Zhou Xiaodong, a deputy general manger of an enterprise in Wuhan, Hubei province, has been thinking about sending his son, Zhou Zixuan, to study at a university overseas since the boy was only a seventh-grade student.
To help the young man get acquainted with life abroad in advance, Zhou persuaded his son last year to enroll in a summer camp in the United States, which Zhou said had a great impact on his son.
The young man used to be unwilling to study abroad for fear of being estranged from his family. However, after returning from the camp, he told Zhou that he hoped to attend a foreign university in the future.
"He gained a lot of knowledge about the lifestyle of his peers overseas, such as how they play and learn," Zhou said. "He also made some foreign friends and improved his ability to interact with people."
As Chinese students are heading to study abroad at an increasingly younger age, participating in summer camps overseas before formally starting their studies in a foreign land has become a common way for them to get academically or mentally prepared, according to Shao Yuan, marketing director of Knowledge-Link Group, a US-based education and consulting company.
The ongoing summer holiday has so far witnessed at least 500 Chinese students taking part in summer camps organized by the company overseas, with STEAM(science, technology, engineering, arts and math) or PBL (project-based learning) themes being the most popular.
"By familiarizing young students with the international study and living environment in advance, summer camps are deemed by many Chinese parents as a good way to gear their children up for study overseas in the future," Shao said.
Kevin Wang, marketing director of Global Tour Study at New Oriental Education and Technology Group, said such summer camps overseas, which usually cost at least 30,000 yuan ($4,400), have been well-received among some wealthy parents. Most students participating in these programs are between the ages of 10 and 18.
Among them, the younger ones, such as primary school students, usually choose camps in closer destinations like Japan and Singapore, while those in middle school who are more linguistically capable and can better take care of themselves take part in programs in countries farther away like the United Kingdom and the US, Wang said.
"Generally speaking, a majority of parents choosing summer camps overseas have long-term plans, such as study or even emigrating overseas, for their children," he said. "They hope the children could improve language proficiency and enrich their travel experiences by participating in such summer camps."
Shao said by immersing in an authentically exotic environment for one week to one month, students are able to get an all-around experience of what overseas study is like. It also helps students identify whether they are suitable for such study.
Earlier this month, Zhang Xin, from Zhengzhou, Henan province, sent her 16-year-old daughter to St. Mary's School in Oregon state, US, for a one-week summer camp themed in robotics and programming.
There, together with peers from different countries and backgrounds, Zhang's daughter, Ma Saiyudi, engaged herself in a wide range of courses and activities, including making robots, climbing mountains and hiking through forests.
Zhang said before setting out for the camp, her daughter hadn't been very sure whether to pursue studies abroad in the future because she had doubted whether she could adapt to life and study in a foreign country.
After the weeklong trip, the young student was quite determined. She loved the teaching approach and the atmosphere there.
"Moreover, with such an experience, an educational institution overseas is no longer a completely new environment to my daughter," Zhang said. "I believe she will get used to her new life faster in the future."
Rather than send their children to a country that costs more to travel to and is farther away, many parents－especially those with children under age 10－prefer domestic destinations.
These trips－most of which are organized by travel agencies or education companies－cover an even wider range of themes, such as improving children's artistic or cultural competence, training their physical or mental strengths and more, according to EF Education First China, a Sweden-based education company.
Kevin Wang, from New Oriental, said domestic summer camps seem to be more relaxing, as many parents treat such trips during the summer holidays as an opportunity for their overloaded children to have a rest at an affordable cost.
"In the eyes of this group of parents, entertainment is of equal importance to learning, and an ideal program is one that combines the two and finds balance between them," he said, adding that summer camps that expose children to history and culture and those that engage children in nature have been particularly popular in recent years.
Yu Xiaotian, mother of a seventh-grader in Beijing, has registered her son for domestic summer camps almost every summer holiday over the past few years. Through these trips, Yu's son has been to the grasslands in North China's Inner Mongolia autonomous region, Erhai Lake in Southwest China's Yunnan province and Baiyangdian in Hebei province.
"During the trips, my son was asked to do some 'mini research', which I think helped him gain knowledge on and deepen understanding of the places he visited," she said, adding that she's investigating programs for her son this summer. "For kids of his age, such summer camps are more meaningful than just traveling somewhere as a tourist."