstructured, free downtime. It allows children to process and assimilate everything that is going on and that includes the long school year that they have just come out of.”
We forget the value of boredom, she suggests, with our determination to keep children occupied. What about the opposite – the value in the enjoyment of just doing nothing?
“I know parents will say ‘what do I do with them childcare wise when they are doing nothing?’ I appreciate that is a valid question and that they do have to have a childcare solution for them to experience that valuable boredom.”
But don’t pick loads of camps because you think they “need” it, she adds. “You could end up with over stimulated, over wrought children who have not had enough down time, who are going to be going back to school tired.”
As a stay-at-home mother, Norma Daniel knows that she is lucky that summer camps are an optional extra for her eight-year-old daughter during the school holidays.
“I know other parents who are working and for them it’s really important that they have this because it gets them through the summer.” In addition, working parents often must pay for earlier drop-off times and after-camp care, which increases the cost, she points out.
She and her husband, David Smyth, brought their daughter to the Kids Guide Summer Camp Fair in May to see if there was something there that she would really enjoy. Living in Bray, Co Wicklow, they were looking for something within reach of public transport or by foot.
The two camps that appealed to their daughter, she says, is one run by Rock Jam – although the €199 cost for a week (10am-3pm) is “quite a lot” – and the Trinity College multi-sport camp (€150 for 9.30am-4.15pm). They are also signing her up for an acting/dancing camp with ASA in Shankill, which, at €60 for the week, is a “brilliant price”.
Gillian Lawless and her husband, Kevin Kellaghan, will have to rely on grandparents and other extended family members to help look after their two sons, aged four and seven, when their respective ECCE programme and primary school close at the end of June.
She would love to be able to enrol the boys in one or two summer camps but the timing is difficult for working parents, she points out.
“I think it is a great opportunity at these camps to try out things that they wouldn’t normally try out. I can see my four-year-old being into gymnastics, that’s something if he had an opportunity to do, it would be great. And then with my older one, he is really into music and I would hope to get him involved in some music workshop.”
However, Lawless can’t see it being possible to manage that around her and her husband’s work schedules, which include a daily commute into Dublin from Bray. She feels it would just be additional hassle for grandparents to have to drop off and collect from a camp.
Another disadvantage as working parents is that they haven’t had the chance to get to know other school parents and don’t have that network to fall back on. “We can’t help them out, so they won’t reciprocate,” she points out.
She feels her sons are missing out and hopes that perhaps it will be easier when they are a bit older.
“They get bored and miss their buddies.” It’s sad that they can’t have the sort of social interaction in the neighbourhood that we had when we were younger, adds Lawless.
“They can’t actually play where they live. It would be a great situation to be in if there was one parent at home but, unfortunately, a lot of people can’t do that.”
When choosing a summer camp….
Do make sure your child is interested in the theme and it is not just about convenience for you as a parent.
Do check the basics, that organisers have insurance and all staff have been Garda vetted.
Do ask about staff ratios and age/experience of helpers
Do ask for a typical day’s timetable
Do inquire about sibling discount if not offered one
Do check if children need to bring food and or water with them
Don’t over-schedule your child with camps – they don’t have to be kept “busy” all summer
Don’t let them give up after the first day but do listen and address their concerns if they seem upset
Don’t enrol them in something just because it’s something you wanted to do as a child
Don’t rush them straight from the end of school on Friday to camp the following Monday, unless they’re really keen or it’s unavoidable
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