Summer Camps (Colonies de Vacances)

Invented at the end of the 19th century, summer camps still host hundreds of thousands of children and teens in France, for the most part run by non-profit organisations, works committees, or city programs. Over time, they have been able to adapt and reinvent themselves to meet regulatory requirements and changes in vacation, educational, and tourist practices, whether in terms of representation, attendance, content, location or organisation.

Constant adaptation

Invented at the end of the 19th century, summer camps still host hundreds of thousands of children and teens in France. Today, the term “colonie de vacances” actually refers to a multitude of stay offerings called “Accueils collectifs de mineurs avec hébergement” under French law [Collective hosting for minors with lodging]. The camps are primarily run by non-profit organisations (associations, works committees, city-run programs), although some private organisations have recently entered the sector.

French law defines four types of camps: vacation camps (5 days or more); short camps (less than 5 days); specific camps (linguistic, sports, artistic or cultural, regardless of duration); and ancillary accommodation activity, more commonly called “mini-camps” run by leisure centres for a maximum of 5 days.
Source: Direction de la jeunesse de l’éducation populaire et de la vie associative (Djepva)

Whether in terms of duration, departure period, destination, type of accommodation (building or tent), price, or proposed activity, the organisers have constantly reinvented themselves over the years to meet social expectations or changes in demand (Greffier and Ducatez, 2019).

National campaign to promote “colos” launched by the French Ministry of City, Youth and Sports and its partners, March 2017,

Considering the historical weight and the volume of activities deployed by the summer camps, we can say that they are part of French popular culture. Colonies de vacances are strongly rooted in contemporary history and in French public policies (from the initiatives promoted by Léo Lagrange during the Popular Front to the recent “learning camps”, and the “vacation vouchers” offered by the Caisses d’allocations familiales (family allowance funds), etc.), as well as in the individual and family histories of a great many French people. Many people have memories, stories, photos, and souvenirs embodying their time at summer camp, this “space-time” where young people experience new emotions, meet new people, make and lose friends, and sometimes fall in love. As such, they participate in a shared metaculture of holidays (Viard, 2015) which goes beyond the mere experiential dimension, as each French person can produce a positive or negative representation of “colo”, whether or not they have experienced it themselves.

According to the Djepva survey on youth in 2020 (source Injep-Credoc) 46% of the 18-30 year-olds surveyed had been to a summer camp during their childhood or teen years, and 80% of them have good memories of it.

Survey by the Direction de la jeunesse, de l’éducation populaire et de la vie associative (Djepva), Injep-2020/14 of December, p. 192

However, like many elements of popular culture, the collective hosting of minors in general and summer camps in particular have not been extensively studied or valued scientifically. Although the research conducted by Jean Houssaye (educational sciences), Laura-Lee Downs (history), Jean-Marie Bataille (sociology), Julien Fuchs (science and technology of physical activities), the work conducted by the Observatoire des Vacances et des Loisirs des Enfants et des Jeunes (Ovlej) and by the Institut National de la Jeunesse et de l’Éducation Populaire (Injep), documents produced by the Mouvements de Jeunesse et d’Éducation Populaire, by the Jeunesse au Plein Air (JPA) and the Union Nationale des Associations de Tourisme et de Plein Air (Unat) constitute a substantial corpus, they are not sufficient to give summer camps a fully recognised status from an academic point of view.

Cover photo of the proceedings of the symposium organised by Unat in November 2012

Emergence of a myth: natural hygiene

“The first summer camp opened in 1876.” In any case, this is what Jean Houssaye (1991) and most researchers specialising in this field affirm. The leader of the initiative was the Protestant pastor Herman Walter Bion. Accompanied by a dozen teachers, he took sixty-eight children to the Appenzell Alps in German-speaking Switzerland. As an advocate of a philosophy of natural living, he called his experiment “ferienkolonie”, which can be translated as “colonie de vacances” in French, (Downs, 2002), and the term has been used ever since!
In France, the initiative was taken up in 1883 by Edmond Cottinet, the cantonal delegate of the 9th arrondissement of Paris and President of the school fund. As such, he sought funding to take schoolchildren to the countryside during the summer holidays. This type of project, which was becoming popular at the time, was based on a collective concern about the health deficiencies of children from the urban working classes. Natural hygiene beliefs were the driving force behind taking children away from the malodorous atmosphere in large cities and offering them a supposedly healthy rural environment.

Postcard: The public works summer camp of Rennes, Fonds Rétro Colo – Association Wakanga

According to Serge Mauvilain and Patrick Ranvier (2011), the goal was to “send poor and unhealthy children to stay with some good farming families in the countryside or the mountains, to ‘revitalise’ them by giving them the opportunity to enjoy a month of fresh air and healthy and abundant food.” In keeping with these public health goals, the organisers would measure the children’s health improvement by comparing their weight, height, and their chest circumference at the beginning and end of the stays.

An educational focus

It was after the First World War that the organisers of summer camps began to focus on education rather than on physical health. In the 1930s, after a period dominated by religious organisations, working-class municipalities in the Paris region also began operating summer camps. The camps became a place where children learned about life in a community, a kind of “ideal town” that was run according to the ideologies of the organisers (Bellanger, 2010).

To accommodate the increasing number of children being sent to summer camps, the operators (municipalities, works committees, non-profit associations, etc.) bought and renovated old industrial buildings or abandoned bourgeois homes (Boussion and Gardet, 2010; Pattieu, 2009). Nothing seemed too good for the children of the working class, and land ownership seemed to be an essential condition for a successful educational project.

Postcard from 1937: the dormitory, source

Meanwhile, the government began to regulate the practice. A State Secretary for Sports and Leisure, Léo Lagrange, was appointed, and the first laws stating that each camp had to have a pedagogical objective were enacted 1938 (Clech, 2020). In 1947, this sub-secretariat was transferred from the Ministry of Public Health to the Ministry of National Education. The camps became institutions of mass education, intended to allow “children from all economic backgrounds to have regular holidays” (Downs, 2011).

I am thirteen years old and already a seasoned veteran of summer camps. Some working-class municipalities in the Paris region have realised in recent years that they cannot simply leave summer camps up to charitable organisations. They have bought up castles that were abandoned by their occupants, for “the children of workers”, but have also quickly built buildings, using only the criteria of boarding schools, at best, or hospitals or barracks at worst.
I can still remember hearing the mayor […]. We have the most beautiful camp that has ever been built in France, the most beautiful because it is located in a large forest that goes all the way to the sea, the most beautiful because it is near the sea, it overlooks the vast beach of the Coubre lighthouse where your children will swim every day. The eyes of the parents light up, they who have never seen the sea, the most beautiful because we have built eight dormitories equipped with one hundred beds each, the most beautiful because we have built an enormous dining hall that can accommodate eight hundred seats…
Denis Bordat, 1976, Les Cemea qu’est-ce que c’est?, Paris, Maspéro, p. 13-14

The experiences accumulated over the years, the dedication of French teachers in supervising the summer camps, and the involvement of activists who saw the educational value of holidays, led to the emergence of a pedagogical discourse that was more focused on the needs and development of children. The former “supervisors” became “monitors,” and then, based on active methods, which were introduced in the early 20th century by France’s New Education movement, “animators” or “directors” with the BAFA (Brevet d’aptitude aux fonctions d’animation) and the BAFD (Brevet d’aptitude aux fonctions de direction) established in 1973. Their mission was no longer to “supervise” but to “look after” the children and ensure that things ran smoothly. For the children, summer camps were an opportunity to rest and relax, to thrive, to improve their social skills and their artistic, creative and sports talents, etc.

Summer camps, community or consumption?

Summer camps exist in a given social, spatial, and temporal context. The French model is not the same as the one that developed under Mussolini in Italy (Balducci, 2005) nor as the one that developed under the Soviet system as described by Paul Thorez (1984) in his book about his experience in the Artek camp on the Black Sea. In fact, summer camps, although they each have unique educational projects, are nonetheless marked by the sociocultural contexts in which they operate.
Cover of the book published for the 20th anniversary of OVLEJ, an example of the efforts of organisers’ networks to better understand the practices (source: OVLEJ)
As society became more focused on economic profitability and consumption, summer camps adapted and transformed in an attempt to keep up with the demands of a market that was passing them by. Some organisers have shifted away from their educational focus and now use tourist marketing industry techniques to advertise their stays, with an emphasis on technical content and destinations. Instead of being a space for collective learning, some summer camps have become a space for individual technical experimentation. The animators, who were traditionally responsible for the overall well-being of the children, are being replaced by specialised monitors or travel guides with specific technical skills. While summer camps have evolved from being primarily focused on health and hygiene to being focused on education, there are concerns that they may be becoming more aligned with the tourism industry and the consumer society.

Cover of the book published for the 20th anniversary of OVLEJ, an example of the efforts of organisers’ networks to better understand the practices (source: OVLEJ)

Summer camp attendance statistics and data in France

The first numerical data on attendance at summer camps dates back to 1954. The data were initially focused exclusively on stays taking place in France, during the summer. In 1954, 900,000 children went to summer camps, 1.3 million in the mid-1960s, and 1.4 million in 2019 (Djepva-Injep 2020; Ducatez, 2020). While summer stays in France experienced a decline in the late 1960s, the total annual attendance continued to increase thanks to new stays offered during shorter school breaks and stays abroad. However, statistics on these “new” stays remained patchy until the 1990s.

After stagnating between 1986 and 1993, attendance at camps began increasing again in 1995, with more than 1.6 million participants, reaching a level of activity close to that of the early 1980s. It was only after 1996 that attendance began declining steadily. 1995 marked a turning point in the number of participants. In terms of percentages of children participating in summer camps, the peak was recorded in 1994, with more than 14% of 5-19 year-olds going to camp that year, compared to 11-12% in the 1960s. The idea that the 1960s represents “the golden age” of summer camps is in fact just a popular misconception. However, this relatively constant level of participation hides more complex realities, such as shorter stays, the strong growth in activities organised during shorter school breaks (sometimes at leisure centres/day camps), and stays abroad (Ducatez, 2019a, 2019b). Structurally, these changes call into question the historical model of the long summer stay lasting three or four weeks, and as a result, all the logistical elements (transportation, buildings, staff, etc.) that supported it.

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic closed down the summer camps. The lockdown and the school closures imposed in mid-March, the complicated infection control measures, the French government’s ineffectiveness in providing stable guidance in a constantly changing context, the fears that led to cancellations, and the legitimate concerns of families about the health and safety of their children, all contributed to undermining the holiday and leisure system for youngsters. The sharp drop in participation rates (nearly halved) was cushioned by the intervention of the government, which set up a support program called “learning camps.” While some believe that this program made use of the summer camp system to compensate for the school closures due to the pandemic (which may certainly be true), it should also be noted that it enabled over 70,000 children in 2020 and 80,000 in 2021 to go to camp. Of these, more than half (52% in 2020 and 53% in 2021) were first-time participants. The program also highlighted the relevance of educational camps and the ability of organisers to participate in a government camp policy. Overall, the parents, including those of first-time participants, say they are satisfied with the program, and the children say that they would like to go back to summer camp.

Poster for the “learning camp” campaign, Ministry of National Education, Youth and Sport, 2021

Contemporary issues, a future under construction

Today, while summer camps must certainly overcome the harsh impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, they still face a number of challenges that existed before the crisis.
Financial issues, often emphasised, are certainly present but are only the result of a combination of factors that put a strain on the system. Many factors are impacting the equilibrium of the system:

  • The marketing of summer camps accompanied by the generalisation of calls for tenders from towns, regions and works committees;
  • The competition from for-profit businesses seeking to attract children from middle and upper class families with high symbolic value stays (overseas trips, distinctive and often expensive activities, etc.);
  • The decrease in public funding, whether in terms of aid to individuals or organisations;
  • The disappearance of local programs providing subsidies for summer camp participants, replaced by the situation-driven scheme set up by the French government during the Covid-19 pandemic
  • The problems related to buildings and the need to adapt the facilities to new requirements;
  • etc.

These changes result in a downward trend in attendance, which reflects a slow de-acculturation of summer camp habits, as financial barriers experienced by a large part of the population combine with ideological or psychological barriers that lead to social withdrawal. In this regard, new technologies have also transformed the relationship between organisers and families (before and during stays), and educational staff have had to figure out how to deal with smartphones, whose use is becoming more widespread even among the youngest children.
In addition to the challenges surrounding the educational role of summer camps, pedagogical projects and access to holidays for all, some organisers are wondering how that camps can benefit the regions where they are located. The facilities, often designed to accommodate young people from outside the region, could also be opened to local users. These new projects that promote the year-round use of the facilities, with local staff on hand, should enable young campers and other audiences to discover the region, and should also enable residents to use the facilities day-to-day. In addition to the need to serve diverse users, the facilities and operations should articulate the spatial dialectic of “here – endogenous” versus “elsewhere – exogenous” as well as the temporal dialectic of “day-to-day” versus “exceptional events”.

Summer camps must face all of these challenges, as they have done throughout their history, and they must find the resources and creative innovations that will allow them to reinvent themselves and adapt to today’s complex social contexts.

Luc Greffier and Natacha Ducatez (project manager at the Observatoire des vacances et des loisirs des enfants et des jeunes)


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