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8 free or cheap summer camp options for 2018

Kelly Burch
June 14, 2018

Kids might count down to summer vacation all year, but for parents, the last school bell can signal stress about finding affordable summer childcare. Summer camps are a great option. They offer parents relief when the kids have somewhere to go during those long summer days and give kids memories and new skills that will last for years.

It’s a win-win — until you see the cost. According to the American Camp Association, residential camps cost an average of $768 per week per child, and day camps cost an average of $314. That can leave many parents with sticker shock, looking for free or cheap summer camp options that fit their lifestyle and their budget.  

Luckily, there are great options for easing the burden of the cost of summer camps. Many individual camps offer scholarships and tuition breaks for everything from early enrollment to sibling discounts. In addition, camp tuition might qualify for the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit if both parents are working. Finally, there are organizations that make a point of running free or cheap summer camp options that are accessible to all families.

“When it comes to finding affordable camp options, the best approach is to do a quick search in your area,” says Marc Freccero, who worked at a camp for more than five years. “Then, contact the camps directly. Most are willing to work out some deal, as they are very personable and understand every situation is different. Especially if you have multiple kids, discounts are always there if you bring it up.”

To get you started, here are eight of the best national and regional organizations that offer free or cheap summer camp options for kids of all ages.

1. The YMCA

It’s fun to stay at the YMCA, and not just for adults. Kids and teens will love the variety of low-cost summer camps that the Y runs throughout the country. Most YMCAs offer day camps, which include indoor and outdoor excursions to local attractions. In addition, many YMCAs also run a sleepaway camp, like Camp Lawrence (for boys) and Camp Nokomis (for girls) in Meredith, New Hampshire. Rates for YMCA camps vary, but they’re usually significantly lower than for-profit camps. Reach out to your local YMCA to find out more about affordable summer camp options in your area.

2. The Parks and Recreation Department

“Parks and Rec” is more than just a great TV show! It can also be your key to affordable childcare this summer. In most cities and towns, the Parks and Recreation department runs low-cost summer day camps. These camps usually utilize city facilities like schools, ponds and parks, giving kids a great combination of indoor and outdoor activities. Other city departments might also have summer programming for kids. For example, the San Francisco Police Activities League offers free summer camps ranging from martial arts to cheerleading and even fishing.

3. Places of worship

Many churches, synagogues and other places of worship offer affordable summer camps for kids. Vacation Bible School gives 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.

4. Boy Scout and Girl Scout camps

The Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA both 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. In Massachusetts, day camps run by the Girl Scouts start at just $215 each week, with busing available for an extra $75.

5. The Fresh Air Fund

If you live in New York City, you should certainly look into the Fresh Air Fund, which provides kids from the Big Apple the chance to get away to experience summer in the wilderness. The Fresh Air Fund offers free summer camps for qualified families, and also runs a program where kids from New York can spend a week with a host family that lives in a more remote area, including Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

6. The Council for the Arts

If your child is into visual, performing or musical arts, check out the programing available from your local Council for the Arts. Many times, these community organizations will offer low-cost summer camps that engage kids in artistic pursuits. For example, in Mono County, California, the local arts council operates morning camps that cost just $25 a week. Local arts museums might also offer low cost arts camps for kids.

7. The Salvation Army

You might think of the Salvation Army as that place where you drop off your gently used clothing, but it’s also a massive organization that aims to support families and people with special needs. As part of that mission, the Salvation Army runs 45 affordable overnight camps  and hundreds of day camps across the country for kids and adults who need care during the summer. Find out more about Salvation Army camp options here.

8. Camp Invention

Is your child constantly making new innovations? If so, send him or her to invention camp! 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. Find a Camp Invention program near you here.


Finding summer care that fits your schedule as well as your budget can be daunting. But if you know where to look, parents can find great options to keep kids active, involved or just out of the house throughout the long summer months.

Read next: What does summer camp cost?

July 19, 2016

it is that much! 100! i rather go to a boot camp

May 15, 2016

YMCA EVEN WITH SCOLORSHIP IS 100 per week per kid I have 3 kids who can afford that eve me and my husband both working full time can not afford that

June 13, 2015

I don't usually ask for handouts unless its a big need but I'm disabled fighting for my disability husband only provider we've raised our children but then 2 grandsons another off & on now we have the three we've never had time alone in 14 years were so tired need a break but no way can we afford away camp for them 1 maybe is there a camp or some programs we could benefit from we much appreciate thank you God Bless

June 3, 2015

Want to find camps for 12 year old boy who likes fishing and basketball

May 15, 2013

These summer camp options are popular and affordable. Another great summer camp program is through a company called Innovative Arts. They offer programs year round at unbeatable prices and with unbelievable quality. When I could not afford my child to attend summer camps, extra-curricular activities, or sports programs, Innovative Arts made the same opportunities affordable and available to my family.

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