CHILDREN'S SUMMER SPECIAL / It's all plain abseiling: Judo and archery were once the height of daring, but now the sky's the limit. At summer camp, children take in their stride activities most parents haven't heard of

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'THE ABSEILING was the scariest thing I've ever done. I really loved it. One boy was homesick the first night, so we had a pillow fight and it made him feel better.' Dominic, aged 11

'We only play really boring games at school, but for the ones we did at the camp, you don't have to be so sporty - like windsurfing and pony trekking.' Linda, aged 13

'The holiday was a lot of fun, very messy, and gave me the chance to meet lots of people of my own age.' Sarah, aged 11

'The instructors weren't like teachers at all. They were like friends.' Dan, aged 12

SUMMER camps offering children a range of sports and activities date back nearly 80 years and are part of the American Way of Life; they are almost as well established on the Continent. In this country, though, we've been slower to adopt the idea. Perhaps boarding schools and the activity holidays they organise have been an alternative.

Yet the idea has been growing, despite the relatively high cost of these holidays - pounds 250-pounds 300 a week is par for the course, higher than say a week in the Mediterranean, with flights included. And attitudes are changing: 'There's a greater general awareness of health and fitness, to which outdoor sport and activities can contribute,' says Bet Davies of the Wales Tourist Board, which is currently promoting Wales as Britain's activity country.

'In addition,' she says, 'parents are having children at a later age, with the mother returning to work. Few can afford to take a 6- to 8-week break, so what are they going to do with the kids? The children are as pleased to get away from their parents for a week as the parents are to see the back of them.'

UK HOLIDAYS

Activity holiday centres both in the UK and abroad vary widely in their approach, in the activities available and in the accommodation offered, which may be in tents, dormitories, public schools, hostels or farms.

Residential multi-activity centres are usually the most popular with first-timers and younger children. They offer a breathless range of pursuits, from abseiling and canoeing to rifle shooting and water polo, and children try out a dozen or so different activities. Older children often prefer to concentrate on just one or maybe two sports or skills.

Non-residential day camps with pick-up points en route have sprung up around larger cities such as London and Edinburgh. They cost around pounds 120 a week, and can be useful as a 'try-out' for a later residential holiday, particularly for younger children. Specialised activity centres are usually fairly small, the entire focus being on the skill to be learnt rather than overall fun and games.

Plas Menai National Watersport Centre in Caernarfon, Wales, for example, offers beginner, improver and advanced courses in dinghy and catamaran sailing, windsurfing and canoeing to unaccompanied children over 14, and to adults. Other centres in the mountains offer abseiling, climbing, walking and mountain biking to children of different ages.

Acorn Activities offers residential riding holidays for 8 to 16-year-olds, who sleep in bunk-bed dormitories on a farm in the Radnor Forest, and spend their days in groups of eight, on dressage, showjumping and cross-country riding, according to their abilities. It isn't all hard work, as there are torchlight rides and competitions with rosettes as prizes. But the ponies come first, and the young riders are expected to look after them and muck out.

For less sporty children, 'theme weeks' may be a better bet. Computer and technology camps, which give kids the chance to run their own newspaper, construct their own rockets and experiment with molecular Lego, are being run at the Kingswood Adventure and Technology Centre near Allbrighton, Staffordshire for 8 to 14-year-olds. At Eccles Hall in Norfolk, 7-13s who prefer the smell of greasepaint can spend a week designing sets, performing their own version of Neighbours or taking part in a full song-and-dance routine from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.

Both camps are organised by Camp Beaumont, one of the biggest unaccompanied children's holiday firms, which also runs nursery day camps for the 3-5s, day camps for 5-13s, multi-activity adventures, as well as specialised sport camps in a variety of schools and colleges in the UK and abroad (see Holidays Abroad).

There are 300 courses and 100 activities to choose from at the Millfield Village of Education, using the facilities of the public school of the same name in Somerset, ranging from aerobics and badminton to tap dancing, trampolining and yoga. Families are welcomed as well as unaccompanied children, and adults and children participate in some activities together. There is a multi-activity programme designed for the 5-12s, while the older ones may choose to pursue two or three contrasting courses such as chess for beginners and squash, nature study and orienteering, or geography, golf and massage.

'Every year we try to come up with something a bit different,' says director John Davies. 'This year we're offering a circus skills workshop, where the over-10s are invited to 'Roll up, roll up' for unicycling, plate-spinning, juggling and stilt-walking.' In the evening at Millfield there are junior, pre-teen and teenage clubs with mixed soccer, roller discos, treasure hunts and lots of entertainment. The staff, many of them from the school itself, obviously recognise the wisdom of keeping their charges fully occupied.

The Mill on the Brue, also in Somerset, is a much smaller, privately owned activity centre occupying 20 acres. Its year-round programme, for adults and unaccompanied children, lays more emphasis on self-development than individual skills. 'Our outdoor pursuits are designed to give a child self-confidence,' says owner Patricia Rawlingson Plant. 'We want the child to stand on its own feet, to explore and make discoveries in a safe environment.'

The children may try as many different activities as they wish during the day, and more in the evenings. These may be problem-solving tasks such as bridging a river, building a raft, or working out 'how to get your team across the bottomless pit' - all aimed at developing teamwork and initiative. 'It may sound daunting,' says Rawlingson Plant, 'but it's all done in a holiday atmosphere. Children and adults alike enjoy being challenged.'

With 36 years experience, PGL Adventure Holidays (familiarly known as Parents Get Lost) is the largest children's activity holiday organisation in this country. It takes 30,000 children a year to different centres in the UK, including its own permanent site near Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire.

PGL pioneered multi-activity weeks which offer core activities such as the ever popular abseiling, canoeing and riding, which remain constant, plus eight or nine more outdoor pursuits which may vary. There are also individual PGL camps for golf, tennis, rugby, motor sports, watersports, fishing, film making and 'Puzzles Indiana Jones-Style'.

Having to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands of children in the 1990s forces organisers to devise more and more imaginative activities. 'A few years ago sports such as judo, fencing and archery were real draws,' says PGL's Jane Williams, 'because they were new. But now children can take up all these activities in their local clubs, and we have to provide something a bit different. The kids get street cred from something like real mountain biking, for instance, which is impossible for city children to do. Other activities include grass skiing, laser shooting, sand yachting, speedsailing and motorcross.'

PGL has also had to adapt the style of its holidays considerably over the years. There are now four camps for the 6-9s instead of one, and it has recently introduced some very successful mini-breaks and weekends for this age group.

At the other end of the age range, they find that many 14 to 18-year-olds prefer more flexible programmes, with less regimentation, where they don't have to be up at 7.30am for breakfast and can sit around the pool in the morning if they don't feel like rushing off on some activity. The new club-style holidays on offer at Rickmansworth near London, and at Newport in Shropshire, have an even more laid-back approach.

HOLIDAYS ABROAD

PGL also has overseas camps in France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Spain and the US. Its French programme in the Alps for 14- to 17-year-olds includes 'hot dogging' - usually trick skiing, but in this case bouncing down the river in an inflatable raft - mountain biking, and 'bivvying' in the mountains overnight (all available at a cost of pounds 329 for 10 days).

At the new PGL centre at Hardelot near Boulogne, the 10-14s have the softer options of sand yachting, dune surfing on the beach, and volleyball, archery and boules back at camp. A trip to Parc Asterix is included in the holiday, together with a chance to sample a typical local meal. The promise of 'fun French lessons', however, may appeal less to children and more to parents footing the pounds 279 bill for the week.

Camp Beaumont, one of the largest providers of holidays for unaccompanied children, offers a US-style package on the shores of Lake Miona, near Orlando, Florida. The camp has its own working stable, a 300-seat theatre, an Olympic-size swimming pool, endless sport facilities - and there are regular visits to Disney World. Packages like this are fine for those who can afford the pounds 1,385 price-tag.

PARENTS' WORRIES

Last November I wrote in this paper: 'If you send your dog to a boarding kennel, you can be sure it will have been inspected, registered and regulated. But there is no official yardstick by which parents can assure themselves of the safety of their children . . . Despite the activities of the British Activity Holiday Association (Baha), formed in 1986 to monitor standards on a voluntary basis, compulsory regulation and inspections are needed.'

Many readers wrote to agree. Holiday Which? has also consistently highlighted the problems of the lack of safety precautions and supervision in certain centres. Yet nothing much has changed. The recent canoeing tragedy in Lyme Regis forcefully confirmed that the anxiety of parents is not entirely unfounded.

But there is just a glimmer of sense on the horizon. This month the Wales Tourist Board announced an inspection and accreditation scheme to cover safety standards, supervision and accommodation. Now, only those centres with full accreditation will be able to participate in the Wales Tourist Board's promotional activities, and take advantage of its marketing.

The criteria are stringent: for plastic slope skiing, for instance, the requirement is for one qualified staff member per 12 pupils. The ratio for riding is one to eight, and for rock climbing or abseiling, one to one.

Other tourist boards, and the Government, have been slower to respond. There is still no requirement for a licence to set up an activity centre in the UK, and there is no compulsory vetting of procedures. It is therefore up to parents to glean what information they can. Some questions they might like to ask include:

What are the staff-pupil ratios for (a) activities and (b) leisure time?

Are the instructors' professional qualifications (and staff-pupil ratios) approved by the governing body for that sport or activity?

Do the activities take place in the centre itself or at some other location?

Is supervision of the activity then transferred to the site controllers? If yes, the same questions need to be asked all over again.

What supervision takes place in the centre?

Children's summer camps are an increasing holiday trend, and a very welcome one. But shouldn't little Jack and Jill have the same rights as . . . Fido?

CHILDREN'S VERDICTS

Safety apart, what are the problems likely to be faced with this kind of activity holiday? Often, the unaccompanied summer camp is the first time the child will have been away from home alone. The thought of hundreds of children let loose away from the confines of school may recall Lord of the Flies, but organisers maintain that discipline is hardly ever an issue.

'The children are on holiday, not at school,' says PGL's Jane Williams. 'Safety rules must be rigidly obeyed. But apart from that, any sign of bullying or anti-social behaviour and we just take the culprits aside and talk to them. We divide the children into groups of 12 to 20, under a leader, and there's a good deal of peer-group pressure to behave reasonably. 'The children themselves will tell the miscreant, 'Stop being such a prat, you'll spoil our fun' - and that usually works.' Homesickness is more of a worry for parents than it is for children. 'The kids may be a bit wobbly the first night, but that's all,' says Williams. The company had just five children who went home early during the whole of last summer.

Our own son Toby, then aged 10, was undeniably nervous when we left him amid scenes of chaos at Wembley Stadium coach park for his multi-activity week at Boreatton Park in mid- Wales. At a long trestle table, harassed organisers were checking lists and labelling children. 'Boreatton is blue . . . where is the Blue Leader?' The children found their monitors, who started getting some esprit de corps going, and soon the park was left with only some rather quiet mothers and fathers . . .

Our sole communication all week was a pre-stamped and addressed postcard: 'Wicked,' he wrote. 'Hope you and dogs are well.' He returned to Wembley a week later, and as his coach came into view . . . what was this? Toby talking to a girl? Unheard of.

Somewhat fragrant, he promptly fell asleep in the car on the way home - and for most of the next 24 hours. From later disjointed ramblings we learnt that he had felt a bit homesick the first night, that one of the 'groupies' (group leaders) had got a bit cross when Toby pointed the bow and arrow the wrong way at archery, that they'd had a midnight feast, and that the food was as bad as at school.

As parents, we couldn't put our hands on our hearts and say Toby had gained in self- confidence, or had a new-found sense of achievement and independence. But he'd clearly had a good time. Some more enterprising parents encouraged their son to keep a daily diary of his stay. He wrote:

'Getting off the coach was a hassle, so was getting organised in the tent. We had supper at about 6 o'clock, and cocoa before we went to bed, and next morning woke STARVING]

'Before breakfast we went to the forest for a game, and two hours later sat down for breakfast - the best meal of the day. Then it was shooting, BRILLIANT] We kept at it for three hours after which it was lunch - the worst meal of the day, sandwiches.

'The lesson in canoeing was interesting. For the rest of the afternoon we played games on the water, and I fell in. After that we got our pocket money - which was just as well as supper was awful, and we could fill up on tuck. We had a fun run and before bed a tent inspection. Swims before breakfast, BMX races and orienteering. On the fourth day we got up late as there were no activities before breakfast, which was a great success. The pony ride was OK.

'I loved the assault course where you had to smear yourself with mud, after which we jumped in the swamp. Then a bath, supper and disco. Not bad. I wasn't very good at archery, and scored 7 out of a possible 90, but the trial bikes were absolutely FANTASTIC] We did timing, races and cat and mouse. The best thing there. Abseiling was excellent. I went down backwards, which is scary. I didn't like Canadian canoes, but on the last night we played games in the forest, which was all right.

'This holiday was brilliant because there were things I might never do again. Our tent came last in the inspection.'

And the parent's verdict? 'Dan and his two friends had a fantastic time, and it took only a couple of days to get him and his clothes relatively hygienic. Did he benefit? I think so. Perhaps he gained some self-reliance, and a passionate desire (frustrated) to own a trial bike. A success.'-

ACTIVITY CENTRES

Abernethy Outdoor Centre (0479 821279): multi-activity.

Acorn Activities (0432 357335): riding.

Camp Beaumont (0480 456 123): multi-activity and single activity.

Craigower Lodge Outdoor Centre (0540 673319): multi-activity.

Glencoe Outdoor Centre (08552 350): multi-activity.

Glenmore Lodge (0479 861256): multi-activity.

Llangollen YHA Centre (0978 860330) multi-activity.

Millfield Village of Education (0458 45823): multi-and single activity.

Mill on the Brue Activity Centre (0749 812307): multi-activity.

PGL Adventure Holidays (0989 768 768): multi-and single activity.

Plas Menai National Watersport Centre (0248 670964): watersports.

Ruafiola Wild Island Exploration (03873 72240): multi-activity.

Sealyham Activity Centre (0348 840763): multi-activity.

Twr-Y-Felin Outdoor Centre (0437 720391) multi-activity.

West Wales Windsurfing and Sailing (0646 636642): watersports.

More Centres are listed in official tourist board guides. Details of the Wales Tourist Board accreditation scheme from: Wales Tourist Board, Brunel House, Fitzalan Road, Cardiff CF2 1UY (0222 499909).

UK Activity Holidays '93 (Charles Letts pounds 4.50) gives useful information, names and addresses. Baha is at Orchard Cottage, 22 Green Lane, Hersham, Walton-on-Thames KT12 5HD (0932 252994).

These lists have been supplied by the English, Wales and Scottish Tourist Boards.

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