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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Having a wonderful (American) time
By Jennifer Quinn
BBC News Online Magazine

Camp postcards
More and more British parents are sending their kids to US-style summer camps. And the government is putting 12.5m towards them, but why?

The coach was pulling away from the small crowd of waving parents. Jo Cohen's four kids - her five-year-old triplet daughters and seven-year-old son - were aboard, heading for their first summer camp experience.

It was only when the bus pulled out of sight that Mrs Cohen turned to her husband, lip figuratively quivering and a sad look on her face.

"The first year they went, the coaches went and I looked at my husband, and he said, 'Don't you dare,'" Mrs Cohen recalls of her battle against tears. "I was like, 'The babies. My babies are gone!' And he said, 'Don't you dare!'"

Since that day five years ago, the Cohens and their brood have become summer camp veterans. They're among a growing group of UK parents who are taking the plunge and sending their children to North American-style summer camps.

Happy campers?

In the United States and Canada, summer camp has become a mythical childhood experience. Movies have been made immortalising the happy days spent in idyllic surroundings - think Bill Murray's 1979 masterpiece "Meatballs", or, more recently, the American Pie films. Even Peanuts recorded Charlie Brown's trauma in leaving for camp.

Though in North America, the summer camp experience actually varies widely - there's everything from day camps which teach kids how to throw a perfect fastball to overnight camps which force them to lose weight - the iconic image of summer camp remains one of log cabins, nestled in the woods around a lake.

Healthy-looking counsellors watch over their young charges as they try their hands at canoeing, archery, and crafts; meals are served in a communal dining hall; camping trips can be the highlight of the children's time away from home.

It gets very quiet. The dog walks around the house not knowing what the hell to do with himself because there's too many people missing
Jo Cohen
Campers' mum
And though the length of the camps can vary, North American children tend to stay away for anywhere between seven days and eight weeks. The average stay is somewhere around two weeks, according to the American Camping Association.

Unsurprisingly, they say the kids who attend one of the 12,000 camps in the US come home better people.

"For years, campers' parents have reported that when their children return home from camp they are more caring, understand the importance of giving, are more equipped to stand up for what they know is right and are willing to be more responsible," the association says.

"Camp provides children with a safe, supervised, positive environment, which helps children grow."

It's worth noting the US camps aren't always egalitarian utopias. There are some that are as difficult to enrol in as the poshest school, and which are nearly as expensive.

Still, the UK Government thinks British children should get a chance to experience an American-style summer camp, and the National Lottery has put 12.5m towards a pilot project making that happen.

Funded by the Big Lottery Fund, the program is sending 2,500 children from different areas across the UK to a five-night sleep-away camp, where it's hoped the experience of meeting new people will promote tolerance and friendship.

Getting to know you

The announcement for the program comes on the heels of a statement by Trevor Phillips, the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, which suggested US-style camps would help British children mix with others they might not necessarily meet. He said it would foster more understanding among people of different racial groups.

Campers build a pyramid
If you build it, they will come (Courtesy Experience UK)

The lottery programme, called Get REAL - the "real" part stands for "residential exciting active leisure" time - will provide funding of 500 per participant. That means that parents on government assistance will pay 25 for their children to attend camp; those who aren't will pay 100.

Though some North American camps can cost more than US $1,000 (540) a week, the cost in the UK tends to be about 300 a week for the sleep-away experience.

Lawrence Bernstein, a co-director of Experience UK - which runs both residential and day camps - says British camps tend to be a little different in other ways, as well.

Instead of being held in what's thought of as traditional US-style settings, British camps sometimes use different facilities, like comfortable public schools, with pools and playing fields, to give their children a camp experience.

Others, such as the Outward Bound camps - which actually describe their programmes as courses - are located in more rural settings. And there are day camps which run in cities.

But despite the disparate settings, they still strive to provide the US-style camp experience, complete with sporting activities, camping and crafts.

"We think that the great thing that camp offers is that kids from different school backgrounds, from religious backgrounds, from geographical backgrounds all end up together," Mr Bernstein says.

Parental vacation

The Cohens sent their children to Experience UK's summer programme, in part, because they were knowledgeable about what camp is like: Mrs Cohen's husband had attended as a child, and they have American friends whose children also go.

The first time triplets Abigail, Nicole and Lucy, and son Matthew went to camp, they were gone for a week. This year, they're off for nearly three.

"It gets very quiet," she admits. "The dog walks around the house not knowing what the hell to do with himself because there's too many people missing.

Archery practice for campers
Would-be Robin Hoods (Courtesy Experience UK)

"But my husband and I have a lovely time without them. We've now got into the swing of things where we take little trips without them, so we do things - all those things that it's too difficult to do because you have too many kids around? - we do them."

Mrs Cohen says the kids love it, and that it's helped them grow into more independent children.

"I do think it makes them grow up. They're not so babyfied. But then I don't know if they also gain that from them all being so close together," she says.

"I know that when Matthew goes on school trips ... these [other] kids are like, 'Oh, I don't want to go. I don't want to leave my mummy!' And mine look at them and go, 'Why? Mummy's still there when you get back. Go and have fun.'"

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