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Travel Cruise lines are taking a savvier approach to kids' clubs

The creator behind the Celebrity Edge ship’s new Explorer Academy program wants children to be able to spend their time learning rather than just watching another animated movie.

Heather Greenwood Davis/The Globe and Mail

The Camp at Sea playroom on board the Celebrity Edge ship is filled with the kinds of games and toys that would make most kids giddy. But if all goes to plan, the creator behind the ship’s new Explorer Academy program thinks many of the kids who visit will spend more time learning than rolling around on the brightly coloured mats.

Huw James, founder of Anturus Education (a company that aims to get people of all ages enthusiastic about science) was tasked with finding a way to impress young cruisers who’d rather figure out why the sky is blue than watch another animated movie.

He came up with the Explorer Academy.

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Think of it as a Montessori approach to kids’ clubs: Interest-led learning alongside adult guides who keep them engaged. Paired with a series of activity books that relate abstract ideas such as time zones, ocean exploration and astronomy with things the kids see both on and off the ship, the program encourages kids to work through experiments and activities alongside staff at the Camp at Sea hub. But, if they’d prefer to do them with their parents or bring them home, that’s okay, too. Here, kids call the shots.

“It’s not school,” James insists. “You’re on vacation and going somewhere new, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things.“

Camp at Sea is Celebrity Cruises' kids club, which emphasizes learning and encourages children to work through experiments and activities.

Heather Greenwood Davis/The Globe and Mail

It’s an idea that’s gaining traction in the cruise industry: What if instead of just entertaining the kids, we offered opportunities for them to grow?

Parents like it.

“Google is searched over 50 million times each month for educational vacations,” notes Sally Black, founder of family travel agency VacationKids.com and author of Fearless Family Vacations – Making Everyone Happy Without Losing your Mind.

“Parents want to encourage their lust for learning, so vacation programs that focus on “infotainment” are certainly catering to these needs.”

But parents aren’t necessarily the ones making the decision.

A 2018 Cruise Industry Overview published by the Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association found that while “cruises are a preferred vacation choice for families, especially those with children under 18,” children are involved with the decision process for cruises even more than they are for land-based vacations.

And when mass market cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival offer climbing walls, waterslides and bumper cars, it’s going to take a lot more than a cute room to sway kids.

The key for most of the luxury ships who weren’t willing to sacrifice essential sophisticated clientele or to refit ships, was to partner with brands that offer components parents love and kids recognize, Black says.

On Princess Cruises, a partnership with Discovery Channel means that kids who are fans of shows such as MythBusters, Shark Hunters and Animal Planet will find hands-on experiments, interactive scavenger hunts and junior chef classes on various sailings.

And on MSC, a partnership with Lego offers opportunities for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning and more.

Matteo Mancini, MSC’s corporate kids entertainment manager, notes that on a ship that often has many international passengers, Lego also offers an even learning environment for young guests.

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“No matter what language is spoken, each child knows the concept of playing with Legos and they are able to play together seamlessly without any language barriers,” he notes.

What the cruise lines are also learning is that, similar to their parents, kids want choices.

It’s why MSC also offers kids language courses to learn basic sentences in six languages and cooking classes designed in collaboration with celebrity chef Carlo Cracco.

And it’s why the Edge’s options allow kids to participate – or not – as they see fit.

“It’s about that personal interaction and immersion,” says Celebrity’s associate vice-president of entertainment Becky Thomson-Foley, noting that the ship has simply taken what they’ve always done for adults and applied the same attention to the kids.

Instead of acting as glorified babysitters, Celebrity Edge’s youth counsellors follow kids’ bidding.

Heather Greenwood Davis/The Globe and Mail

It also means that instead of glorified babysitters, Celebrity Edge’s youth counsellors follow kids’ bidding. All of them have university degrees (60 per cent of them have graduate degrees) and at least two years of experience working with kids.

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So, while they can make macaroni necklaces if pushed, their talents are much better used in one of the more than 500 programs the ship has created that focus on art, recreation, culinary and STEM, including the cruise line’s first computer coding program at sea.

In turn, the Camp at Sea program room becomes a resource centre where kids can find out more about fish they saw on a snorkel excursion, spend time creating a Lego mock-up of a robot that might help to clean the ocean or compose and perform their first theatrical production.

Clearly, the days when ships could get by with offering parents all the perks while kids languished in room-sized playpens are over.

The Celebrity Edge launched in November. The writer was a guest on a media sailing. It did not review or approve this article.

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