Are summer camps the solution to our childcare needs?
School holidays are great for children, but can be a logistical, expensive strain for parents
Many summer camps run for only a few hours a day, and while some regions of the country are served by a variety of camps throughout the season, other, more rural areas are not. Photograph: iStock
It’s summer, but for hard-working mother-of-two Lorraine Deasy, the livin’s certainly not easy.
Lorraine prepared for months to arrange childcare to cover the long school summer holidays – she and her husband both work full-time, on top of which Lorraine is also studying for a university degree in counselling and psychotherapy.
“I spend my life trying to organise childcare,” she says. “We’re very busy, and the very minute the school calendar comes home, I start planning ahead for the next year’s Easter and summer holidays. Summers are the worst.”
Lorraine and Aidan live with their children, Emma (11) and Jack (9), in Clonshaugh, Dublin, and are unable to seek help from family members because they are either working themselves or are too far away or too elderly to take care of the youngsters.
“It’s your worst nightmare trying to organise and pay for childcare for the Easter and summer holidays,” declares Lorraine. “The children are off for more than two weeks at Easter. Then you have mid-term breaks as well as the summer holidays.”
She’s not alone – the long primary school holidays are a headache for many parents with young children of school-going age, says John Miles, managing director of Sherpa Kids Ireland, which runs summer camps in Cork and Dublin. This is partly, he believes, because of the fall-out of the 2008 recession which forced many employees to move in search of work.
Summer camps increasingly meet the need for holiday childcare for many families where both parents work outside the home
“Between 2008 and 2012, a lot of the workforce had to become a lot more mobile. Many young parents moved away from the family network to find work. This means they don’t have that support to care for their kids, so they have to look for childcare, and it is expensive.”
As a result, says Miles, summer camps increasingly meet the need for holiday childcare for many families where both parents work outside the home, or in families with an out-at-work single parent.
Many have no other option, he says, pointing out that most employed adults have only up to four or five weeks’ annual leave, a fraction of annual school holiday time.
In the four years since Sherpa Kids began providing summer camps offering childcare for much of the summer period, Miles has noticed a sharp increase in demand from parents seeking holiday-time childcare cover.
However, this kind of cover is not available everywhere. Many summer camps run for only a few hours a day, and while some regions of the country are served by a variety of camps throughout the season, other, more rural areas are not.
On top of this, even when summer camps like the popular and reasonably priced GAA Cúl Camps are widely available, many run for just five days out of the eight-week primary school summer holidays.
Finding holiday childcare has been a headache since shortly after her children started school, Lorraine recalls.
In recent years Lorraine has signed Emma and Jack up to Sherpa Kids Ireland’s summer camps in their neighbourhood, which run for most of the summer. The children attend both the daily camps and the after-care facilities. “The camps cover every week of the summer holidays bar one,” says Lorraine. “We drop the children off each morning at 8.30am and collect them at different times during the week, either at 3.30pm or at 5.30pm depending on our schedules.”
It’s a fair old cost for someone on an average wage and, if you factor two or three kids into it, you are talking huge amounts of money
However, while childcare availability over most of the summer is no longer a problem for Emma, there is another, equally significant issue for her and for other parents with school-going children in need of long-term holiday childcare – cost. Lorraine spends about €350 a week to keep both of the children at the Sherpa Kids camp and avail of after-care where necessary.
“It’s a problem for parents that they have to think about every year,” acknowledges Miles. “It’s a fair old cost for someone on an average wage and, if you factor two or three kids into it, you are talking huge amounts of money.”
It’s a big financial strain. “I’m going out to work and what’s left at the end of the week is hardly worth working for,” says Lorraine, adding that she and her husband save steadily throughout the year in order to be able to pay for childcare over holiday periods when they are at work. “It’s the same situation for many working parents.”
She believes the State should put holiday supports in place for families in their situation.
But while she and Aidan have found a solution for the moment, the nightmare is set to worsen when Emma turns 12 and starts second-level education.
“There are few camps for teens and those that are there, start around 10am and run for only a few hours, and for the odd week,” says Lorraine, adding she’s already trying to figure out how to arrange supervision for Emma over the even longer second-level school holiday periods.
“It’s always in the back of my mind. I have to put something in place for her and I don’t know what. She will be 12 in her first year of second level and is, therefore, too young to be left alone. The Government really needs to think about putting supports in place for this age group – they are like the forgotten few.”
Organising childcare dictates virtually every decision she makes. “It’s a total nightmare and requires constant ongoing juggling. You are constantly chasing your tail; you work everything around the school calendar. The Government is trying to get people out to work; here I am going out to work, and I work over the school holidays, but by the time I pay for childcare it’s not worth working! It makes you resentful.”
State-run summer camps providing age-appropriate social environments for children of this age should be considered
The support agency Parentline believes State-run summer camps tailored to the length of the average working day, could provide a solution for parents caught in this childcare crux.
Private summer camps’ relatively short days causes logistical problems for working parents – plus they can be expensive, says chief executive Rita O’Reilly. “The Government needs to look at the issue of children of working parents, right up to age 14 – State-run summer camps providing age-appropriate social environments for children of this age should be considered.”
Currently, O’Reilly points out, some working parents can’t avail of certain summer camps because of their hours; in some cases, they run about 10am to between 1pm and 3pm.
“Speciality camps are very expensive and the day can be short,” says O’Reilly. “I’ve heard of camps that run from 10am to 12.30 in some cases. That doesn’t suit many working parents. If you don’t have work flexibility, it can be very difficult to manage drop-offs and collections.”
O’Reilly also has reservations about children attending a series of summer camps over their school holidays. It can, she feels, sometimes be “a bit full-on”, and attending one camp after another for the whole summer doesn’t teach children to do things on their own, she observes.
“We have heard about how some people sign children up for summer camps week after week of the summer holiday. We would question the benefits of this; it’s not a break for them. It’s structured so that they don’t get the opportunity to enjoy their own time or to do nothing, and it costs a fortune,” she says.
However, our changing society means that there may be no other option for some out-at-work parents with school-going children, says consultant child psychologist and author Dr Patrick Ryan, who believes State-run camps along the lines of the traditional Irish colleges could possibly work.
Under this structure, he says, youngsters could have a few classes in the morning followed by activities such as ceilís, football, running and free time.
“The Government wants everyone at work but there is a lack of infrastructure to support parents,” he agrees.
However, says Dr Ryan, if the State did become involved in summer camps, it would be crucial to ensure that “policies and procedures” were not allowed to “stifle the fun” of the concept.
The upside and the downside of holiday camps
Keeping children occupied for months on end during the summer holidays can be exhausting and expensive, believes Dr Mary O’Kane, lecturer in psychology and early childhood education with Open University.
Sending your children off to well-organised summer camps certainly has its advantages, she says. “There is research evidence that shows that these kinds of activities help to foster confidence in children.
“The research also shows that taking part in organised activities leads children to do better academically than their peers who don’t. So, there is definitely an argument to support these activities,” she says.
However, an overly scheduled summer also has a downside, she warns.
“Our children are so overscheduled in modern times. There is an argument that it is having an impact on their mental health.
“Over the past 50 or so years there has been a decline in the amount of time our children have to engage in free play without adult supervision.
“During this time there has also been a real increase in mental health difficulties, and researchers have argued there is a link between these two areas. Free play is important to our children’s development in terms of their social and emotional skills.
“When play is child-driven, children practise decision-making skills, move at their own pace and discover their own areas of interest.
“They learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to become emotionally resilient.”