Many sleepaway and day camps have canceled their programs this summer. That’s a bummer for kids and a problem for some parents. Many moms and dads of younger kids, even if still working at home, were relying on camp as child care. “I can attest that these last few months have been a steep learning curve for all parents, myself included,” says Tim Allen, CEO of Care.com.
The confidence we’ve gained in managing the challenges and spending more time with our kids will hopefully pay off. “That knowledge will help parents get through the summer, despite the uncertainty. A wide array of online summer programming is available to kids,” Allen says.
With so many options, how do you make the best choice? “Finding appropriate virtual activities is in some ways similar to choosing traditional programs,” says Dana Stahl, a learning specialist and founder of Educational Alternatives in Katonah, New York. You need to consider your children’s interests and their capacity for sustained attention, she says. “Some children learn best by watching, some by listening, and others by active participation.”
From online summer camps to camps-in-a-box to good old hands-on camp activities, consider this your guide to summer camp salvation.
Your camp counselor toolbox
No matter how many things you sign the kids up for via mail or online, they’ll need some time on their own — or with you. Creativity and laughter can take over your home during offline hours with these recommendations.
Ninja Warrior Obstacle Course for Kids ($189.98, originally $229.99; amazon.com)
Release their inner warrior with this American Ninja Warrior Competition kit. It comes with a 65-foot slackline where you can hang rings, ladders and more that can provide endless possibilities. It’s approved for ages 6 and up, so the whole family can get in on the fun.
Made by Me Mix & Mold Stepping Stones ($15.17; amazon.com)
What’s camp without crafts? The finished products of this kit will add a touch of color and cheer to your yard.
Jasonwell Sprinkle & Splash Play Mat 68” Sprinkler ($25.99; amazon.com)
This awesome backyard addition is a summer camp classic. There’s nothing better than splashing around on a hot summer day.
SUNCOO Running Shooting Targets ($29.99, originally $39.99; amazon.com)
Time to stretch your legs and move around by testing your aim at these moving targets. In case you’re not already stocked up on blasters, try snagging a couple of these Nerf N-Strike Elite Triad EX-3 ($4.99; target.com) for target practice.
Klutz Friendship Bracelets Craft Kit ($17.68; amazon.com)
Another summer camp classic craft activity is making friendship bracelets to hand out to all of your new besties before heading back to school in the fall. Kids can make these for everyone in the house or mail them out to friends, cousins or anyone else (Grandma?) who’s on their minds.
Discovery Kids Planetarium Projector ($26.16, originally $31.99; amazon.com)
Children can explore the marvels of our universe during a “camp out” in your living room.
Max Liquidator 6-Pack Water Blaster Set ($16.81, originally $19.99; amazon.com)
Don’t have room for a water slide? Just fill up a bucket with water and hand these out to the kids for endless water fun.
Magformers Basic Plus ($14.97, originally $24.99; amazon.com)
Preschoolers can learn to build using combine, roll and pull-up techniques and see what their imaginations can create.
Toysmith Beetle & Bee Build A Bird Buffet ($14.99; amazon.com)
Get them in touch with nature, and their own craftiness, with this kit, which comes with everything they’ll need to build a bird feeder, from precut wood to paint — no nails required.
Green Science Solar Rover ($18.81, originally $19.99; amazon.com)
This kit contains everything needed to recycle a soda can into a solar-powered vehicle.
Moody Goat 21-Piece Outdoor Explorer Gear Deluxe Play Set for Kids ($32.95; amazon.com)
Kids 5 years old and up will have fun observing nature up close with this kit that’s loaded with the tools they’ll need to explore, analyze and remember their discoveries, including magnifiers, nets, tools, and even a hat and vest so they can
RockJam 54-Key Portable Electronic Keyboard ($72.49; amazon.com)
How about an end-of-summer talent show? We’ve surely all learned a few new tricks this season. This keyboard will teach them how to play music and read music without needing to leave the house to see a teacher IRL.
Camp KiwiCo (free for online camp content, crates starting at $24.95; kiwico.com)
Subscription boxes that appeal to all ages are slim pickings. That’s why we fell for Camp KiwiCo, which has set up a weekly camp shipment service for all those preschool through high school tinkerers and makers. Every day is structured around a theme, accompanied either by a crate or free videos, DIY and downloadable printables or both. Each themed camp week covers five days of four hours’ worth of fun that you can mix and match. The program launches on June 22 and will run throughout the summer.
Usit Virtual Summer ($150 for the first week, $90 for each following week; virtual.usit.care)
Preschool camp ideas
This is another one that doesn’t fit neatly into an age bracket, because it appeals to kids ages 3 through 13. Sessions are conducted by college students in small groups of five kids each and start at $150 for the first week and $90 for each additional week. Subjects include “Paint like Picasso,” “Self care and meditation” and TikTok, and even cover things like acting, digital arts and entrepreneurialism.
These smart activities with an eye toward the first day of kindergarten (yay!) are best enjoyed with a parent. That means squeezing in extra bonding time whenever you can find it.
Little Passports Early Explorers ($19.95/month for 12 months; littlepassports.com)
This year, summer camp is wherever you are. Camp-in-a-box services have stepped up to help families make the most of the season. One of our favorites is Early Explorers by Little Passports, because it’s focused on global adventures that get kids virtually exploring the world. Each “traveler’s kit” comes packaged in an adorable suitcase. The activities inside will have children getting a taste of a faraway place.
The Preschool Box ($29.16 per child, per month; cratejoy.com)
This monthly kit is stuffed with activities, games, stickers and books specifically geared to helping children have some fun while getting prepared for kindergarten. A parent guide is also included, so you know exactly how to help your child along.
Free camp resources for preschool kids
Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium (free; youtube.com)
Get crafty with WOW’s summer Creature Crafting series. It teaches the little ones and their grown-ups how to conjure up all kinds of DIY goodness. Like what? Coffee filter jellyfish, bird feeders and slithery snake bracelets, for starters.
Tutor Time Learning at Home (free; learningcaregroup.com)
This web hub is packed with continually updated activities for children as young as 2, with their grown-up. Among the offerings are arts and crafts, music, story-based learning and positive behavior reinforcement.
Sesame Street (free; sesamestreet.org)
The iconic preschool program has launched the Caring for Each Other platform, full of interactive games, lessons and videos. The goal is to put your child more at ease with the changes in daily life caused by covid-19 while keeping the fun and learning going.
San Diego Zoo (free; kids.sandiegozoo.org)
Children this age seem to adore animals universally. This kid-centric site of the world-famous zoo is loaded with resources. Think webcams (African penguins visiting the orangutans! Twin lemurs!), preschooler-friendly curriculums, activities and games. Although this resource is free, the zoo is in dire need of donations from families with the means to contribute.
Hello Bello (free; youtube.com)
Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard’s family brand has launched Camp Hello Bello to help keep families busy during this turbulent time. “Camp counselors” — some moms and dads across the country who lost their jobs due to the pandemic — lead storytimes, singalongs, cooking classes, workouts, art projects and more for your minis.
NatGeo@Home (free; nationalgeographic.com)
Elementary and middle school camp Ideas
The NatGeo@Home hub will be updated regularly through the summer with engaging ways for families to hold “camp” at home. One example? A fun neighborhood safari. What we love about this option is how it breaks activities out by how much time you have. Half an hour? Make yogurt. Only five minutes? Get an update on how the nearly extinct black rhinos are holding up.
Many of the coolest virtual fun sessions are adaptable to a wide range of ages. Younger kids can easily tackle them with a little guidance here and there from a parent, while those on the older end can direct their adventures on their own.
Bitsbox ($29.95/month; amazon.com)
Aspiring app developers can start honing their craft with the targeted projects supplied by this popular service. From games to e-cards to simulations, the finished work can be run on smartphones and tablets. Unlimited email help is included with your subscription (for the parents as well as the kids, in case coding is new to you too.) The first box is discounted at $28.45 and additional boxes are automatically charged at $29.95.
Raddish ($24/month; amazon.com)
Does your kiddo’s interest seem to be piqued by what goes on in the kitchen? Then ordering up a steady stream of easy-peasy, yummy cooking projects may be just the ticket to summer fun. Each delivery will have a surprise theme — imagination, global cuisine, the season’s bounty, holiday goodness or one of many others. The themes never repeat. The first box is $16.80 and additional boxes are automatically charged at $24 per month.
YMCA (Pricing based on program specifics; ymca.net)
For decades, legions of kids have spent summer at the Y. This year, many branches across the country have come up with online substitutes. Check with the ones in your area to learn about virtual offerings. One example: the YMCA of Youngstown, Ohio. Parents pick up a crate of supplies for the week on Sunday, and kids log on for three to four hours a day to “join” their camp counselor in each day’s activities.
Sittercity (starting at $35/month; family.sittercity.com)
Online babysitting is catching on with parents who don’t necessarily want to have their kid occupied at a screen for long stretches, but, of course, still need to get stuff done. A virtual sitter will engage your child in games and stories, typically for one to two hours. The sweet spot for virtual babysitting is ages 6 to 9. In addition to the monthly membership fees, you will need to negotiate the hourly sitting rate with your particular sitter. If you are affected by covid-19, however, Sittercity is currently offering 50% off its membership fees.
Kidz N Art ($19.99/four classes plus materials; kidznart.com)
This virtual paint camp teaches color theory, brush stroke technique and tips for painting with acrylics, which is what kids generally start out with in school art classes — after watercolors and tempera, of course. Note: There is a discounted rate currently in effect.
Digital Film and Video Production eLive Camp ($250/five half-days; care.com)
Does your kid seem intrigued by making videos or movies? This camp might be the first step in becoming an auteur. Students will be schooled in production and editing methods, basic sound design and color correction.
Shakespeare Superheroes ($225/week; atlantashakespeare.org)
Your budding drama king or queen can get a taste of being on stage without the actual stage. By way of Zoom, Flip Grid, YouTube and Google Drive, thespian instructors guide and inspire campers with videos, one-on-one instruction, collaborative online experiences and self-guided activities. Campers will be mailed a package of supplies and Bard swag.
Free camp resources for elementary and middle school kids
Natural History Museum of Utah (free; nhmu.utah.edu)
The museum’s Research Quest is a live program led by scientists who are experts in their fields. Older elementary and middle school students participate in answering real-life scientific research questions across various fields, such as paleontology, biodiversity and ecology. Classes are hosted each weekday at 9:30 a.m. MT. Kids who miss a class can access it later on demand. Also, check out Summer@Home, which will get the kids outside with thematic three-day sessions offered via Zoom and age-appropriate assignments for every “camper” between virtual meetups. To participate in the Summer@Home camp programs, it will cost $25 to $60 per three-week session.
Kahoot! (free; kahoot.com)
With educational content geared to a wide range of ages, Kahoot! relies on kids’ competitive nature to make the learning fun. Interactive game shows, videoconferencing with other players and games that tune themselves to your kid’s pace go a long way toward making the lessons stick. In addition to the free resource, select apps are available for purchase.
NOAA Ocean Sanctuaries (free; sanctuaries.noaa.gov)
Plunge into the sea as you make your way through some of the underwater world’s most hidden spots. Tour the depths online through 360-degree video.
National Park Exploration (free; artsandculture.google.com)
Through guided, interactive videos, kids can take a virtual journey through and learn about some of the world’s most stunning national parks.
Hogwarts Digital Escape Room (free; docs.google.com)
Escape rooms have become crazy popular entertainment venues over the last few years. Although the real ones are closed, your young Harry Potter fans can get the experience on this platform. They’ll need to use logic, common sense, and their knowledge of the Wizarding World to make it out.
NFL Inspire Change (free; nfl.com)
Multiple NFL teams have stepped up to provide educational resources on their websites to help their young fans learn in a fun way, while continuing to keep a sense of team pride. Teams that are offering these resources include the Houston Texans, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.
Custer State Park, South Dakota (free; facebook.com)
Children can embark on a weekly virtual field trip on Facebook Live with the park’s interpretive program manager. They’ll see and learn about prairie dogs, buffalo and more wildlife and natural wonders of the Great Plains.
Austin Adventures (free; austinadventures.com)
These popular Virtual Adventures for Kids continue all summer long. By way of Zoom webinars, kids can “visit” amazing destinations all over the globe like Peru, the Grand Canyon, the Netherlands and Yellowstone National Park. Some of the webinars will add an instructional component to the outdoor fun and travel content, like a lesson in basic bike repair.
Summer jobs and driver’s ed, two traditional June-through-August pursuits of teens, are going to be in short supply this year. But they can fill the time with these rewarding online pursuits, honing college-readiness skills.
High school camp ideas
Mel Science ($34.90/month; melscience.com)
This subscription service ships out chemistry-centric kits that are a perfect fit for younger teens who are into experimentation. The experiments in the kits are fresh and sophisticated, yet totally doable and intriguing. Try out “Hot Ice,” “Martian Rust,” “Galaxy in a Bottle” and “Tin Hedgehog.” The first experiments — you get two or three a month — come with a VR headset specifically designed to maximize the experience.
Maker Crate by KiwiCo (starting at $24.95/month; kiwico.com)
This crate from KiwiCo helps your budding artists learn about different methods of making things to help their creative visions become reality. From macrame to clay, these kits will build a teen’s confidence as an artist and designer across a variety of mediums.
Writopia Lab (starting at $595/week; writopialab.org)
Teens with something to say (isn’t that all of them?) can hone their voices and craft in these workshops. Aside from traditional writing formats, class options include playwriting, screenplay drafting and family memoir creation. A sliding fee scale is available for unique cases.
ID Tech (starting at $399/week for half days; idtech.com)
Video game development, coding, AI and other cutting-edge fields are made available to your teen through this online platform. Interaction and team-building with other teens is a big part of the experience. The site is offering this special discounted rate while social distancing is in effect, so it’s a great time to take advantage if it’s within your budget.
Fashion Institute of Technology ($530/11-day course; fitnyc.edu)
New York’s FIT is offering its summer high school workshops remotely. And the world-renowned college is about much more than fashion. Creative teens can also delve into photography, public relations, comic book character creation, jewelry manufacturing and interior design.
Summer Camp Online (around $100 per course; summercamponline.com)
The live virtual courses will engage teens in an amazing variety of pursuits. A smattering of the options: cooking, Zumba, video game design, martial arts, college admission test prep, fabric painting, amusement park science and collage with found objects. With advance planning, you can arrange for all of your kid’s pals to take a private class together.
Free camp resources for teens
Breakthrough Junior Challenge (free; breakthroughjuniorchallenge.org)
Got a teen whose favorite classes have always been science? Check out this video contest platform. The mission? Create a three-minute work that explains the science of pandemics in a compelling, accessible way. The winner gets a $250,000 college scholarship. Even if your teen doesn’t snag the big prize, the resultant video will still be great for college portfolios.
The Metropolitan Opera Global Summer Camp (free; metopera.org)
New York City’s world-famous Met Opera recently concluded their Free Student Streaming Initiative to make room for a new summer camp program. Met Opera Global Summer Camp will be an eight-week online summer camp that allows students in grades 3 through 12 to continue music learning and exploration through some of the most beloved and fascinating operas of all time. The camp runs from June 15 to August 7 and is completely free.
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers’ listed prices at the time of publication.