Summer Camp Guide: Finding the Best and Most Affordable Options for Your Kids

By Raechel Conover,

With fond memories of cabin mates, campfires, swimming pools, and s'mores, it's no wonder summer camp is a natural choice for parents looking to give their children the same enriching experience they enjoyed. At summer camp, whether a sleep-away or day program, kids can gain new skills, experiences, friends, and their own memories to cherish.

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And the good news is, you don't need a bottomless bank account to afford summer camp. There are plenty of city, state, and non-profit groups that offer cheap summer camps for kids; some even offer financial aid to help families with the expense. Our guide to cheap summer camp programs can help you find day and sleep-away options that are a good, inexpensive fit for your child.

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Cost. Before investigating the options, look at your budget and decide how much you're willing or can afford to spend on a summer camp program. In general, sleep-away summer camps are more expensive than their day-only counterparts. And remember to include the cost of supplies and "extras." At more rural summer camps for kids, your child may need camping gear, like a tent or sleeping bag; sleep-away campers will need enough luggage to hold at least a week's worth of clothing. Either way, you'll need to stock up on sunblock, swimsuits, and other summer accessories.

If you're worried about costs, keep in mind that summer camp programs can be within reach of families on a budget. While camps range from a hundred dollars to a couple thousand, Parenting points out several ways to get help with the expense:

  • Pay for a day camp much the same as you pay for day care -- with a flex plan through your employer or as a tax write-off. Check for summer camp scholarship programs.
  • Look for financial aid; if you attended the same camp, your alumni status may warrant financial assistance.
  • Look for foundations that help families fund summer camp for kids.

Camp type. Once you've established your budget, determine whether your child prefers a sleep-away or day summer camp program. Younger children and first-time campers may benefit from a day program that returns them home daily. Sleep-away camps offer a more immersive experience, but make sure the facilities, meals, and location suit the needs of you and your child.

Child's interests. Talk to your child about the special activities he or she wants to pursue, and decide what your family wants to gain from the summer camp experience. There are many types of summer camp programs, ranging from coed and general-interest to single-sex, subject-focused, and academic. For instance, if your child is interested in theater, he or she may thrive in a performing arts summer camp with like-minded campers.

Stay toasty by a camp fire.

Fellow campers. Consider the ages of the other campers and the activities offered, and select a summer camp for kids that will attract a pool of potential friends for your child. Make sure there are enough campers around your child's age so he or she can participate in age-appropriate activities with others.

Location. Determine upfront just how far you're willing to drive, either to drop off and pick up your child each day or to visit at a sleep-away camp. For a summer day camp program, also consider the length of the ride to and fro and how much travel time your camper can tolerate, regardless whether you or the camp provide the shuttle service. For a sleep-away summer camp, figure out how often you want to visit (or how often your child wants you to visit) over the course of their stay. If this is your child's first time at summer camp or the child is not confidently independent, you may need to eliminate camps that are far away.

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Counselors and facilities. Find out as much as you can about the counselors, including their experience and backgrounds, and their styles of guidance and discipline. Ask about the staff-to-camper ratio; for younger children, the ratio should be five to eight children to each counselor, while older children are fine with eight to 10 campers per counselor. The best way to check out the facilities and/or campground and speak to the counselors is to visit. (You may want to plan a visit the summer before you expect to enroll your child.) Ask the camp director for references and get in touch with parents and campers who can speak about their experiences.

Special considerations. If your child has any special medical, dietary, or other needs, choose a summer camp that has experience accommodating similar requirements. For medical needs, make sure the counselors or staff are trained to provide care and that the camp is located within close range of a nearby hospital.

Accreditation. Choose a summer camp accredited by the American Camp Association, which sets standards for safety and quality. (You can also use the ACA site to find appropriate camps for your child.)

Affordable summer camps. Need a place to start your search? Check out the National Camp Association's CampQuest. After filling out a quick questionnaire, you'll receive a customized list of summer camps based on your answers; the summer camp programs that are a good fit will send you information directly.

Spend the day away on a canoe with family in tow.

Or, check the following list for affordable summer camps near you.

  • The Y (YMCA): This worldwide organization is an excellent source of cheap summer camps for kids that range from weeklong sleep-away camps to day camps offering everything from camping skills to cultural enrichment and sports training. With more than 2600 locations in the U. S., there's likely a Y in your neighborhood.
  • Boys and Girls Clubs of America: This national organization's goal is to foster youth growth and development, and it reaches out to all kids, including those who can't afford other community programs. All clubs offer youth-oriented programs for enrichment and include a game room, sports area, and teen center; many also offer arts and crafts, a learning/tech center, and classes such as dance, drama, or martial arts. There are thousands of clubs in the U.S., and many offer summer camp programs, so find a Boys and Girls Club near you.
  • City- or park-run programs: Summer camps organized by your city or local park can be low-cost and offer the convenience of a nearby site. Check with your city or municipal office or the local parks and recreation department to find out what type of youth programs are available. Many city-sponsored summer camps are cheap and run in conjunction with the public school system.

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  • Local high school, community college, or university: Many community colleges and some high schools and universities offer cheap summer camps for youths in grades 1-12. Classes may include anything from archery, softball, and tennis to art, drama, and writing. Contact local schools to see what's on offer.
  • Local religious or faith-based organizations: Religious or faith-based aid societies often sponsor cheap summer camp programs. Options often include half-day, daily, or week-long camps. Check local community centers and houses of worship for summer camps for kids in your area.
  • Local non-profit organization: Some non-profit, children- or family-oriented organizations offer cheap summer camp options for children. The Children's Aid Society, for instance, runs numerous summer camps in the New York City area for children of all ages (check the organization's website to locate a nearby camp). Contact similar organizations in your area to find out if they're mounting summer camps this year.

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