AS THE long school holidays begin and you are wondering what to do with the children, looking into a children’s holiday camp could be the ideal option.
Around a million children take part each year in France and there are still many places available before the end of the holidays.
Whether they go on a long residential stay or a short break, there is a huge range of possible activities: science-based, such as discovering nature; artistic, like theatre, dance, music or circus skills; or sporting, such as riding, hiking, rollerblading, kayaking or sailing.
However this is just the tip of the iceberg: take, for example, the “Kingdom of Princesses and Castles” week for six to nine-year-olds in the Seine-et-Marne by Evasoleil. It involves medieval-style meals and games, calligraphy sessions using quill pens, and falconry displays.
Officially now called Séjours de vacances (holiday stays), colonies de vacances or colos are children’s holidays that last up to a month in dedicated residential centres with their own staff. They are usually based in attractive countryside and are aimed mainly at children aged six to 15, though some options outside this bracket exist too.
Children in this age group also have an alternative – a minicamp with a local centre de loisirs. These are organised by the centres de loisirs (youth leisure centres) and staff are authorised to take children away on themed trips for up to four nights, staying in venues like campsites or watersports or equestrian centres.
Costs of colonies de vacances or minicamps vary widely, from around €100 - €500 a week, according to who is offering them and whether they are aimed at local children or organised nationally.
In some cases transport is organised by the provider and in others parents take the children to the site themselves. They are looked after by trained and vetted staff.
The idea of colonies de vacances originally came from a Swiss pastor, Hermann Bion, who organised healthy mountain holidays for children from workers’ families from the city in the 19th Century.
It caught on in France, where colonies were also originally organised by churchmen before other public and private bodies got involved.
Today they are regulated in each department by a state body, the direction départementale de la cohésion sociale (DDCS). A DDCS adviser for the Côtes d’Armor, André Colleu, said: “There are a few séjours de vacances run by private companies but those in our area are mainly involved in organising international exchanges or foreign trips.
“Most séjours are run by the service enfants et jeunesse of mairies, by communes or by non-profit associations who often have close links to the council.They organise holidays for local children, eg. at
Etables-sur-Mer, near Saint-Brieuc, there is an association organising one-week stays on Jersey and Guernsey. The children travel on sailing boats.”
Your mairie is the best first port of call, Mr Colleu said, as trips specifically aimed at local children usually benefit from funding that may not be available for ones organised by national associations. However there are websites which can allow you to search nationally (see “looking further afield”).
Mr Colleu added: “When it’s organised by your town normally there are different price levels according to means but where it’s national it depends on the association.
Some séjours do specialised holidays, like science-based ones where children learn to make rockets, but they tend to be expensive. Then there are other, low-cost, ones which are organised by committees at the parents’ workplaces.”
While extended stays in a colo are traditional, more and more families opt for the minicamp, he said. “In our department we have around 300 this summer.”
Mr Colleu said the rules on offering stays for children were tightened in 2005. “The DDCS is responsible for checking premises for safety and hygiene. We also check the skills and training of the people who are looking after the children and do legal checks on them – all the staff give their names and birth dates. We’re looking for things like convictions for child abuse or legal bans on working with children due to incompetence.
“There are checks to make before a centre even exists – because it must be declared to us – and then afterwards on the site when it is set up and running.”
Special qualifications are needed. “There’s a ratio of adults to children to respect and at least half the adults must have diplomas. If you have 50 children you will need about six adults of whom half need the BAFD or BAFA, for centre directors or organisers.”
Centres de loisirs or séjours de vacances?
Centres (also called accueils) de loisirs are non-residential centres (sans hébergement) which are also entitled to organise residential trips off site. Otherwise they organise holiday activities at daily rates, where the children go home in the early evening. They offer sports, arts and crafts and day trips.
They also offer activités périscolaires, for the morning before school, at lunchtime or in evenings or on Wednesdays and weekends. These used to be called centres aérés (centres for “airing” children) and were formerly organised by volunteers, mainly clergy and primary school teachers.
In recent decades they have been run by dedicated staff with the same diplomas as those at the traditional séjours (colonies) de vacances, which have their own sites.
While these vary widely, cheaper holidays are not necessarily of lesser quality – the body running them may have substantial council funding.
Included are usually transport (where the organiser is arranging it, eg. by coach or train) accommodation, meals and a basic holiday insurance policy (you may also wish to take out a personal injury insurance for your child as well, assurance de personne pour les dommages corporels). A fee (around e20) to join the association running the holiday is often on top of the main charge.
- There may be different rates according to means, usually based on a quotient familial figure used by the caisses d’allocations familiales which takes into account family size, income and benefits.
In the case of holidays run by councils there are often different rates for locals or they may be for locals only.
- If you have a modest income, the caisse d’allocations familiales (caf) may also be able to help, notably with bons de vacances (holiday vouchers). These are available for those who are claiming child benefits from the caf for at least one child as long as your income is below certain thresholds, depending on the size of your family. The caf will usually send those eligible an application form each year, but if you have not had one it is worth checking on entitlement. In the case of a séjour de vacances the vouchers pay a sum per child, per day, towards the cost of the holiday (up to €10 a day, with a maximum of 15 days).
- Some families also benefit from the national chèques vacances (holiday cheques) scheme, like a holiday version of the “tickets restaurant,” for example given as a perk from work. In some cases these are also offered by mairies (in larger towns the relevant department to speak to is the one dealing with benefits, the Centre Communal d’Action Social) and cafs. Many, though not all, bodies offering children’s holidays accept them. They come in set values and are valid until the end of the year after issue.
- Charities Le Secours Catholique (www.secours-catholique.org) and Le Secours Populaire (www.secourspopulaire.fr) may also be able to offer aid towards the cost of children’s holidays.
Finding out what is on offer in your area
Speak to the service enfants et jeunesse of your mairie or communauté de communes (grouping of communes).
Each region also has a CRIJ - centre régional d'information jeunesse (regional youth information centre) - which should be able to advise and may have details of camps on its website. Look them up in the phonebook or do an internet search, for example for “CRIJ Aquitaine.”
Other sources of information on activities for children in your area include community social and cultural organisations like maisons de quartier, MJCs (maisons de jeunes et de la culture), centres socio-culturels and foyers ruraux. Scout camps are also an option, if your child is a scout, while a more secular version of scouting, the Eclaireurs, Eclaireuses de France, runs camps which are open to all.
Looking further afield
There are several good websites which can help you find holidays all over France, such as www.123sejours.com and www.salutleskids.com
These sites allow you to search by holiday period (eg. “summer,” “july” or “august”) and age of children. You can then see lists of suitable holidays around France, including price ranges and departure points. 123sejours.com breaks holidays down by age groups (tranches d’âge) of 3-8, 5-10. 8-12, 10-15 and over-15.