Saturday 17 March 2018

Parenting: What camp are you in?

Parents love keeping their children busy during the summer with camps and activities. Here, Alex Meehan investigates how much is too much when it comes to planning your children's downtime

Niall Murray and his two children, Kate and Conor who are attending the GAA Cúl Camp at St. Mary's GAA, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly.
Niall Murray and his two children, Kate and Conor who are attending the GAA Cúl Camp at St. Mary's GAA, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly.

What to do with the kids during the summer months is a problem every parent faces. And for many families, the answer has traditionally come in the form of a summer camp.

From soccer, hurling and gymnastics to art, drama and academic subjects, specialist camps are big business in Ireland. Thousands are held around the country each year and for many parents, they meet an important need - getting the kids out of the house while providing a childcare solution.

However, is filling up our children's summers with camps and activities - during a time that has traditionally been a period of downtime - actually bad for them?

Child and adolescent psychoanalytic psychotherapist Colman Noctor says parents should resist over-regimenting children's time during the summer months.

He says children with over-scheduled lives don't have time to learn essential life skills, such as self-sufficiency and finding inventive ways to keep the mind active and interested. The long summer break was traditionally the ideal opportunity for them to do so. So, while attending a summer camp can be a positive thing, too many can have the opposite effect. In short, parents shouldn't be scared to allow children to entertain themselves.

"Children should be free to be bored," says Noctor. "Summer camps can sometimes be a childminding issue - parents are working and don't have a solution, so it can be a question of logistics.

"But there is also an idea out there that you have to schedule every week full of activities for kids, and that all their spare time should be filled. I don't believe that is a good thing to do. Boredom is an important thing to learn how to overcome. It's an important skill to learn how to wait, how to entertain yourself and how to self-soothe."

Noctor's message is that learning to overcome boredom is an essential part of the mental development of children.

One parent I spoke to voiced the concern of peer pressure - from other parents. She said she felt pressurised into paying for a raft of interesting activities for her children over the summer, because other mums were piling on the activities for their children. "I was worried my children were missing out on valuable life experiences and may not have an edge when they return to school," she said.

So how do parents know where to draw the line between keeping their children busy during the summer, and over-managing their social time?

The GAA is probably well-placed to give an answer. The sporting organisation is one of the biggest summer camp organisers in the country, with 1,100 different camps run across 32 counties on offer this year under its Cúl Camps initiative. In 2015, it had 102,384 children participate over eight weeks, and this year the number is set to increase.

"The Cúl Camps are a way for us to give kids an opportunity to try out new sports that they may not otherwise be exposed to," says Charlie Harrison, national Cúl Camps coordinator for the GAA. "The camps are activity-based so the kids are outside all the time, playing games and having fun."

Harrison believes the programme has many benefits. Kids are taken off their parents' hands for a few hours every day and the GAA gets a chance to showcase its sports to families who might not otherwise attend local clubs. The focus is on fun, not education and instruction.

For Niall Murray in Sligo, the tradition of sending his kids to the local Cúl Camp is a strong one - his daughter Kate (7) and son Conor (9) have been going for two and three years respectively.

"They absolutely love it - they have a fantastic time. They play loads of games and there is a high ratio of coaches to kids. They do a number of camps every year but the Cúl Camp is their favourite," he says. "It's a fun and safe environment where they get to socialise with their friends and have a blast. They're well looked after and it ticks all the boxes. They can't wait to go back each year."

At the more education-focused end of the scale, The Centre for Talented Youth Ireland is a 23-year-old programme that offers summer camps for kids with above average academic ability, aged between six and 17, held in Dublin City University. Far from over-regulating children during the summer, the university feels its camps fulfil an unmet need for high-achieving children.

"This is for kids who are high-achievers but who may not be adequately challenged academically in school to reach their potential," says Dr Colm O'Reilly, the centre's director. "They can study subjects that they might find more stimulating and spend time around other kids like themselves."

Courses and classes are taught that aren't available in primary and secondary school, including subjects such as forensic science, computer gaming, medicine and others normally found at third level.

"Research has shown that kids who remain challenged academically can do better than those who aren't challenged the same way. On top of that, the social element is very important, because it allows kids to spend time around others that have the same interests as themselves. If you're a kid that likes archaeology or law, then you might have trouble finding other kids that share that interest. You will find those kids here."

This summer, the CTYI expects 2,600 students to attend its programmes in DCU over six weeks, broken up between 1,300 primary school children and 1,300 secondary school students.

With so many summer camps on offer, it's possible to fill up a child's entire school break with activities, but Noctor does not agree this is a good idea.

"Summer is a break from organised academics in order for the child to be free, to experience new social situations, and to engage in free play which improves imagination and creativity as well as mindfulness and being able to assess risks," he says.

A particular worry for Noctor is the ubiquity of the screen during the holidays - the mobile phones and tablets that are frequently seen as anti-boredom devices.

"These don't allow us to process our own relationship with ourselves. It's too early to say how the last five or six years [of increasing mobile technology] will end up impacting kids, but it comes down to resilience, the ability to soothe our own distress and our capacity to overcome adversity. If there's always a distraction at our fingertips, then we don't ever learn how to entertain ourselves.

"Entertainment might seem superficial, but a lot of it comes down to our relationship with ourselves.

That relationship is a hugely important part of building our self-esteem, and having a poor sense of self can have very negative implications as children grow up," he says.

The great outdoors

While you might not think Ireland's weather lends itself to year-round outdoors education, there is a school of thought that says kids are best educated outdoors, particularly when they're very young.

Based on the Scandinavian idea that children are happiest playing outdoors with other kids, the Park Academy Nature Kindergarten in Killruddery House, Bray, is the first example of this idea in action in Ireland.

"We spend all day every day up in the forest, hail, rain or snow, all year around, so it's quite different from conventional childcare settings seen in Ireland to date," says Sarah Quinn, education coordinator with the Park Academy Nature Kindergarten.

"It's a child-led environment, so kids have the space and time to explore nature, to nurture their imagination, to run with ideas and grow as individuals," she continues. "It's about making sure kids have the kind of freedom to play outside."

The school operates out of a log cabin as its base and the idea is that the kids themselves are consulted on how they want their lessons to progress as they explore the outdoors. Days are spent building dens, feeding birds and climbing trees as the kids develop the abilities to learn how to assess risk and problem-solve.

"There's no walls in the forest, no ceiling and the kids have acres of space to use and explore. The ground is relatively soft and while accidents can happen anywhere, it's extremely safe," adds Quinn. "We try to teach the kids to be skilled at assessing risk, so they'll look at a tree and decide whether they're capable of climbing it or not, whether they need help from an adult or guidance. We're trying to give them life skills, not just get them ready for junior infants."

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