Fun for happy campers

Summer camps don't just belong in the United States. Caitlin Davies finds a wealth of different attractions in Britain to keep children entertained
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The Independent Online

Does your child want to fly like Harry Potter? Well, of course he or she does. But if you're having problems finding the right apparatus, then how about a summer course in magic and oath-making, or a camp devoted entirely to stunts?

Summer camps may seem like an American idea, but they've been around in the UK for almost 50 years. Traditionally it meant sending your child for a week's outdoor activities - canoeing and abseiling, perhaps - but these days there's a new trend in themed events. There's also a wider range of camps available, whether your child is three or 17, and whether you want to send them off for a day or seven weeks.

Camp Beaumont bills itself as Britain's most experienced day-camp operator, and it's been in business for 24 years. This is a slick enterprise - a request for a brochure through the company's website results in an immediate follow-up. Camp Beaumont has two options - a day camp for three- to 15-year-olds, or a multi-activity holiday for six- to 17-year-olds. According to Susan Evans, Camp Beaumont's manager, either experience is "priceless" and "an investment in your child". She describes the camps as an ideal opportunity for children to increase their confidence and build self-esteem. Because younger children may be a little nervous to be away from home, they are encouraged to make friends with fellow campers via e-mail before the camp begins.

The company has eight day-camps in and around London. The day runs from 8.30am to 5.30pm and the staff/student ratio is one to eight. The children choose from a range of activities, depending on their age, from face-painting to parachute games. New activities for this year include cheerleading and "bonkers bingo". The cost of a full week is about £200.

Multi-activity holidays are offered at five locations in the UK, with some running as long as seven weeks, normally at £378 a week. Activities include the more traditional archery and badminton, but children can also try their hands at the DJ studio, internet café and multimedia courses. And, of course, for a £41-per-week supplement, there is a Harry Potter-inspired summer school. This is aimed at six- to 13-year-olds and offers classes on crystal ball reading, broomstick handling and oath-making.

PGL has been in the summer camp business even longer than Camp Beaumont, and prides itself on nearly 50 years' experience. Its most popular holidays are multi-activity, and children often spend a week trying out different activities before specialising in the second week, or the following year. A new specialist holiday for this year, called "wellbeing", is aimed at girls between the ages of 13 and 16, and covers health, fashion and fitness. It costs £399 a week.

PGL is also capitalising on the Harry Potter effect with another new holiday called "spellbound". This covers six days of themed activities and takes place at "a secret training school for wizards" in Shropshire. Campers learn how to read spell books, solve clues and create magic potions. The week costs £384.

Then there are the newcomers to the market like Stunt Academy, the brainchild of Greg Powell, stunt coordinator of the Harry Potter films. This started last year as a week-long camp, and now runs on a day-to-day basis. "We're not like the older camps; we're not a babysitting service," says Gary Wicks, the academy's creative director. "Children come to us because they want to, not because their parents tell them they want to."

Stunt Academy caters for nine- to 16-year-olds, and the teacher/student ratio is one to four. Campers study stunt disciplines such as high falls, Spiderman-style, and sword work, Troy-style. This year there's also a bar brawl, ideal for the youngster who wants to smash a bottle over someone's head. The bottles are made of sugar glass, of course.

Wicks says the company was surprised to get an equal number of boys and girls, and equally surprised to find itself involved in character development. "Eleven to 14 can be a difficult age," he says. "What children of this age gain at the academy is the ability to trust people, to communicate and to work as a team. They also conquer their demons, such as a fear of heights."

Londoner Caroline Royds had never sent her 14-year-old son Danny to a summer camp until he went to Stunt Academy. "The staff looked after them very well and he learnt some good tricks, which made him feel like an embryo Alex Rider!" she says.

Stunt Academy operates in Epsom, Leeds and London, and a full day costs £99, which includes insurance. Wicks insists a day of stunts is safer than sending your child abseiling, though your child might prefer to believe it is far riskier, and at Stunt Academy there is a trained paramedic on site all day.

Indeed, in choosing to send a child to summer camp, safety is one of parents' biggest concerns. Fans of summer camps argue that children on a licensed activity holiday are safer than those going on a teacher-led school trip. But it's still a good idea to ask what licence a company has, when it was last inspected, and what the company's safety record is.

If summer camps and stunt schools sound too expensive, then there are plenty of cheaper summer activities around. The Imperial War Museum in London, for example, has a range of free drop-in drama and arts events, including the chance to meet Second World War veterans, learn about the development of the parachute, and examine how submarines work.

Eureka!, a museum for children in Halifax, is launching a new interactive gallery in time for the summer holidays. SoundSpace is aimed at children from three to 12, and includes the chance to perform live on stage, mix and sample sounds on virtual DJ decks and "tour the world in a musical spaceship". Apart from the fun element, the aim of the new gallery is to enhance children's understanding of science, technology, engineering and maths. The gallery is free once you've paid the museum admission fee of £5.95.

Longleat in Wiltshire also has a new summer feature, an interactive show called Super Beasts. The show is set in a "top-secret training camp", in which visitors become superheroes and help to save the planet. The mix of live theatre and real animals promises thrills and laughs, as well as a serious conservation message. Admission is free if you have a Longleat passport ticket; otherwise it's £3.

But if your heart is set on a summer camp, then Martin Hudson, chair of the British Activity Holiday Association (Baha), has some advice. He suggests looking for a centre that is a member of the Baha, which means it will have been independently inspected - and, where necessary, the activities will be licensed by the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority.

The Baha lists 19 summer camp companies on its website, including one with the world's muddiest assault course, another with curriculum-linked ICT and environmental courses, and several offering circus skills. Hudson also suggests looking for an operator who's been in the business for a while and works with schools groups during the rest of the year. But perhaps what you really need to ask is who wants the camp most - you or your child?

Camp Beaumont: 01263 823000;

PGL: 08700 551 551;

Stunt Academy: 0870 4163333;