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14 free or cheap summer camp options for 2019

May 24, 2019
14 free or cheap summer camp options for 2019

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 camp.

“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 a $2,000+ a week, according to the most recent numbers 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, notes that “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 2019.

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 sleepaway camps run by the organization include Camp Lawrence (for boys) and Camp Nokomis (for girls) in Meredith, New Hampshire. There’s also the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, where summer day camps run daily Monday through Friday from 8:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. from June 3 to Aug. 16 for only $38 per day.

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, the City of Richmond offers a summer camp job readiness program for teens that costs $50, while their summer camp program for kids ranges from $250 to $280, and a select few summer camp programs that are in located in low-income neighborhoods are free. In San Francisco, the Police Activities League offers free summer camps focused on various activities, from martial arts to cheerleading and even fishing.

In general, by utilizing city facilities like schools and parks, rec 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 free programing for school-aged children at churches throughout the country. Most of these programs are also open to families who are not otherwise involved with the faith community.

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 explains that they’re able to utilize the local church’s space free of charge in order to make the program 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 $25 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 sleepaway 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 at $295 for the duration of the program, and the overnight camp fee starts at $505. 

Cost: All fees vary by local council and are often open to all with options to adjust fees based on income levels.

Where to find a camp: You can find a Girl Scout Camp near you or a Boy Scout troop near you by searching Boy Scouts of America.

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.

Cost: Free

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 Greenfield Cultural Arts Center in California provides a free camp for residents ages 10 to 17, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Cost: Low-cost or free

Where to find a camp: Visit your local Council for the Arts website.

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.”

Cost: Free

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 Wayne, New Jersey, costs $280 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 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 do well to check out a monthly subscription kit like Raddish, which aims to teach kids ages 4 to 14 about cooking. 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 $20 per month.

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 2019. And while it’s not quite a conventional camp set-up, the Field Museum in Chicago has summer volunteering opportunities for teens.

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, moviemaking 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.

Cost: Free

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 81 programs nationwide in 2019.

Cost: Free

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 happens to host 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 but are about $250 to $300 per week.

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.”

You’ll also do well to check on scholarships, grants or other discounted payment options, 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.”

Read next: 8 tips for hiring a summer nanny or sitter

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