Dutch-language summer camp gives Brussels children a leg up during the holidays
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Dutch-language summer camp gives Brussels children a leg up during the holidays

Photo from the office of Sven Gatz.

The Education Centre Brussels (OCB) of the Flemish Community Commission (VGC) is celebrating the success of its 16th Talentboost, a summer camp for non-Dutch speaking newcomers and children with a different home language who have difficulties with the Dutch language.

The program allows six to 12-year-old children new to the region to learn Dutch while playing in a language workshop.

“Learning Dutch isn’t easy for newcomers and many pupils in our Brussels schools who do not speak it at home,” said Brussels Minister Sven Gatz, who is responsible for Dutch-language education in the VGC.

“Especially in the summer months, when school seems far away, we find it important to stimulate and maintain a link with Dutch in a more playful way.”

The 108 children in this year’s program were chosen by their schools for the opportunity, designed to combat the summer learning loss effect, sometimes called the ‘summer slide.’

For four consecutive weeks in July, they develop Dutch-language skills in a language-rich environment that doesn’t feel like summer school to the kids involved.

“It’s like a summer camp but it’s more focused on wellbeing, on making the children realise that they have talents and skills and that they can develop these,” Katrien Fonteyn, a pedagogical consultant with OCB who’s helping to coordinate this summer’s program, told The Brussels Times.

“And for some kids, it’s about being able to trust people again.”

Fonteyn explained that some of the children in Talentboost are refugees.

“We have a lot of kids in critical situations,” Fonteyn said. “One of our children this year was a Syrian refugee who spent months living in a basement. For the first few weeks, he didn’t even want to listen to someone speaking Dutch. But now, we see progress.”

Dutch can be an intimidating language for children to learn (and critical for Brussels’ multilingualism, considering less than 10% of pupils in the French-speaking education system in Brussels graduate with a decent knowledge of Dutch), and the Talentboost program aims to build confidence.

“Our goal is to leave children feeling and thinking, ‘I can do this, I want to learn Dutch,’” said Fonteyn.

The program isn’t meant to feel like summer school, or typical classroom education.

“What struck me, apart from the effect on the children’s language level, is that it’s mostly perceived as a summer camp, with lots of activities on a nice and large school campus in Koekelberg,” Gatz told The Brussels Times.

“But with whatever activity they do, they’re stimulated to talk and to learn new words.”

The workshops focus on fields of interest, like technology, sports, music, or media.

This year, the OCB worked closely with Youth and Music Brussels, using art, yoga and dance to help children learn to understand and speak Dutch better.

The idea is to introduce new learners to vocabulary naturally, through exposure rather than formal instruction.

“Yesterday, they went to a children’s farm in the Neerhof next to Brussels, to get to know all the names of farm animals, and things like that,” Gatz explained.

“It lets the kids have a great time, because it’s also a vacation and a holiday for them, but there’s an additional immersion of Dutch so that they learn it in a natural and automatic way.”

Other activities included visits to the Boekelberg library with reading sessions and workshops there, a sports day in the park and trips to the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu club.

And the programme doesn’t simply end when summer does.

Throughout the school year, “return moments” are organised around language, games and excursions.

Based on their interests and talents, the children are actively guided towards a language-rich leisure-time offer.

“It’s not really a classroom approach, but a taalbad, or ‘language bath,’” summarized Gatz.

“It’s a really nice, really relaxed atmosphere. The kids really have fun.”

Normally the camp also has weekly activities that involve the children’s parents, but this was not possible this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic.