Holiday Activities and Food (HAF): How the Successful Program Improved the Mental Health of Vulnerable Children

Nick Limber is a teacher and coordinator of the Holiday Activities and Food (HAF) program at Doncaster Football Academy. He talks about how the summer camps they organized were able to harness the mental health and well-being of the participants as much as their physical fitness.

After what were difficult times during the pandemic, the children of Doncaster had the opportunity to truly thrive this summer thanks to the HAF program. As part of the broader education rehabilitation effort, HAF is one of the ways the government is helping children and young people regain the learning and social development lost due to the pandemic. The initiative I worked on, Active Futures Educational Development, was one of the many suppliers that benefited from the funding. This has enabled us to offer summer activities for children at three sites in Doncaster.

As a teacher and leader in summer programs, I am always amazed at how sport can break down barriers, integrate people and put smiles on faces. The fields we crossed in Doncaster were no exception.

For some children, school holidays can represent loneliness and uncertainty, however the HAF program has been able to provide shelter, fun and structured physical activity for some of the most vulnerable children in the Doncaster area. We have catered for nearly two hundred children in four weeks of activity, ages 8-15 and with a variety of social and emotional needs.

Individual impact

The positive developmental and social impact these programs can have on participants was especially evident with one child who joined us this summer.

This child came from a difficult background, had struggled with the isolation of the block and showed obvious vulnerability. Their specific needs led us to pay particular attention to the structure of the activities in which we were able to engage them, while ensuring that additional levels of support and reassurance were available.

Early in the program, they sought regular breaks from activities and relied on the safety of the coaches for support rather than mingling with other children. However, in the end, they were a far cry from the nervous and shy child we first met. They were walking to and from the fields with friends they had made, with transformed confidence and self-esteem. Their journey was moving and gave a tremendous sense of pride to all of us who made the program.

Building on strengths

Other children in the camps have become natural mentors, so we have created a system of “friends”, using some of the older children as leaders during social moments. Time out areas have also been introduced, which can be accessed when things get overwhelming or children just need a break. The activities we carried out allowed for individual, couple and team interactions, and the coaches made sure the groups were planned with social needs in mind. By the third week, our young people were offering activities to the rest of the group with our coaches acting as facilitators. The behavioral change in them was immeasurable.

I strongly believe that sport can change lives and provide many of the skills needed to be successful in life. The camps this summer have served to reinforce this belief and I look forward to supporting more young people through our programs in the future.

Tips for future HAF coordinators:

  • Identify vulnerable children through your recruitment plan and contact those families before camps start. Invite them to visit the venue and see where the camps take place, to avoid any anxiety at first. Building positive relationships with families early means that you will have their support when needed.
  • Make sure your activities are varied and always end the day with something adrenaline pumping, which means they leave the field exhausted but happy.
  • The tangible rewards are great, and children love to be recognized for their accomplishments. However, regular individual praise is the most effective facilitator of confidence and self-esteem.

Are you looking for more information on HAF?

As with Easter and summer, HAF will again be available across the country this Christmas. HAF provides support to suitable children and families through high quality, healthy food, engaging activities, socializing and fun.

Please contact your local authority for information on how to participate and for complete guidance on visiting the HAF program gov.uk

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