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: the summer camp price tag. Day camp tuition averages can be $199 a week up to $800+ a week, while resident camp tuition averages can be anywhere from $630 per week to up to $2,000+ a week, according to data from the American Camp Association (ACA).
Thankfully, there are affordable and cheap summer camps that can make the decision to enroll a child a stress-free no-brainer.
Kelley Freridge, chief marketing officer and spokesperson for the American Camp Association, says “there are ACA-accredited camps to meet every interest, price range and schedule.”
Here are 14 free and affordable summer camps to check out in 2021.
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 include Camp Lawrence (for boys) and Camp Nokomis (for girls) in Meredith, New Hampshire. There’s also the Countryside YMCA, which has three different locations in Ohio, that’s $142 a week for members ($167 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 handy YMCA search tool to 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 Harlem hosts 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, the Police Activities League offers free programs focused on various activities, from martial arts to cheerleading and even fishing.
In general, by utilizing city facilities like schools and 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 school offers 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. The Vacation Bible Camp at the Community Congregation Church in Short Hills, New Jersey offers a week-long program for $75 per child, and it runs from 9:00 a.m. to 2 p.m.
You might also find that local camps are not necessarily affiliated with the place of worship but simply held there, like a camp run by Mr. Bond’s Science Guys in 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: In Massachusetts, day camps run by the Girl Scouts start as low as $80 (plus, a $40 Girl Scout registration fee).
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. The Fresh Air Fund offers free summer camps for qualified families, and it also runs a program during which NYC kids can 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: Visit the 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 Washington County Arts Council in Maryland provides camp for residents ages 6-13, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., for $125-150 per week.
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 summer camp programs — 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 the Salvation Army for 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 Invention is 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.
Cost: Program costs vary, depending on location.
Where to find a camp: Find a Camp Invention program near you via the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
9. DIY at-home camp
If a do-it-yourself at-home camp appeals, you can build your own agenda of activities 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, like musical playlists to match the theme and a lesson plan that 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 the Raddish website 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 a Summer Discovery Camp focused 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. If you live near Brooklyn, New York, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum offers a free summer camp program throughout July and August of 2021. And while it’s not quite a conventional camp setup, the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh has 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 the Apple site 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. The organization will host programs virtually in 2021.
Where to find a camp: Check out the Girls 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 on Montessori’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 the Summer 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 the Eureka! Program in 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 the Institute 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.
Kamenetzky recommends getting in on early bird specials that camps send out in the months leading up to the summer.
“Another great way to score a good deal is to check charity auctions at nearby schools,” she says. “Oftentimes, camps will donate a certificate for a week of camp, and sometimes you can get those for a great price if there aren’t many other bidders.”
For any summer camp option you’re interested in, ask about scholarships, grants or other discounted payment options, especially given that 93% of ACA-accredited camps offer some form of financial assistance to over one million children who are from economically deprived families or have special medical needs or special situations that might preclude them from attending camp.
Although finding a summer program that feels like a fit financially may seem challenging, Freridge assures families, “There is a camp for everyone and every budget.”