When the school year wraps up, kids look forward to lazier days spent poolside, riding bikes or having sleepovers with friends and enjoying quality time with family. But chances are they’ll make even more amazing summer memories, as well as continue to learn and grow, if they attend a summer program for kids.
“Day camp keeps my 9- and 7-year-old boys in a routine but allows for more running around and play, which is so needed after spending all school year learning,” says Kelly Kamenetzky, a mom of three from Los Angeles. “We choose two or three and alternate them throughout the summer. This way, the boys get to focus on different interests. One week it might be soccer, the next engineering, the next a general recreational camp.”
The bevy of benefits aside, many families face one main drawback: thesummer camp price tag. According to theAmerican Camp Association(ACA), day camp tuition averages about $88 a day in 2023, with resident camp tuition at about $173 a day. However, it’s important to note that this information is from a sample size and “day camps can range from completely free to $200+ per day and overnight camp prices range from free to $500+ per day,” notes the ACA.
Thankfully, there are affordable summer camps and even free summer camps that can make thedecision to enroll a childa stress-free no-brainer.
According to Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the ACA, families can identify more affordable camp options by using ACA’sFind a Camptool. “Additionally, it can be helpful to talk with local organizations such as churches, synagogues, civic organizations and clubs to learn about affordable and free summer programming.”
Here’s the (affordable) lowdown for kids camps 2023. These 14 cheap or free summer camps are worth looking into.
1. The YMCA
Ys all over the country offer day camps, as well as overnight programs for 970,000 kids and adults every summer. They also serve more than 439,000 youth, teens, families, school and retreat groups through group camping overnight programs. A couple examples of sleep-away camps run by the organization includeCamp Lawrence(for boys) andCamp Nokomis(for girls) in Meredith, New Hampshire. There’s also theCountryside YMCA, which has three different locations in Ohio, that’s $170 a week for members ($195 a week for non-members) and runs from 9 a.m to 4 p.m.
Kamenetzky praises her local Los Angeles YMCA programs, saying, “We give the kids options of choosing one or two ‘special’ camps that are a little pricier, but the rest of the summer we’ll send them to camp at a local park or YMCA that tend to have really great deals and are, frankly, just as fun.”
Cost:Prices vary depending on location and type of camp, but most have options to adjust fees based on income.
Where to find a camp:Use their handyYMCA search toolto find a camp near you.
2. Your local parks and recreation department
“Local recreation agencies create quality programs that are cost-effective for the families in their respective communities,” says Shanna Battle, outreach coordinator for the city of Richmond, Virginia’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities.
She says families with two or more kids might also be able to take advantage of multiple child discounts, as well as financial assistance programs. For instance, in New York City,Riverbank State Park in Harlemhosts a day camp during the summer that’s $550 for five weeks, and a select few summer camp programs located in low-income neighborhoods are free. In San Francisco, thePolice Activities Leagueoffers free programs focused on various activities, from martial arts to cheerleading and even fishing.
In general, by utilizing city facilities like schools, parks and recreation departments are able to offer campers a wide variety of indoor and outdoor activities.
Cost:Prices vary depending on location and type of camp, but many will offer multiple child discounts and financial assistance.
Where to find a camp:Contact your local parks and recreation department.
3. Places of worship
Many churches, synagogues and other places of worship offer affordable summer camps for kids.Vacation bible schooloffers programming for school-aged children to churches throughout the country. These programs are also open to families who are not otherwise involved with the faith community. TheVacation Bible Camp in Fanwood, New Jersey offers a week-long program for kids ages 4 through 11 for $35 per child, and it runs from 9:00 a.m. to 12 p.m.
You might also find that local camps are not necessarily affiliated with the place of worship but simply held there, like acamp run by Mr. Bond’s Science Guysin East Nashville, Tennessee. Carol Buttenham, managing and marketing director of the company says they’re able to utilize the local church’s space free of charge in order to make the program available to lower-income families.
Cost:Prices vary depending on location and type of camp, but many will offer scholarships or options for lower-income families.
Where to find a camp:Contact your local place of worship.
4. Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps
If your child is already participating in either of these programs — which usually cost about $40 to $60 per year — you’ll be able to take advantage of their summer programs. Both Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA run a variety of affordable camps for kids. There are day camp and sleep-away options, and your child doesn’t have to be involved with scouts before signing up for the camps. One example: The Boy Scouts of America Patriots’ Path Council in New Jersey offers one full-day, week-long camp for $275 a week.
Cost:All fees vary by local council and are often open to all with options to adjust fees based on income levels.
5. The Fresh Air Fund
New York City residents can take advantage of the Fresh Air Fund, which offers kids from the five boroughs the opportunity to experience the wilderness. TheFresh Air Fund offers free summer campsfor qualified families, and it also runs a program that allows NYC kids to spend a week with a host family living in a greener neck of the woods, like Maine, New Hampshire or Vermont.
Where to find a camp:Visitthe Fresh Air Fund.
6. The Council for the Arts
Check with your local Council for the Arts to find summer arts programs for kids and teens that are free or low-cost. For example, the Howard County Arts Council in Ellicott City, Maryland offers half- and full-day camp options all summer long at $125 and $250 per week, respectively (prices are slightly higher for non-members).
Cost:Low-cost or free.
Where to find a camp:Do a Google search for your local Council for the Arts.
7. The Salvation Army
The nationwide organization offers various free summer camps for kids — featuring activities like sports, swimming lessons, music and art — for low-income families. According to the organization, trained counselors are trained to help campers better cope with the “complicated emotions and struggles often associated with their lives back home.”
Where to find a camp:You can check out theSalvation Armyfor locations near you.
8. Camp Invention
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office works with the National Inventors Hall of Fame to develop the curriculum for Camp Invention, which is focused on STEM learning for kids entering kindergarten through sixth grade.Camp Inventionis then offered through local schools and other organizations at affordable prices. For example, a camp in Port Washington, New York, costs $285 for a five-day session that runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Cost:Program costs vary, depending on location.
Where to find a camp:Find a Camp Invention program near you via theNational Inventors Hall of Fame.
9. DIY at-home camp
A do-it-yourself, at-home camp can work if you have extra time in the summer months or you plan to hire a summer nanny or summer sitter. Simply build your own agenda ofactivities that teach kids STEM or art, among other skills. You might also want to check out a monthly subscription kit like Raddish, which aims to teach kids ages 4 to 14 about cooking and nutrition. Each kit features three illustrated recipe guides all built around a theme, as well as a cooking tool, apron patch, shopping list, activity and table talk cards, as well as a bonus video recipe. You can also take advantage of online bonus materials, likemusical playliststo match the theme and alesson planthat weaves in math, science, history, art and more. Subscriptions start at just $24 per kit.
Cost:Prices vary depending on the program and materials.
Where to find a camp:Check out theRaddishwebsite for their monthly kit.
10. Museum camps
Museums across the country hold affordable summer camps for museum members and non-members alike, often providing discounts and scholarships. For instance, the Health Museum in Houston runs aSummer Discovery Campfocused on STEM, medical science and the human body. The museum offers a scholarship awarded based on potential and need for enrichment in an informal learning environment. And while it’s not quite a conventional camp setup, theCarnegie Science Center in Pittsburghhas summer volunteering opportunities for teens aged 14-18 from June through August.
Cost:Prices vary depending on location and type of camp, but many offer scholarships and/or financial assistance.
Where to find a camp:Visit your local museum website.
11. Apple store camps
If you happen to live close to an Apple store, your 8- to 12-year-old can take advantage of a program focused on exploring music, coding, movie-making or art and design. The tech company’s completely free summer program spans three 90-minute sessions. It does bear noting that all campers must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian for the duration of Apple Camp.
Where to find a camp:Visit theApplesite to find information on your local store’s program.
12. Girls Who Code
Another technology-based program that’s absolutely free: the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program (SIP), which runs for seven weeks and is offered to girls who are rising juniors and seniors. The goal of the program is to arm young women with knowledge of computer science, exposure to tech jobs and a supportive network of thousands of girls across the country.
Where to find a camp:Check out theGirls Who Code Summer Immersion Program (SIP).
13. Montessori camps
An organization with schools and programs all over the country, Montessori also hosts day camps featuring art, music and STEAM-inspired activities that promote learning, discovery, creativity and more.
Cost:Prices vary depending on the location of the camp.
Where to find a camp:You can find more information and search for your local school’s program onMontessori’s main site.
14. STEM programs
The Institute for Broadening Participation is a fantastic resource for parents of kids in grades K-8 who are looking for a STEM summer program that’s either free or scholarship-based. Their search results include opportunities all over the country, such as theSummer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK)in Washington, D.C., one of the National Society of Black Engineers’ (NSBE) contributions to increasing the representation of Black students in STEM, and theEureka! Programin Worcester, Massachusetts, which aims to spark girls’ interest in STEM.
Cost:Prices vary depending on program, but many are free or scholarship-based.
Where to find a camp:Check out theInstitute for Broadening Participation.
How to save on conventional camp programs
While these options may resonate, your child could be interested in a camp that requires a more traditional tuition cost. If your child is interested in a camp that seems out of your price range, there are various ways to make it more affordable. Here are things to consider:
- Financial aid. “Almost all camps offer financial assistance and scholarships for families and campers in need,” notes Rosenberg, adding that parents who are interested in receiving support need to apply directly to the camp, as early as possible. “Camps identify funding for ‘camperships’ — partial or full scholarships — and make decisions about which campers they need to fund prior to the start of the season.”
- Special discounts and payment plans. According to Rosenberg, most camps offer special discounts in the form of early registration, full-season sign-up, sibling discounts and late registration to fill an empty spot. “For families who enroll early, many camps also offer a structured payment plan throughout the year,” he adds.
- Government assistance. Families can also receive aid through the Dependent Care Flexible Spending Account and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit.