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Colonie de vacances is good

A colonie de vacances is good if the children are ready for it

More than a million children a year leave for a colonie de vacances (holiday camp) - some as young as four. Psychologist and author Maryse Vaillant, an expert on family relationships, told OLIVER ROWLAND a colonie trip can be a liberating experience if the children are properly prepared.

LAST year some 75,000 children aged four to six spent time at a colonie de vacances - and August is the peak month for these trips.

They were among more than a million young people of school age attending French holiday camps.

Psychologist Maryse Vaillant gave her advice on how families can prepare young children to make the most of this kind of experience.

Some colonies accept four year- olds - is that too soon?
The child’s exact age is less important than how mature they are and how used to sleeping away from home. I read about a father in a recent press interview saying “as soon as my four-year-olds got into the coach they started laughing with friends - they had forgotten us” - but what about at night, when they’re in bed and are trying to sleep?

It’s not the same as when you drop off a child at the creche or with a childminder - you know they might cry but in a quarter of an hour they’re having fun - a colonie means sleeping away in a group situation away from the family environment.

It is generally very difficult before six or seven years old.

Having said that if the child goes for a classe de mer [see box, below right] they are with their teacher and classmates, so even if they spend a night or two or three away from the family environment, it is still a familiar one. That’s a good way to help them get used to the idea and can be done at a younger age.

How do you tell if a child is ready to sleep away?
One of my criteria is whether the child still uses baby language to talk about a night’s sleep [un dodo instead of une nuit] - those children still need their security blanket, their night-time rituals... They’re used to going into the night and sleep with parental protection. They are not ready to sleep away.

“However it is also true that there are many parents who live in cities and don’t have relatives in the countryside to send their children to, and who need their children to benefit from a stay at the seaside or in the mountains. At four, one night away from home is enough. Then try a second; but not at a colonie de vacances.

Good first steps are for the child to get used to sleeping at a childminder’s or staying with a neighbour - perhaps one of their friends’ houses. So, depending on the child’s maturity and experience, six or seven is OK for a colonie holiday, but at four be very cautious about considering it.

So at, say, seven-years-old, you would recommend a colonie holiday?
Yes, it can do a lot of good. That’s why you shouldn’t send them too soon, to make sure the child likes it and wants to go. If they have been too soon, they will have a mental block and not want to go again.

Why is it so helpful?
It’s a chance to be away from their parents with children of their own age. It gives them freedom to make emotional or practical discoveries - it’s extraordinary. A child who can’t tie his shoelaces when he goes, will learn at the colonie; one who doesn’t like to wash, will do it there or one who doesn’t cut up her own meat. They learn faster; it’s liberating.

Should a parent maintain contact by phone?
The staff should be able to contact the parents at all times, but there should be no contact between parents and child - no phone, no letters. Say: “We’ll see each other in a week” - then the child can imagine the period and wait for the time to go home. A phone call from mum will make the child cry and bring them back to a childish frame of mind whereas the colonie helps them to mature.

What can you say to the child to help them?
Tell them: I trust you; you are big; think about me every night - I’ll be thinking of you all the time; I’ll be waiting for you. I’m proud of you and happy for you to be having this experience. Don’t make a huge deal of it though; leave the child alone to have their experiences.

Are the staff well-trained?
We must have confidence in the rules in place - but of course, check out the organisation. The child is not going to be fussed over like at home, they might not wash or eat as well but it’s not a disaster for one week.

* What is a classe de mer? A classe de mer (seaside class), or de neige (snow - eg. winter sports), or verte (green - eg. hiking in the mountains) are variants of the classe découverte (discovery). This can be up to a week or two away with the child’s school class. It takes place in school time, accompanied by the pupils’ teachers, and usually involves a stay at a centre, where children will take lessons for part of the time and the rest of the day will be spent doing outdoor activities.

These can take place from maternelle age (the early years of primary school) and there is often pressure on parents to allow children to go, as, if some are left behind, the school will have to find alternative cover for them. It is also presented as an important bonding experience for the class. The trips are heavily subsidised, with potential extra help for parents on low incomes.

Who will look after your child at the colonie?

ACTIVITIES are run by moniteurs (like American “camp counselors”) who must have a qualification called the BAFA (Brevet d’Aptitude aux Fonctions d’Animateur) and a certificate in first-aid.

“People can apply for the monitors’ training from 17-years-old and they are mostly young students who do it as a holiday job,” said a trainer for the UFCV (, one of the main providers, Patrice Brianpais. There are no specific requirements, he said, though the trainers and colonies look for people with a responsible attitude. Colonies are overseen by directors with a higher qualification, the BAFD. Monitors are paid by the day, as opposed to a salary.

“It’s not a lifetime career, but it’s interesting for any young person wanting to go on to work with children or other caring work,” he said. However there are also older monitors, who may do it in their holidays, or may be retirees.

“The BAFA teaches about children’s development at different ages, how to cater for their day-to-day needs and put in place different games and activities. It is very practical. They leave with a maximum of tools.” There are eight days of general training, plus two weeks’ work experience and six days of analysis.

At a colonie, a moniteur may be potentially on call to the children 24-hours a day. However regulations on time off have been tightened this year - they must have a full 24 hours off per week and two uninterrupted eight-hour nights. Mr Brianpais said: “It’s necessary to be patient and reasonably calm and gentle, though a mix of characters is good too - not just very calm people but ones with a lot of energy as well.”

At colonies, there must be one moniteur for eight children for under-sixes and for older children one for 12.

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