Sending the children off to a camp during the holidays may have originated in America, but it didn't take British parents long to recognise a very good idea. By Tania Alexander
THE SUMMER holidays can be quite a challenge for parents, particularly if they are working, as it is hard to keep the kids busy for six weeks or more. Even if you have arranged a week or two's family holiday, you may feel your children are in need of some further action.

Sending your child off to summer camp is not just an American concept. It is something that the British have also been doing for the last few decades, and many of the specialist companies now have it down to such a fine art that even young home birds may end up having the time of their lives. In fact, it is often the parents that find it harder to separate from the children than the other way round, and they are usually pleasantly surprised to see how much their child has gained in self-confidence by the end of the week.

Another myth is that activity holidays are just for the sporty. Adventure weeks obviously highlight dare-devil activities such as abseiling, caving, stream-walking, quad-biking and surfing. But most of them offer tamer alternatives such as circus skills, theatre courses, nature study and chess. Some companies such as Camp Beaumont and Superchoice offer specialist techno camps which teach children to use up-to-date technology and to surf the web.

Some camps take children as young as six years old and most of them go up to 16. The concept is that the kids go off on their own and come back more "grown up" and self-confident. If you're not quite ready to let someone else put your child to bed at night, some centres also do family activity weeks which enable you to go as a family unit but still provide some independence for the children (and the parents!) during the day. In some cases, the children can even sleep with their friends in the dormitory while you stay in a room nearby.

the activity camps

Peak Activities Ltd, Peak District National Park (01433 650345); pounds 450 for six nights full board.

This activity centre is open all year and runs multi-activity courses for 12- to 16-year-olds during the summer holidays. It is a fixed programme comprising rock-climbing, caving, abseiling, watersports, walking and orienteering. Accommodation is in single-sex dormitories. Families can also make individual arrangements to stay at the centre during other weeks of the year.

Millfield Holiday Village (01458 445823); from pounds 250 for a week's full board.

This camp has been going for 28 years and is held for three weeks every summer in this famous independent school. Children over eight years old can go unaccompanied - there are also good facilities for family holidays with accommodation in three or four bedrooms, a creche for children over three years old, and courses for the over-fives. Expect an action- packed week as activities continue in the evening with lots of productions in the theatre etc. The multi- activity courses are popular with kids and include about 20 different activities during the week. Unaccompanied children stay in a schoolhouse which accommodates up to 30 and is single-sex. Parents sometimes choose to stay separately from their kids, so the kids stay in the schoolhouse while mum and dad get some privacy and do their own thing during the day.

PGL Activity Holidays (Freephone 0500 749147); from pounds 209 for a week full board.

A very experienced operator which has been going for 40 years and now has 23 centres in the UK and France. Caters for six to 18-year-olds during the Easter, Whitsun, and summer school holidays. It also does Teenski - skiing holidays for 12- to 17-year-olds in Austria. Most holidays are multi-activity - you choose from the selection offered by each centre. Other specialist holidays include Action Man, Mountain Biking, Indiana Jones, Farming, and Beach Lifeguarding. Escorted travel network with full PGL Courier service in the summer from 20 towns in the UK. Also day-camps.

Camp Beaumont (0870 6096000); day- camps, pounds 148 for five days; from pounds 320 for a week's residential camp, full board.

If you live in or near London, day-camps are a popular introduction to the holiday camp concept, and will keep your child busy from 9am-4.30pm, or for extended hours if requested. The day-camps are held in six well- equipped schools with good grounds and facilities to host a wide range of activities. The age range is well divided into three-fours, five-sevens, eight-11s and 12-15s, and there are fully supervised transport options. So confident are they that your children are going to like the camp that, if they are not happy on the first day, the remainder of your holiday costs will be refunded.

The residential camps take place in Norfolk, Staffordshire, Surrey and on the Isle of Wight, and are also carefully age-grouped. There are various themes to choose from including Multi-activity, Futurecamp (learning skills and technology of the future), Wet and Wild, First Gear (quad bikes, go-karts, all-terrain buggies), Stage and Screen, Horse Lovers, and Super Sports (specialist training in soccer, golf or tennis).

Superchoice (01273 691100); from pounds 225 for seven nights, full board; pounds 19 for a day-camp.

In its seventh year, this summer-camp specialist offers a choice of day-camps, three- four- or seven-night stays at two centres on the south coast - Osmington Bay, near Weymouth, and little Canada on the Isle of White. They also offer family viewing days so that you can inspect their facilities, accommodation and activities. The Junior Multi-activity camp is for seven- to 10-year-olds; Young Adventurers or Horse Lovers is for 10- to 13-year-olds; Teen Challenge, Mega Mix Cyber Zone, Get Motoring or Wet Wet Wet are for 13- to 16-year-olds. Care is taken to settle the children - all instructors and monitors undertake a two-day "Soft Skills" course as part of their initial training, and the co-ordinators attend a further two-day Pastoral Care programme. There is also a child-welfare counsellor on site. If your child hasn't settled in after the first two nights and wishes to return home, they give a pro-rata refund for the remainder of the holiday. Escorted travel service available.

Sealyham Activity Centre, Wolfscastle, Pembrokeshire (01348 840763); pounds 285 for a fully inclusive Multi-activity Week; pounds 500 for two children coming together.

This is a small family-run centre based in a Georgian mansion that sleeps up to 100 plus group-leaders. Accommodation is in dormitories and there is a family room and some twin rooms with en suite facilities. Family breaks are available as is a self-catering option. Multi-activity weeks for unaccompanied eight- to 16-year-olds in the summer include an assault course, kayaking, rock-climbing, raft-building, pony-trekking, surfing and an overnight bivouac in the woods with camp-fire and ghost stories.

Edale YHA and Activity Centre, Edale, Derbyshire (01433 670302); pounds 280 for a week's full board.

The YHA has over 40 years experience of providing activity holidays. This youth hostel is open all year and is located in the Peak District on the wooded hillside of the Kinder Scout Plateau. In the summer holidays, they run multi-activity holidays for 12- to 15-year-olds, as well as family multi-activity holidays for children of nine and above, and their parents.

What to look foR

As a parent, safety will no doubt be your primary concern, particularly if your child is partaking in potentially dangerous outdoor activities. The Adventure Activities Licensing Authority is a government body that inspects four kinds of outdoor activity - trekking on foot, horse or bicycle; watersports; climbing, abseiling or scrambling; and caving. Before booking a holiday which features any of these, it is worth calling the AALA (01222 755715) to check if the centre is registered.

The British Activity Holiday Association (01932 252994) is a voluntary association that also inspects certain centres to ensure safety standards - send a SAE for a list of members to BAHA, 22 Green Lane, Hersham, KT12 5HD.

It is important that you're sending your child to a secure place where he or she can't wander off, or, worse still, where someone else can wander in. A reputable centre should let you look around the site before booking - check out their security system. It is not a good sign if it is easy for you to walk in unannounced and look around without anyone questioning who you are.

Check that all the staff are first-aid qualified and that they have a fire certificate. Check if the activity instructor holds National Governing Body qualifications for all the activities they instruct. Find out whether there is a resident, full-time qualified nurse and a proper sick-bay. And ask to see exactly where your child will be sleeping? Usually, this is in single-sex dormitories. Check whether there are staff sleeping nearby, particularly for younger children.

Another question is whether they have a family viewing day where you can go and get a better feel of the place. How do they divide the age groups? The smaller the age range in groups the better as there can be a vast difference between the interests of a seven-year-old and a 10-year-old. If you are sending siblings, check if they can be grouped together even if they don't exactly fit into the same age range.

Making it easy on your child

If you're not sure whether your child is ready to be away from home for a whole week, some centres do offer weekends and shorter breaks. Some of them also operate as day-camps which is ideal if you live locally or are in the area on holiday.

Most centres discourage parents from ringing their child, particularly at the beginning of the week when they're trying to get settled. Make sure your child is armed with a phone card and plenty of coins so that they feel free to ring you whenever they like.

Check with the centre what their policy on homesickness is. Many of them offer a refund if your child really doesn't settle at all.

Think about what you pack. It is probably not such a good idea to pack your 10-year-old's Paddington Bear pyjamas. The most important things to remember are the three Ts - track suit, trainers and toothbrush. Make sure you name-tag all their clothes and possessions and that everything is easily washable.

Do tell the centre your child's swimming ability as this may affect what course they put him/her on.

You'll probably want to take younger children to the centre yourself. Many companies offer an escorted travel service which can be good for older children - do get full details of how this works (ie will there be a member of staff chaperoning them all the way?).