SCMP Saturday, December 16, 2000

School's out, camp's in


Schools are breaking up for the holidays and, while visions of sugarplums dance in children's heads, parents may be planning a more creative vacation for them in a holiday school.
Holiday lessons in everything from sports and art to music and languages are being offered by organisations that have had their enrolments increase dramatically in recent years.
The YMCA has doubled its programmes in each of the past three years to 37 and has more than 1,400 children enrolled. ESF Educational Services, a company set up by the English Schools Foundation, has seen general enrolment for the autumn term triple in the past five years to 900 this year.
An increasing number of smaller operators also are offering children's activities. Some programmes are full, such as the Kids' Gallery holiday art classes and ESF's all-day joint sports and English camp from December 27 to 30.
"Parents thought, 'Oh my God, the kids are gone from 9.30am to 3.30pm - sign me up!' so that filled up very quickly," said Kerry Valentine, the head of the ESF Educational Services' English language section.
But while holiday and after-school activities appeal to parents, they should take care not to overload their children. Ms Valentine said her organisation discouraged parents from putting their children into too many programmes and did not offer homework or worksheets. Lam Shui-fong, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Hong Kong and a specialist in families, said parents had to be careful that they were not expecting too much from their children.
"Parents sometimes would like their children to finish the unfinished business from their own childhood, such as ballet or piano. They want their child to finish these goals," she said. "Career parents or double-income families also want to have a babysitter."
She said some children liked a full schedule, just as some adults did, but others did not enjoy or cope well with being on the go all the time with extra activities. If children were forced into doing activities they did not enjoy, there was a risk they would lose any interest or motivation in the activity. "If the child is protesting, you could say it is already too much," she said.
"The ones who can tell whether or not it's enough are the children, not the parents. You need their feedback."
Primary school teacher Julie Harries, who teaches at the ESF's Kennedy School, said holiday activities should not replace time spent as a family, especially outdoors where children could exercise, learn about the natural world and discuss what they could see.
She recommended taking children for country walks, going to the beach to watch the surf and experiment with water and sand, and taking tram rides, all of which encouraged conversation. Board games, junk modelling and art activities were good indoor activities for parents to do with their children.
"Doing things as a family is a great opportunity for family bonding and the parents can support a child in areas where they need it, for instance if the child is not very co-ordinated, they could give him a lot of time in a playground. A happy family environment helps to build confidence in the child and self-esteem," she said.
Gerry Marques, the operations manager of the YMCA's camping and community programmes section, which offers English, sports and adventure holiday camps, said parents wanted their children to be involved in something worthwhile.
"I would have thought initially it was because parents were too busy during the holidays to spend time with their kids. But a lot of the parents drop off the kids and stay to watch," he said.
Like ESF, the YMCA's programmes aim to make them fun and encourage children to develop relationships with each other and their adult leaders.
Whatever parents choose for their children, Ms Harries said they should give them time to take it easy and play. Children under 10 in particular needed time for free, unconstructed play.
"Children work hard all day and I feel they are tired at the end of the day and the end of the term. They need a lot of time to relax," she said.
"Parents often underestimate this and feel their children should be doing what they as parents consider to be constructive things all the time. But children learn a lot more through playing and outdoor activities, and they build social skills and life skills."