Words by: Sophie Tweedale
It’s 7.15am and a huge, noisy queue is snaking around the perfectly astro-turfed lawns of our Italian kids’ club. We are surrounded by 30 whooping six-year-olds, kitted out, game faces on, jostling to be first in.
Hanging back from the scrum with my bewildered son, I scan the Olympic-sized activity list on the door.
Like many other parents going on holiday this month, I’d planned to casually rock up, drop them off for a morning of PS4 and finger painting before heading to the pool.
But as the doors flung open, it wasn’t musical chairs the children were sprinting towards with delight, it was eight hours of intensive, premier-league training. There were no trainee reps here, beaming at the door to welcome us, instead was the football legend (my son reliably informed me) Tore André Flo.
It was clear the kids’ club had been booked up for months in advance, and we sloped back to our sun loungers for a long week of Uno. But the Forte Village Chelsea Soccer School in Sardinia, where we were, is far from unusual – it is the new zeitgeist for the average family getaway.
Kids’ holiday clubs used to be so straightforward. A time-wasting lost zone of mindless kiddie bingo and dunk the rep in the pool. But they have morphed into a multi-million pound educational industry.
Fancy junior golfing lessons with a US Master? Check into the Ocean Club Golf Academy in the Bahamas, or Finca Cortesin’s Nicklaus Academy in Spain. Want to up your five-year-old’s sailing game? Get on the waiting list at the Sani Marina Sailing Academy in Halkidiki. Surely that backhand needs some help? There are spaces at Pine Cliffs Annabel Croft Tennis Academy in the Algarve – if you’re good enough.
Google the phrase ‘family getaway’ and there’s whole world of glitzy sports academies and learning camps waiting for you.
According to a recent report by ABTA, demand for skills and learning-focused holidays, or ‘invisible learning’ as it’s known, is so big that the industry is now worth £167bn globally. And like most things in our lives in 2017, it seems we jolly well want holidays to work harder for us too.
Travel operator Scott Dunn is among the firms cleverly piggy-backing the trend, recently launching a whole new raft of holidays dedicated solely to learning-focused travel (Curious Minds) to keep up with demand.
Scott Dunn Product Manager Gemma Townsend explains: “Parents are increasingly looking for more than a fly and flop, we’re seeing requests for immersive experiences that broaden children’s horizons. People want to take something away from their holidays now, and hotels are catering for that. But it does seem to be going to a whole new level.”
Their latest additions include the Juventus Football Academy at Verdura in Sicily and the newly launched Sun Gardens Sport Academy in Croatia.
Townsend adds: “There is definitely a competitive parent element going on here, feeding the trend. People are very well travelled now and yes, the school gates have become a place to look for bragging rights when it comes to what you did over the summer.”
Extending the classroom beyond school is firmly on the priority packing list for tour operators – they know it’s a seller.
Oppidan Education is a London-based mentoring firm that holds education camps at the luxury Peligoni Club during school holidays. Co-Founder Walter Kerr says: “These camps and clubs are popular because it’s guilt-free learning for the parents – they can relax whilst knowing the children are in good hands.
“Kids are sometimes sceptical but they soon realise it’s fun – our holiday camps are ‘out and about learning’, so we’re not piling on more pressure. It’s a great way to learn without realising it.
“We do fun maths games on the tennis courts, or take them on beach walks with a clipboard to write down what they see, smell and hear. We call it slow education. Children at the moment are swamped by exams and targets, so holiday camps can add soft skills, like curiosity about the world and self-awareness, which are value-adding to any parent.”
The opportunities on today’s annual summer break, however pricey, are no doubt many children’s idea of holiday heaven.
But is the pressure to achieve and come back with a diploma in football or fractions adding pressure when we should all be chilling out?
Dr Rachel Andrew is a clinical psychologist and author of The Supermum Myth (White Ladder Press, £12.99). She says: “Whilst I think there’s nothing wrong with these activities per se,especially if they’re very child-centred, an important part of holidays is for children tospend time with parents, and interact outside of a daily routine.
“By recreating the daily family splitduring a holiday, this defeats the point of going away together. It’s an opportunity for parents and children to learn more about each other and to build their relationships.
“In addition, if parents are booking holidays as a way to help their children improve skills, they are also inadvertently giving the message that value only comes from achievement.
“Children need to know that they are valued, loved and cared about for their unique qualities and personality as well as achievements. To attach family time to achievement continuously can lead to issues if a child can not continue to achieve. This can affect confidence, leading to anxiety and low mood. I think we can all get caught up in this better, faster, stronger culture, and the smart thing is to step back andreflect on our own values, where these have come from and what we are choosing to pass on to our children.”
So what is driving us to acquire more than just happy memories from our well-earned breaks? After all, the same old menu of treasure hunt and pool games on repeat had to evolve sooner or later.
A study by UK Active found that British school children lose an average of 80 per cent of their fitness through ‘lazy’ holiday months, and ‘braining-up’ breaks do force the whole family to put aside screens and focus on something else.
Arguably nothing can ever replace that end-of-the-week finale where they’ve mastered 99 Red Balloons in Spanish dressed as a pineapple. But a learning holiday is undoubtedly the ultimate holiday with benefits.