"I have made it my mission as a mother, to expose my kids to various cultures and customs while they are young enough to feel the sense of wonder, I remember so well from my own growing-up years."
By Gunjan Prakash
Ever since I was seven or eight years old, I remember my parents taking me on summer vacations abroad. Visiting different countries, trying diverse foods, and waking up in hotels around the world was the highlight of my childhood. These early trips taught me the value of experiences over possessions — a lesson I've never forgotten.
As a parent myself, I want to make sure I instil the same love of travel in my kids. So, I started by taking them on trips when they were very young. Today, I have made it my mission as a mother, to expose my kids to various cultures and customs while they are young enough to feel the sense of wonder, I remember so well from my own growing-up years. And what better way to introduce them to different cultures than to put them in an international summer camp?
Through preliminary research, I discovered that most international camps accept kids above the age of six. So, I patiently waited for my twins’ sixth birthday and began my intense search. What was the best kind of camp for them to attend? What country would be most suitable? Should I enrol them in a language camp or a camp geared towards specific experiences? To answer these questions, I scrolled through seemingly endless mission statements, itineraries and countless photo logs.
Since my kids were already taking Spanish lessons at school, I decided to enrol them in a language camp. Research shows that learning a second language early in life helps kids build stronger connections to different cultures, fosters empathy and opens their minds to be well-adjusted global citizens.
I spoke to Natasha Mason Kennedy, director of LAE Madrid, a centre that allows English teachers to learn Spanish. For Kennedy, who is not originally from Spain, being bilingual is essential and personal. “My son is bilingual,” she explains. “We have English only at home, and he went to a Spanish infants’ school and then, a bilingual primary school. At times, during his schooling, he has needed help with his academic Spanish. When I was looking for summer camps for him, the majority were for Spanish children to learn English and I was looking for the opposite.”
This led her to create her own summer programme. LAE Madrid was established in 2012, six years after she opened TtMadrid. From her own personal desire to foster her son’s language development, Kennedy discovered a potentially untapped market.
Kennedy’s vision for her summer programme is simple and unique: people helping people. “We run a small and very familial Spanish camp during the summer, and we welcome families throughout the year, many of whom are homeschoolers from the US or taking sabbaticals for the family to travel together.”
“Children meet people at camp they may not come into contact with, in their everyday lives,” says Stephen Fine, academic and camp owner.
On top of the language development perks, the summer camp abroad has its own developmental benefits. “Plurality and respect for others is a key lesson in the lives of young adults,” the blog for International Spanish Courses (ISC) says. “Curiosity is a very powerful element, making studying in a summer camp abroad, a perfect opportunity to make contact with fascinating cultures, customs, and societies.”
After researching a handful of European summer camps, I decided on a language summer camp in Spain. The Spark Spanish/TECs International Summer Camp held in July and August at El Puerto de Santa Maria, a beautiful beach town in Southwest Spain, edged out the competition for several reasons.
First and foremost, I wanted a small-town experience with fewer international families. I wanted my twins to be completely immersed in the linguistic universe of the country of destination, practising the native tongue 24/7.
As Miguel Padova writes for the ISC blog, “Having native speakers with whom to practice is also an important and distinguishing benefit, which helps reduce one’s native accent at an early age.” Since El Puerto de Santa Maria is off the tourist-beaten path, I thought immersion in local culture would be much easier there.
The second reason I chose this programme was the unique opportunity for parents to take classes while their kids attended camp. Spark’s Spanish adult academy and the chance to stay at an on-site residence with other families, sounded like an excellent option for us all.
There were three options for the camp: a half-day programme, a full-day one and an overnight programme. I enrolled my kids in the full-day option during August. This proved to be a long and productive day, but the kids enjoyed themselves and did not complain.
While the Spanish students learnt English, the international students worked on their Spanish. The campers spent three to four hours in language class each morning. After language class, they were free to explore a variety of activities including swimming, art and craft, soccer and basketball. This camp also had an add-on watersports feature that my kids loved. They were able to go kayaking, sailing, windsurfing, paddle boarding and more.
The adult classes were from morning to 12:30 p.m. Considering I had been out of school for many years, it was both a challenge and a joy to jump back into a classroom experience. Having other parents there, allowed me to both socialise and practise the skills we were learning.
After class, I had a siesta or took the time to explore the beautiful town and gorgeous beaches. The programme offered excursions almost every day after the language lessons, including cooking and dance classes, beach excursions and tours to nearby towns. There were also weekend trips at no extra cost. Meaning, there was plenty of interesting things to do.
As a parent, if language lessons aren’t your thing, use the time your kids are in camp as a great opportunity to experience the local culture and participate in activities that aren’t exactly kid-friendly. For instance, attending a tasting at Bodegas Osborne — the historic home of sherry or, learning about the architectural history of the town. El Puerto de Santa Maria also has an active bullfighting ring. While that wasn't personally up my alley, I know it can be of interest to many. So, when you choose a foreign camp, be sure to research things to do in the area — both with and without your kids!
My kids were having fun and making friends at the camp and at our residence. They practised their Spanish each day at local markets and restaurants. I proudly watched their language skills improve. From faltering, shy words here and there, they confidently plunged into full-fledged conversations. They played Spanish games and sang Spanish songs. Each night they raved about the staff and their teachers. At restaurants, the menus were only in Spanish. This forced my kids to learn how to read and pronounce Spanish words and also, interact with the restaurant staff. I rewarded my kids with dessert if they were successful at communicating. A word of advice here. If you find a foreign language-heavy experience intimidating, there are several smartphone apps to help you along.
The two weeks passed quickly. For me, putting my twins in camp was the best experience I could give them. They grew from this adventure and greatly improved their Spanish language skills. I am now looking for another summer camp to enroll them in, only this time in a different city.
Language camps like the programme at El Puerto de Santa Maria have sprung up all around the globe in recent years. There are various camps in countries such as France, Switzerland, Austria, Taiwan, Japan and the United States. Enrolling children in these camps is a great way to expose them to various cultures and traditions while strengthening the bonds of family and friendship. If language isn’t your thing, there are other kinds of camps revolving around technology, drama and music.
As Natasha Kennedy attests, “The families who come to our camp are all involved in the adventure.” She says, “The parents are often more excited than the children as they have spent a long time planning their Spanish holiday. The experience is immersive, and we help the family to discover the culture as well as the language of Spain.”
According to a Spark representative, “Any well-run camp offers children the unique opportunity to get out of their shell and discover who they are and what they want from life, while also establishing a massive sense of independence. Sending a child abroad adds the cultural and linguistic aspect to a normal life-changing summer camp experience” she explains.
“Summer camp is like a snippet of life on fast forward. It lasts only two weeks, but the impact it has on a child can be equal to a whole year. The camp staff become surrogate parents in an environment where both they and the campers must step out of their comfort zones. They need to work together as a synergised unit to learn and have a great time,” the Spark representative adds.
I have realised that Spark’s summer language experience is about so much more than just learning a language. It’s about stepping outside one’s own experience and gaining the tools to become capable global citizens. My kids did not just learn verb conjugation and practical Spanish terms, they were also able to forge new friendships and develop skills that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives!
Gunjan Prakash from Manhattan, New York, is a travel blogger and creator of the Facebook group Families Who Love To Travel. Her mission is to empower a community of fellow adventurer, families and solo wanderers.
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