Because camp rocks

Thanks to a DfES initiative, bored teenagers will now be able to enjoy American-style summer camps
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The Independent Online

It's a phenomenon that has moulded the character of American children for years, and now the US-style summer camp, complete with its endless outdoor adventures and unique social interactions, is to be introduced to the UK.

It's a phenomenon that has moulded the character of American children for years, and now the US-style summer camp, complete with its endless outdoor adventures and unique social interactions, is to be introduced to the UK.

Stemming from an initiative by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES), the Get Real scheme is meant to entice UK teenagers to participate in summer camps in greater numbers. Ministers hope the move will reduce holiday boredom, get children off the streets, and improve communication between members of different racial groups.

Through a Lottery-funded drive, ministers hope to pump £12.5m into camps, paying a large percentage of the cost for most participants. Children will take part in activities such as horse riding, biking and hiking during their 10-day camp.

Summer camp conjures up images of wide-eyed youngsters sitting around a blazing fire singing songs. And, for many American children, that description is pretty accurate. But most children will attest that, aside from the cheesy bonding exercises and camp-pride drills, summer camps really provide vast benefits for restless youngsters.

Anna Leslie, a 19-year-old from Cambridge, Massachusetts, attended two summer camps when she was growing up. "I met a lot of really cool people there and it was an eye-opening experience," she says of her four-week stay at Exploration Camp in Wellesley, Massachusetts, near Boston. "At the weekends you could take different trips to places such as Boston and Cape Cod. And we had dances and contests and talent shows throughout."

But innocent group activities are not the only things in which children - particularly teenagers - partake at camp. Leslie said that she and most other campers spent ample time getting a bit intimate with members of the opposite sex. Her own fling, at the age of 14, lasted two days and left her "heartbroken", she says with a laugh. "But it was fun just being a part of that crowd for a couple weeks," she adds. "And that's definitely what happens at camp, all that summer-love stuff."

In addition to exciting activities - she made a music video while she was there - and a bit of innocent rebelling, Camp Exploration opened Leslie's eyes to different kinds of people. "There were a lot of gay people there," she says. "One of my good friends was gay, and a lot of the counsellors were, too. It was a very accepting place, and it was really good to come into that environment."

And that's just what ministers want to accomplish with Get Real. They launched the scheme in the hope of promoting interracial communication, after a study showed that nearly nine out of 10 Britons have practically no ethnic-minority friends.

"A lot of students already mix with youngsters from different backgrounds and from ethnic minorities on a daily basis at school, and that's increasingly the case," says David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. "But there certainly are youngsters who never meet contemporaries from another racial background. And for them it would be a very worthwhile experience."

During a pilot programme last year, though, only three per cent of participants were members of racial-minority groups. If more children participate in the programme, officials believe that racial intermingling will be achieved on a greater scale than at most schools. Just an increase in participation could help that.

Back in the United States, the American Camping Association estimates that nearly 10 million young people attend one or more of the 12,000-odd camps around the country each year. Currently only 20 per cent of British young people participate in structured activities during the summer holidays, according to research from the DfES. And 60 per cent of teenagers complain of boredom during the six-week summer-holiday period. Ministers hope that by increasing the number of camp-goers, they can decrease the number of restless youngsters.

As most campers will confirm, one of the thrills of "sleep-away camps", as they're called in the States, is in getting a much-needed break from the dull, dragging days of the summer holiday. "My favourite part is probably that you don't really get bored at camp, and you're always doing the activities," says Alex Burdett, a 12-year-old London resident who attended Boy Scout camp this summer. "When you come back from camp, you're not used to being at home and you have nothing to do. You get bored really easily."

At his camp, Burdett slept in tents, rode bicycles and went climbing with other campers. The two-week session, which took place on the Isles of Scilly, included a host of physical activities that, Burdett says, are "really, really hard in the end".

"The first ones you do are easier, and then it gets harder and harder," he says. "But the people help you along by giving you tips, so they make it really good."

It is this kind of sporting experience that gets Alex's parents excited about camps for children: "While camps are a good social opportunity for kids, for me, their opportunity to engage in sport is more important," says Mika Burdett, whose two children, Alex and Zara, have both attended camp. "Kids do not have any significant time during the school year to devote to sport or just to fun and games."

And not only are summer camps beneficial for children, but they provide a much-needed break for busy parents, who often struggle to keep children occupied during the holiday. "For working, city-bound parents, holiday breaks from school are a nightmare, particularly when the weather is wet," Burdett says. "A lot of money is wasted every day on restaurants and movies. Watching your children playing computer games for hours on end is very depressing. Neither adults nor children enjoy this. All a child wants is to be free - to run around. All that expensive entertainment doesn't begin to be a substitute for building a den in the woods."

Still, some education officials have expressed concern that the camps must be executed properly if government officials expect to see positive results. If the camps aren't structured, safe and educational, the venture will be futile. "Summer camps can be enormously beneficial," Hart says. "They need to be properly organised, and they need to allay any worries about issues such as safety and supervision."

Tim Andrew is the head teacher of Chesham High School in Buckinghamshire. This summer, he will escort students from his school to Beijing to take part in a camp funded by the British Council at several universities. The students will learn Chinese culture and language in between trips to famous monuments, such as the Great Wall.

That kind of trip - one that is both educational and fun - is the kind that Andrew says he would like to see implemented. But the Government should put aside short-term goals and shouldn't expect "a quick fix to society's problems" through summer camps alone. "The vision behind the camps has to be a long-term one," he says. "It may not have immediate benefits, but the experiences that students have during their childhood are valuable for the future." It is this positive long-term effect that will, it is hoped, eventually benefit society's future generations.