I'd rather be bored than go on a course

Summer courses for children are a growth industry, but who are they intended to benefit - bored kids or their working parents?
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The Independent Online
Just imagine: it's your long- anticipated summer holiday; you're exhausted and looking forward to doing very little indeed. Then you're told that you have to spend the next couple of weeks learning how to juggle/abseil/ make videos and generally have lots of organised fun with a group of strangers who are just as desperate to relax as you.

Sounds like hell? Yet that's exactly what many of us are doing to our children when we send them off on holiday activity courses at the end of the long, tiring school year.

Holiday courses have sprung up over the past two decades, primarily to serve the requirements of working parents rather than their children. Such courses didn't exist when today's parents were growing up. They didn't have to, because there was usually someone there to keep an eye on their endless mouldering around.

It's unfortunate - but inevitable these days - that working parents, who often dispense with childcare once their children reach school age, tend to see the long summer holidays as a problem, rather than as the welcome period of liberation that it should be from a child's perspective. Caroline, who works part-time in publishing, says: "I'm already panicking because the company I usually send the girls to isn't running children's courses this year. The holidays are a nightmare, because I have to find somewhere for them to go for three days every week."

Pamela Janson-Smith of The London Parents' Guide, which lists more than 400 recommended children's courses, believes that childcare problems go at least some way to explain their growing popularity: "Part of the reason for the increased demand is that courses help working mothers. You don't feel quite so guilty taking them off to a fun course as you would taking them to a childminder they don't want to go to, or endlessly asking your friends for favours."

Holiday courses have the added attraction of appealing to modern parents' aspirations for their children to learn new skills and keep busy. So it's not surprising that the variety of courses on offer from local councils and private companies continues to grow. They don't come cheap - in our area of London, the cost ranges from pounds 35 at the local football club to pounds 80 at the council-run sports centre, and pounds 125 for a private drama course. But if you have the money, and you live in the right area, your children can learn everything from archery to calligraphy to puppet-making.

Whether they want to is a different matter. Phoebe, 8, who attended her first holiday activity - a fairly formal week-long art course - last summer, comments: "It was really strict, much stricter than school. I liked doing the art but I'd rather have stayed at home or gone to the childminder's. I sometimes get bored in the holidays but I'd rather be bored than go on a course."

But the fact that holiday courses are a direct response to the requirements of parents, rather than to those of their children, does not mean that they are necessarily bad, or that the children themselves don't ever get any enjoyment out of them. Nick, 11, who took three week-long courses last year, has generally positive feelings about them. "We go on courses when Mum has to work - I don't mind, although I think I would rather stay at home. My favourite course last year was drama, because we learned loads of stuff, and it was easy to make friends. The courses at the sports centre are a laugh - you don't really learn anything, but they're still good fun. It's best if you go every day, because then you become more involved and you get to know the other people much better."

Child psychologist Richard Woolfson says: "Children can get a lot out of a week's course - they need to learn how to relate to other adults and children and cope with new situations. But if you just make the holidays an extension of school by running your child from one Monday-to-Friday course to another, it's a recipe for disaster. The child learns nothing and they don't advance any further."

The courses that children enjoy most tend to be the ones that give them an opportunity to pursue an obsession. Alison always sent her son, now aged 12, on multi-activity courses, with the emphasis on "fun". Then, two years ago, he made the decision to brave the local football club.

"I always felt guilty about sending him on courses," she says, "but now he's desperate to go, even if I'm not working. The football courses really seem to boost his confidence because they take place outside the context of school, where he's not particularly good at sport, and because the club takes the training seriously."

David Kirk, Beckwith Professor of Youth Sport at Loughborough University, confirms that sport courses, if managed the right way, can greatly boost a child's confidence.

"If you take a beginner for a week's intensive work on a particular skill, they are likely to make very rapid progress. If they follow that up by practising a couple of times a week, that's a good way of getting started."

The value of intensive learning in small groups over a short period applies not just to sport but also to other activities, such as learning a foreign language or experimenting with music or drama. That is the rationale behind the summer schools that were first piloted last year by the Department for Education for pupils who have fallen behind.

But children also need free time, and sufficient opportunities to play away from adult intervention. This is not always understood by parents. Peter Blatchford of the Institute of Education, who has researched the role of free time, is concerned that adults take a dim view of unstructured time: "We need to be careful about filling children's days with things that adults think are important for them, and neglecting what might be, socially, terribly important.

"When it comes to school holidays, there is a danger that we over-legislate how people spend their time. It is easy to underestimate what children get out of play - just the ways they manage any differences or conflicts that might arise. If children don't have the opportunity to develop these things, they may be storing up difficulties for later on.

"There isn't enough value placed on the freedom to be bored. Individuals have to learn to work through that - they can't always be on the receiving end of things that are organised for them. At some point, children have to come to grips with doing things on their own initiative."

For Emma, who works from home and prefers not to book courses for her 10-year-old and 14-year-old, the holidays are a constant battle to keep the television switched off - a battle she admits she often loses.

But she says: "I'm a great believer in the kids having breathing space. Often I think that television is an excuse for them to do nothing, which they need because they're so pressured in term-time.

"They moan a lot, and my daughter does a lot of teenage hanging about in her bedroom. But then sometimes they pull out the board games or invent something to do together, which is very gratifying. I don't think they would find time to do that if I organised them more."

She is probably right. Richard Woolfson says: "The more accustomed that a child is to having activities organised for them, the more difficult the summer holiday is likely to become.

"However, six weeks is a long time to be left to your own devices: children become bored, and their play becomes repetitive. A week's course in the middle of the holiday - certainly not at the beginning, when the child really needs a break - can be enough to perk the child up. And that might be all that is required to set him up for the remaining couple of weeks."

Dr Woolfson has little truck with adult nostalgia for the idyllic, lazy summer breaks of our own childhoods. "I remember a lot of playing in the street and hanging about waiting for something to happen - and, of course, if you've got a group of children waiting for something to happen for long enough, it usually does!

"I'm not saying that we were deprived, but what's available is certainly a step forward - as long as parents don't overdo it." HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT COURSE

Ring your local council for a list of courses. They're usually cheaper than private courses and you don't need to check that staff are fully qualified.

The British Activity Holiday Association (01932 252994) has a list of regularly inspected private companies offering residential and day courses; this week's London Parents' Guide (0171-793 1990) lists 450 recommended courses.

Sound out other parents for courses that they have sent their children on and which have been successful.

Many centres offer drop-in taster sessions - a good idea, especially for younger children.

If you are keen for your child to learn a specific sport or skill, make sure that the aims of the course coincide with yours. Another thing to watch for is that the ratio of staff to pupils will ensure adequate attention.

Don't bite off more than your children can chew! It's easy to get carried away when flicking through the booklets. If it's at all possible, make sure your child gets a break at the beginning of the holiday.

Listen to your child. Some kids enjoy organised activities much more than others.