Kid Start Now – P’s First Holiday Camp

A few months ago I was sitting around planting seeds of enthusiasm into P’s brain for some sort of holiday camp.

“What’s a holiday camp?” The inclusion of the word “camp” had obviously caught his attention.

“Well, you know what it isn’t? It isn’t school. Nope. Not school.”

The truth was I hadn’t decided what sort of camp to try out. I was thinking along the lines of drama, but wasn’t sure if the goal should be to develop his Chinese skills so he can keep up in class with his bilingual peers, to develop his social skills so he can get along better with other people, or to develop his acting skills so he doesn’t do this next time I ask him to go stand up next to the train and pretend to be getting on so I can take a photo:

Convincing.

Convincing.

Then Pamela at Kid Start Now emailed me offering a complimentary four-day immersion course, sorry, camp, and my mind started racing. I don’t intend to get all into PR on this blog, but she’d written such a nicely-targeted personal email (very different from the usual spam letters offering once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to alienate readers by posting irrelevant infographics) that I felt I should give it some serious thought. But the thinking confused me so I instead handed the question to P who said yes, so I said great! and KidStartNow Chinese Immersion Class Holiday Camp it was.

So to make things extra-clear, P got a complimentary four-day-long Chinese immersion holiday camp from KidStartNow which I’ll tell you about in this post. I’m also going to tell you what my experience with KidStartNow taught me about introducing a foreign language as a monolingual parent.  Skip to the summary.

“Are they going to be speaking Chinese?”

Like most things P willingly signs up for and later rates as enjoyable, it all started with an argument about whether or not he would go.

“But are they going to be speaking all in Chinese?” he asked at the last possible moment.

“At a Chinese immersion school? Most probably yes.”

“Then I don’t want to go after all. Anyway, it’s not a school, it’s a camp.”

“Right! Right. Camp. But you said you’d go and they did send you that very exciting surprise invitation…”

KidStartNow invitation.

So led by the exciting surprise invite, we went. By the time P had defensively made sure his new teacher understood that he didn’t have a Chinese name, couldn’t speak any Chinese and was pretty sure the whole thing was just a waste of everyone’s time, I’d concluded I wasn’t likely to enter a future of lucrative invitations to awesome celebrity blogging events which would, after all, only spoil my common touch. But Teacher Lee just smiled patiently and before I knew it P had swanned off with a crab on his head, not to mix metaphors.

I sat down to watch via the TV screen in the waiting area. What happened next shocked me.

He spoke in Chinese. Actually not such bad Chinese, either. You have to understand I’d never really heard him try before – he’d always refused to perform when asked, coyly insisting (through his actions, if not his words) that it was the “wrong” language for the social situation at hand, what with me being all English-speaking and so on. And of course it’s just hard to hold a conversation with yourself: anyone who’s fielded requests to “say something in language X” will know what I mean.

At break I asked if he realised I’d been watching and he got a bashful grin on his face like he’d been caught hiding his talents and there was no point denying it now. Then he skipped back into the classroom camp for the second hour.

This is P totally not at all having fun in his Chinese immersion camp that he in no way wants to go to, on second thoughts.

This is P totally not at all enjoying his Chinese immersion camp that he in no way wants to go to, on second thoughts.

“But I want you to watch our show.”

“Going back for a second day of school?” Æ asked the next morning.

“It’s a camp, Dad.”

“That’s right, it is, too. I forgot. But you’re going?”

P agreed without argument this time, and only some of that credit goes to the after-camp ice-cream we had downstairs. The first day had gone “swimmingly” – except for twenty minutes near the end, when P started, without notice, to unravel. And if you’ve recently watched the film adaptation of Coraline and the word “unravel” is bringing up some pretty dark imagery involving but-I-thought-you-were-nice bug-demons you’re in the right zone. On the bus afterwards, he’d wept until I’d repeatedly promised not to leave him on board even if he fell asleep, after which he’d spent the rest of the journey lying absolutely still in my lap, staring out at the sky.

The truth is he doesn’t get many opportunities to work in a foreign language for two hours’ straight, and even when it’s fun, it’s tiring. Perhaps especially when it’s fun, because that’s when he’s most engaged. And my goodness, he had been engaged – for a whole hour forty minutes. Unprecedented. No wonder he was worn out.

But what impressed me was the way Teacher Lee not only remained patient and in control, but also adapted to the needs of the class. Subsequent lessons included a lively language game towards the end to keep everyone fully awake and on board.

You'd better stay awake because otherwise THE SHARK MIGHT EAT YOU!

You’d better stay awake because otherwise THE SHARK MIGHT EAT YOU!

There were no further tears on the bus. Meanwhile, us parents had our own lesson (camplette?), on the program itself. KidStartNow runs the holiday camp as a four-day-long story, facilitated entirely in Chinese. Games, props, and animated storybooks provide tools for the activities, with points awarded for various tasks along the way. Character-building messages are part of the curriculum, and there are also e-books to read at home to keep the lesson going. You can read more about the structure of the holiday camp on the KidStartNow website. They also run programs for term time.

By the third day everything appeared so much under control that I dared to duck out for some tea. “But I want you to watch our show!” P said when he found out. And he studied the waiting-room screen closely, looking for centre stage.

kidstartnow collage

Found it.

“Laoshi, wode pengyou huijiale ma?”

P soon became fiercely competitive about the points (gah), with which he was able to “buy” stickers – although in a touching twist, some April students opted to purchase gifts for Mother’s Day instead. All part of the learning.

My reward came the following week, though, when camp finished, and school started again. P turned back to kindy to ask if his friend had gone home yet, and saw his Chinese teacher standing at the door. Without awkwardness or hesitation, he asked, “Laoshi, wode pengyou huijiale ma?” and when she answered in Chinese the conversation flowed through several exchanges. “By golly, it’s worked,” I thought with surprise.

Later I asked P for his impressions – had the class gone ok, despite being all in Chinese?

“The camp, you mean.”

“Sure – the camp.”

“It was ok that it was in Chinese,” he said. “I already knew a lot of the words.” Knew, but hesitantly. It took a new setting with different people and a TV screen to give him confidence in his abilities. Still, I wondered how much he’d understood and remembered.

“What was the moral of the story you guys worked on?”

“Even things that seem scary might not be as scary as they first appear.” I think he was referring to the shark character, who turned out to be misunderstood, but you and I can see the broader lesson.

And no, it's not "sticker charts rule".

Which is not “sticker charts rule”.

Quick Review and KidStartNow info:

  • The KidStartNow holiday camp is a series of four two-hour-long sessions. It’s recommended for children from three to six years old. Class sizes are small (maximum eight).
  • We liked it! We would go back. I’m considering putting T into a class in future. She is younger and has less ability in Chinese but is also more willing to wing it and would therefore probably be fine.
  • P’s starting ability: P, who is six, has been taking the normal Chinese class at his school for three years, and the extra enrichment class at his school for eighteen months. Otherwise, he gets little exposure to the Chinese language and generally won’t speak it if asked.
  • The two-hour program was the right amount of time to challenge P’s language abilities but not quite so long that his brains melted into a puddle.
  • The teacher was able to adapt her lessons to suit the class and keep everyone engaged for the entire two-hour period, which helped with the puddle-melting.
  • Highlights for P were the story and the points system. And let’s face it, that crab hat had a little something, too.
  • The TV screens worked well to give parents the ability to unobtrusively “sit in” and gave P the feeling that he was “putting on a TV show for mum outside”.
  • The next holiday camp runs from 29 Jul – 1 Aug, 9-11am – smack bang in the international school holidays. There are also classes (classes – school) during term time. More information on the KidStartNow website.

What the KidStartNow experience taught me about encouraging bilingualism as a monolingual parent:

  • Kids who are good at code-switching can be reluctant to talk to their parents in a foreign language, and spying on them during an immersion class can help break the ice. Really! The effect is more like Big Brother the reality TV show than Big Brother the scary dystopian panopticon.
  • Exposing learners to success with new people and situations can help put them at ease with their abilities.

Read also: Christy’s review of the December 2013 camp her kids attended.

KidStartNow - Our first Chinese immersion holiday camp, Singapore.

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