We’ve all read (and probably eye-rolled at) the newspaper stories about reversing summer learning loss. The impact of the big six-week brain slowdown can be “huge” according the National Literacy Trust.
But this year the headlines surrounding the “summer slide” got physical. The attention shifted from brain sharpeners (keeping academically fit) to the importance of not letting physical fitness slide over the long break away from PE and after-school activities. A recent piece in the Daily Telegraph warned: “Summer holidays are bad for children’s health” and said new research shows that “youths plonked in front of screens” during the holidays lose most of the fitness they gain in the academic year.
The study sampled 400 British school children and found that our kids can lose up to 80% of the physical fitness they build up over the busy school year during “lazy” time off.
I have two boys, 13 and 9, who are are both sporty and, admittedly, scheduled to within an inch of their lives with term time clubs. The summer holidays bring a (blissful) break from endlessly consulting the family wall planner, juggling car shares and umpteen loads of washing sports kit.
We stop. We refuel. We go from eat-your-greens to ice creams.
While 80% is at the extreme end of the fitness drop off, the research suggests that many children can lose around 50% of their stamina and strength over the summer. It’s no wonder the return to school – and the new sport season – can feel physically demanding. In our house pre-season rugby training is notoriously tough. Fitness has to be regained sharpish if you don’t want to get squashed.
But what if our kids went back to school fitter than ever? Or at least as fit as when they bombed out of the school gates on the last day of term?
What if we slashed a 50% fitness drop off to 10% or less and our children were match fit on the first day of term?
We decided to give it a try.
“We’re going on an activity holiday,” I told my eldest, Caleb, 13. He was literally playing Xbox at 11am on a Wednesday morning in late July in his dressing gown when I delivered the news. I was thrilled I’d managed to bag a last-minute deal with Mark Warner. I’d picked their 5* Levante Resort on the beautiful Greek island of Rhodes. It looked gorgeous.
Teenage son looked crestfallen. Cue a massive pause while he processed the concept then said:
“Do I have to do things? I’m not doing things. I’m definitely not doing things with other kids.”
Three weeks later we were off to do things. Even on the flight from Heathrow, Caleb was insistent that he was going to lie by the pool and listen to Spotify for 14 days straight. Like he did last year. Oh, and the year before that.
Fortunately, Billy, my 9-year-old, carried the baton of excitement for both of them.
We left a cold grey London (a wee reminder of the meteorological delights of Summer 2017) and arrived on the island of Rhodes in Greece to a cloudless bright blue sky and thirty degrees. My only hope to get more than one of my offspring “doing things” was appalling in-resort Wi-Fi. However, the easy-peasy British Airways flight (chartered by Mark Warner) and air-conditioned coach to the hotel didn’t bode well on this count. Everything appeared to work beautifully.
I’m not sure when things shifted from opting out (NO-NO) to a healthy fear of missing out (FOMO), but by lunchtime on Day 2 Caleb had met fifteen “kids” who were exactly his age and appeared to be fully-signed up members of the Doing Things Club.
Activities were laid on across the resort and in a custom-built activity centre for a range of ages: Baby Club (4-11 months), Toddler Club (1-2 years), Mini Club (3-5 years), Junior Club (6-9 years), Kidz Club (10-13 years) and Indy Club (14-17 years). I hadn’t let on prior to arriving at the hotel but I’d been a bit concerned about the age range of the clubs for older kids. I just couldn’t see Caleb (at 13 nearly 14) hanging out with 10-year-olds in the 10-13 club. No matter how lovely those 10-year olds might be. But Levante is one of the larger Mark Warner resorts, which means more kids, more groups and more specific age groupings. So 13-year-olds are put in their own group to do 13-year old things with other 13-year olds. 9 year olds do 9-year-old things with other 9 year olds. Just like the Wi-Fi; it worked.
I’d also been a little bit concerned about how much I would need to organise my boys. The first evening in resort felt quite rushed with welcome meetings and information sessions and a Meet the Childcare Team talk. For me, holidays equal an absence of meetings but it was worth bearing with the initial onslaught of helpful huddles to make the rest of the holiday run like clockwork.
Mark Warner gets a massive thumbs up from 9-year-old Billy (left)
Each boy was given a timetable – yes, a timetable – and most days started with a waterfront session such as windsurfing or sailing at 9am. That meant being up, breakfasted and suncream on at a time that, on previous holidays, we'd be stirring from sleep. Based on the amount of cajoling (aka loud requesting aka screaming) that happens on the average school run morning, I was nervous about how that might pan out. Again, somehow it did.
One Mum I met on the trip said that getting her teenagers up and out of bed was actually, in her opinion, one of the best parts of the Mark Warner experience: “It’s re-set their nocturnal clocks,” she told me half way through week one. “My son is 13 and daughter, 15. In the summer holidays they go to bed after me. Go to bed late; sleep late. I was dreading getting them back into a 9-5 school routine. Here, there’s a reason to up and out, and the main reason is to see their friends." She summed what many parents echoed across the week:
"Activities and exercise aside, the social nature of Levante is really healthy, especially for teenagers"
I agree. The mates side of Mark Warner was an unexpected hit for us. Instead of hoping they might make a friend while playing in the pool, there’s a ready-made gene pool of same-age kids and masses of stuff for them to do. Oh, and an adult to supervise them too. The fully trained activity leaders are all British and, even at the end of a long summer season, they looked like they were still making the most of what must be, frankly, one of the best summer jobs on the planet. Caleb’s activity leader was called Joe, an Exeter university maths under graduate and all-round lovely young bloke. Billy had two leaders, Amy and Hannah, both professional nannies. All of the childcare staff I met at Levante made me think, ‘I bet their Mum is proud of them.’
In terms of the activities themselves, they change each day (as per the timetable) and the children can dip in and out when it suits them – and you. It’s not essential for them to be there for the whole of the morning or afternoon session. Caleb was old enough to sign himself in and out of club but Billy needed collecting and dropping off as independent in/outs start at age 10. It wasn’t an issue, however, to plan Billy’s day in advance and work out where I needed to collect him and at what time. Yes, it did mean a little more clock-watching than is normal on holiday but it was well worth it to have ‘me’ time and, even at Levante, one of the larger resorts, you are only ever a few minutes walk from one of the activity meeting points.
Levante is low-rise and made up of a main hotel building and groups of sweet little white washed buildings dotted with deep pink Bougainvillea. It’s simple to navigate but also spread out enough so that no area ever feels too busy. I never, for example, had a battle to get a sun lounger by the main pool no matter how late I emerged from breakfast.
Across the week the boys did Sailing, Kayaking, Stand Up Paddleboarding, Windsurfing, Kwik Cricket, 5-A-Side Football, Boules, Dodgeball, Underwater Tag, Water Polo, Rounders… I could go on. Plus they played a bunch of board and card games, had a music quiz, prepared a dance for a mini show, and played Taboo, Marco Polo and (everyone’s favourite) 15. I still have no idea what the last three games involved but they appeared to go down very well with both age groups.
The beauty of the kids’ clubs is that they get to try a bit of everything and then delve a little deeper after a couple of days or in the second week (if you are lucky enough to stay for 14 nights). Caleb got the sailing bug and did his Royal Yachting Association Level 1 qualification in three mornings (see picture, above, of Caleb on Day 3 of his course); Billy signed up for a Lawn Tennis Association Junior Course with the tennis crew. They both did a free PADI try-dive in the pool.
Beyond the childcare, there is a fantastic watersports centre where anyone - big or small - can sign out equipment (all included in the cost of the holiday) as well as a tennis club, cycling hub and decent-size lane pool. Plus there is a large main pool, beach bar pool, kids splash pool and an exceedingly lovely adult-only pool complete with teak loungers and peace and quiet.
Everything is super organised in a way that makes being busy feel, well, less busy. On the waterfront, for example, masses of high quality equipment are laid out and ready to go, and there’s always a member of staff to lend a hand with setting up and getting going.
What’s more, the activities feel properly inclusive. Yes, there are lots of fantastic tennis players and cyclists and sailors but the staff are welcoming to all abilities. It’s as much have-a-go as hothouse.
In general, there’s a really warm and welcoming atmosphere at Levante that extends across both the British staff (recruited for the high season) and the wonderful Greek managers, housekeepers, waiters, receptionists and bar tenders. Much of this trickles down from the Resort Manager, Sue Thomas, who has been at the resort since it opened in 2012. Sue exudes experience and calm; the quiet assured manner of someone who knows she is running a very tight (and happy) ship.
It comes as no surprise when she tells me that each year Levante has, on average, around 50% returning guests. “Parents complain about the pressure to come back because their kids won’t go anywhere else,” she explains. “They tell me their kids text and email each other when they get back home to try to arrange the next holiday.”
“I’m even seeing kids come back as staff,” adds Sue. One of our tennis coaches first came with his parents a few years ago. He loved it so much he decided to do his coaching course and get a summer job with the company. I think this sums up the way this kind of holiday can open up doors and skills that last beyond the one- or two-week break.”
I asked Sue whether she’d seen kids arriving less fit in the last few years – as the new research suggests. “It’s hard to judge because the children who come here are used to playing sport and having a busy schedule at home. A bit like choosing the right kind of school for your child, parents pick this holiday because they know their children will make nice friends and stay busy."
But surely the advent of iPads and smart phones has seen kids wanting to be busy in a different way. Are kids keener on their tablet than clubs? “We don’t really see kids on devices very often around the resort. If they are, they are usually messaging what time to meet friends. I know younger children often retreat for screen time in the cool of their room before dinner but they are so physically tired from their day, why not?”
I have to say that I was amazed how little I saw kids on iPads or phones in our two-week stay; hardly at all during the day. This was probably the biggest difference from other hotels we had stayed in the past.
It’s not because they don't have plenty of downtime, either. The kids’ clubs break for a 2-hour lunch – the boys and I ate together every lunchtime in the hotel’s little taverna-style bar – and stop at 5.30 in the evening so you can have a proper family dinner. Once they are 10, the kids can eat dinner with their friends (along with a member of the Mark Warner staff) but we made meal times our time, and relished the all-you-can-eat buffet. The dining room has white rattan chairs and ceiling fans; definitely more plantation chic than sports club cafe. Mark Warner know how to cater for guests who want to eat, drink and be merry as much as get fit.
It’s definitely not all eat, sleep, lycra, repeat.
You can be wonderfully lazy too.
There were days when we took time out from clubs and timetables. Kids don’t have to do the 6-days a week on offer. One day we headed off to Rhodes town to eat octopus and explore its medieval cobbled streets. On another we took the local bus along the coast and ended up at a massive waterpark (see Billy in action, below).
Even on busy days, we also took time out to do ‘normal’ holiday things: read, swim, chill out, eat ice creams and, yes, listen to Spotify. At Levante, the majority of activities happen on the waterfront or in the outdoor studio. So if you want to be quiet, you can avoid this area and the busy bodies.
Back on the flight to London after two really wonderful weeks it did feel like we’d pressed a re-set button. When we got home, the boys’ Dad (who hadn’t seen them for two whole weeks) straight away said how fit and healthy they looked. And I don’t think this was just down to their sun-kissed cheeks and super-pleased-to-see-him smiles. They’d certainly grown in confidence, and I do think they’d grown a little physically stronger too.
There were only two sleeps before the boys headed back to school. I can’t pretend the alarm clock on the first day back wasn’t painful. But, honestly, they eased back into their schedules better than in previous years and pre-season rugby and football training was definitely less of a shock. The timing – travelling right at the end of the long summer holidays - was, for us, spot-on.
Resort Manager, Sue, was also spot-on about the potential fall-out from our first Mark Warner holiday. I’ve already had to promise the boys we’ll join the statistics and be one of the 50% of clients who will go back next year.