Spain’s long summer holidays are predictably popular with children, representing over two months of freedom and fun. For working parents, however, the holidays are a headache: what to do with the kids for all those long, lazy weeks?
Thankfully, there are plenty of things going on, from day clubs (casals d’estiu), to summer camps (colònies) to the scary-sounding work camps (camps de treball), and many of them are still accepting enrollees. Every spring, the Generalitat produces its summer activity guide (‘Guia Activitats d’Estiu’), which lists their activities and those of registered organisations, all of which exist to entertain children while parents are at work.
At around €100 a week, casals are a cheap, convenient and popular choice. Children attend their usual school or a youth centre during the day (Monday to Friday), and, instead of maths and literature, they enjoy games, excursions, swimming and workshops. At the end of the day, the child goes home, usually exhausted, and prepares to do it all over again the next day. Children can start as young as three years old.
Colònies are hugely popular, with more than 100,000 children going away to camp each summer. Rather than having a ‘school’ link, colònies represent independence, freedom (supervised, of course) and the chance to make a completely new set of friends. Around 100 children at a time congregate at a camp or hostel up and down the coast or in the mountains, for a week or two. Colònies cost around €650 for 12 days and provide places to children between the ages of 6 and 16.
Colònies have a long tradition in Catalunya. They began over a century ago when the church was the main provider of social, educational and, of course, religious instruction for children. Church-run organisations took disadvantaged or sick children away for a week of educational activities, or convalescence, amid fresh sea or mountain air. Colònies with a religious focus were popular during the Franco regime; they enjoyed a resurgence in the Nineties and are still popular today.
“Colònies have grown with the needs of the family,” said Joan Segarra, director of Education Services at the Fundació Pere Tarres. “Nowadays, with two parents working, it is hard for parents to get time off in July, even if they have August off. So colònies and casals help fill the gap.”
In the same way, they provide a lifeline for foreign resident families. “We often have children of foreign families in the groups and it is great, especially as many of our camps are now English language-focused due to parent demand, said Segarra. “It’s a hands-on way for the local children to learn.”
A camp day normally begins with breakfast at 8am, and from then on, it’s activities all the way. There may be an English lesson, an acting class or a craft workshop after lunch, but most activities revolve around the pool and outdoor pursuits, like a nature ramble or excursion. After dinner, there may be a joc de nit (night game), such as a talent show or night ramble, and then it’s lights out at 11pm. “It doesn’t matter how sophisticated the activities we organise, the pool is always the most popular activity,” said Segarra.
Camps emphasise the child’s personal development and learning to live with other people. Children are encouraged to keep their dining and sleeping areas clean. “They normally know what a mop looks like, but haven’t got a clue how to use one!” Segarra said. The first two days consist of orientation games and activities to help kids settle in and get to know the others quickly. Workshops and team activities are geared towards the different age groups and allow the children to discover their strengths and abilities.
“Obviously, the first-timers miss their parents and may take a couple of days to settle in, but they are soon fine and enjoying themselves. We have telephones on all our premises so they can speak to their parents if necessary. Also, our camp monitors are trained to deal with anything the children might be going through emotionally and know how to make sure each child feels part of the activity.”
The monitors are unsung heroes in the little world of a colónia: brave souls who give their lives over to entertaining and looking after the masses from 8am to 11pm (and probably beyond) for the summer months. Most are twenty-something university graduates who hold at least the certificate of Monitor de educación en el tiempo libre, an all-round qualification covering basic aspects of teaching, child psychology, plus the practical skills, such as games and workshops they will need to keep groups of children stimulated for 10 days at a time.
There are many camps available which have a specialised or educational focus, called estades.
Work camps are another option. These combine leisure activities with community work, whether it be helping people in need, protecting nature, or actually building something like a piece of equipment for a playground. The camps usually last 15 days. Camps de treball also have an international strand, where older children can work for up to six months as volunteers on projects in developing countries. The age range is between 14 and 30.
It is also possible to do specialist expeditions (rutes), where children between the ages of 12 and 18 undertake a mountain trek, for example, staying at a different place every night. Expeditions can be done on foot, by bike, or on horseback, and focus on character building and participating in a shared experience.
Then, of course, there is the Scout movement, which has a strong presence in Catalunya. Minyons Escoltes Guies Sant Jordi de Catalunya (MEGSJC) has more than 13,000 members between six and 19 years old and camping is, of course, an integral activity. As well as learning how to tie complicated knots, make a roaring campfire from two dry sticks and sing ‘Ging Gang Gooley’, scouting teaches the philosophy of founder Baden-Powell to encourage peace, tolerance, democracy and respect for the environment.
The colonia culture may explain why Spanish children and teenagers tend to be easy mixers who love hanging out in groups. Many visit the same camp each year to meet up with the same friends, who often stay friends well into adulthood. Ask any Catalan adult about their colonia experience, and they will wax nostalgic with tales about midnight feasts and sleeping under the stars. The camps are also completely inclusive, Segarra said. “We accept children with all types of disabilities and certain behavioural problems, who are assigned their own specially-trained monitors if necessary. This inclusivity is important for all the children.”
Mariana, 13, went on her first summer camp last year. “I used to spend the summer watching TV, reading, dancing and sometimes going to the park with my cousins,” she said. “It was a bit boring. The colonia is non-stop fun and you never have time to be bored.”
Finally, it’s a highly regulated industry. All organisations and centres on the Generalitat’s approved database must meet strict criteria similar to any educational establishment, so you can rest assured your children will be in safe hands.
• MultiSports—10 days, at an activity centre in Ribals; €465.
• English with MultiSports—14 days with three hours of English in the morning; €576.
• Music—7 days; €375.
• Computing—14 days of computing and other activities; €525.
• Sports—10 days of football, basketball and handball; €386.
Source: Xarxa d'Alberges de Cataluyna; www.tujaca.com
• Coordinadora d’organitzadors de Camps de Treball Internacionals de Catalunya (Council of Catalan voluntary work camp organisers)
Tel. 93 425 4064 www.cocat.org (in English)
• Fundació Pere Tarres
Tel. 93 430 1606 www.peretarres.org
• Generalitat de Catalunya Department d’Acció Social i Ciutadania Secretaria de Joventut (Generalitat department of social action and youth citizenship)
• La Rosa dels Vents
Tel. 902 20 00 05, www.rosadelsvents.es
• MEGSJC (Catalan voluntary organisation)
Tel. 93 590 2700 www.escoltesiguies.cat
• Top Colònies
Tel. 93 303 2270 www.topcolonies.com
• Xarxa d’Albergs de Catalunya
(Youth hostel network)
Tel. 93 483 8363 www.tujaca.com