At any moment, half a million children across the UK are unhappy with their lives according to The Good Childhood Report 2012. Over the last decade, several studies have suggested that puberty is starting earlier. And it’s not just the physical change from child to adult that is sneaking up on parents and children – the more subtle shift into adolescence is also darkening the doors of pre-teens, along with all the hormone-driven anxiety that it entails. Children are worrying about very non-childlike things at a younger age than ever before. In 2007, UNICEF placed the UK “at the bottom of the child well-being league table among developed countries”. I can’t help but think that the trend towards early-onset adolescence and unhappiness among children are linked: The Good Childhood Report shows that “low well-being increases dramatically with age – doubling from the age of 10 (7%) to the age of 15 (14%)”. It also tells us that a third of children worry about how they look, and many children worry about not having the ‘right’ clothes, and not being able to ‘fit in’. As puberty occurs earlier, so too do children’s worries about their appearance and social acceptance.
Although 68% of teenagers use Facebook, 36% wish they could go back to a time when Facebook did not exist; 43% of teens wish they could ‘unplug’ from social media. It is well-documented that social media can have detrimental effects on our mental health, particularly on our self-image. We compare every facet of our own, warts-and-all, existence with the airbrushed versions of our peers. Young people today have unprecedented access to social networks – an egocentric world of one-upmanship and social self-aggrandisement. I believe that the increase in social media use among young people has led to more widespread low self-esteem, negative self-image and a desire to ‘fit it’ with friends. Despite the prevalence of digital interaction, the study ‘Social Media, Social Life’ tells us that “most teens prefer face-to-face communication, and many of them think using social media can interfere with that.” Clearly young people have a complicated relationship with their online pastimes.
This is where ATE comes in. Active Training and Education, to give the organisation its full name, is a not-for-profit educational trust, with 50 years of experience in delivering top-quality residential holidays for children. ATE holidays, or Superweeks, are havens away from the gadgets that dominate our daily life: no phones, internet, or television. Just good, old-fashioned fun. They take place in carefully selected centres, mostly boarding schools surrounded by beautiful English countryside. They always have huge grounds to explore, loads of indoor spaces to play in and a swimming pool. They are packed with hiding places, and lots of secrets to discover. ATE Superweeks provide young people with a non-judgemental space where they can have fun and be a little silly without fear of being an outcast. Hopefully, the children will learn that life is more fun when you stop worrying so much about what other people think. Essentially, ATE allows children to stop worrying and learn to love their childhood.
My first experience of ATE came almost ten years ago when I went on my first Superweek as an eleven year old. I was about to leave my small, familiar primary school to go to a huge secondary school. I was naturally worried about this major change, but the experience that ATE provided helped allay my fears. Superweeks were something completely new to me, though the formula has changed little over the last fifty years. The week provided a safe, friendly environment, where children and friendships could flourish. The adults, or monitors, were not like the teachers I’d met: they never shouted, even if you were messing around; they tried to explain things and always had a smile. I always describe monitors as ‘like a big brother, not a proper grown-up’. The holidays were filled with new experiences: I still have all my old handicrafts, I still remember all the silly songs, and I still wish I had forty friends to play the whole-holiday games with.
Even after five holidays as a child, I hadn’t had my fill of ATE, so I trained to become a monitor. Taking on this role is every bit as rewarding as going to ATE as a child. The closeness of the organization comes across in the holidays, where the atmosphere is really friendly. On a micro level, each holiday is different – there are always new challenges and new faces. The children are divided by age into groups of maybe six to eight boys or girls. Each group has their own monitor who spends almost 24 hours a day with them. This means that the bond between all the children, and between each child and the monitor, becomes really strong. It’s amazing how well you can get to know somebody in a week. Nowadays I am lucky enough to see children having the same incredible, often life-changing, experience I did – trying new things, meeting new people, gaining more confidence. One of my fondest memories involves a young boy who had severe asthma and a long, challenging walk over the Malvern Hills. Though it was well within his ability, he was certain he couldn’t do it, and asked to go back to the centre. But, walking at his own pace with lots of encouragement and support from his new friends, he was able to finish the hike. He was so proud to have got to the end, something he said he never would have done outside of ATE.
So, time for some more stats! The Good Childhood Report says that children need “a positive view of themselves and a respect for their identity” in order to be happy. I believe summer camps in general, and ATE in particular, can help children think more positively about who they are. The American Camping Association found that nine out of ten children who went to a summer camp said that the experience made them feel good about themselves, while over two thirds of campers’ parents recognized that going away had helped their child to gain self-confidence. I believe that ATE gives children a chance to be childish, a precious commodity when children are forced to grow up before they’ve had a chance to be young. It lets them stop worrying about which boy band to obsess over, which make of trainers they ‘need’, what Xbox game they’re missing out on. These things simply don’t matter when you’re the trap, and you know who the blue team’s lion is.
Patrick S, ATE Monitor