The USA has more than 14,000 year-round and summer camps serving about 20 million campers annually, along with more than a million camp workers, in an $18 billion industry, according to the American Camp Association. Now, nearly everyone involved is stuck at home trying to figure out what’s going to happen next during the pandemic. Parents are desperate for answers, while camps are scrambling to come up with a plan to avoid complete shutdown or, worse yet, the collapse of their entire business.
Obviously virtual camp is not a perfect substitute for live camp. Depending on the age and temperament of the child, some level of supervision may be necessary. For parents interested in athletic our outdoorsy type camps, signing up for more screen time may be unappealing as well. However, with dwindling options many parents are exploring virtual camp as a viable alternative given the uncertainty of our collective public health reality. Admittedly, virtual summer camp is a radically different concept, but then radically different seems to be the new normal these days. Arguably, one key to thriving during this difficult time is to not expect perfection and instead learn to adapt to an admittedly sub optimal reality - certainly not the number one choice but given the scant options this summer, an amazing second choice. Any other year online camp might sound like a lukewarm idea at best, but this year it just might be a near panacea for an unprecedented reality.
Wondering how you’ll keep the children busy this summer? Have you considered a virtual camp?
Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Summer Camps
MarcoPolo World School. Free to try, then monthly fee; age 4 and up.
This early learning video and game app emphasizes STEAM skills (science, technology, engineering, art, and math). Kids choose from a list of favorite subjects and watch a related topic-based video, which is then followed by a game. Parents and kids can view the monthly calendar to see what new topics are being added to the app, and parents can view kids' progress.
Start with a Book. Free; age 6 and up.
In addition to a summer science camp, this site offers a long list of themes, such as Art, Night Sky, and Weather Report, for kids to explore. For each theme, you get book suggestions (for all reading levels), discussion guides, hands-on activities, and related sites and apps. You'll need to shell out for books if you can't find them at the library.
PBS Kids for Parents. Free; age 3–9.
The PBS Parents' site offers a variety of practical, step-by-step plans to incorporate learning and playing into the dog days of summer. You can search by age and topic to find tons of age-appropriate ideas to keep kids active and engaged.
DIY. Free and fee-based; age 7 and up.
This site offers online courses in areas such as drawing, photography, animation, inventing, and science, plus more than 1,000 additional activities (many of which can be completed offline). You can try out the site for 14 days before committing to a monthly subscription.
Make: Online. Free, but materials cost extra; age 12 and up.
The folks behind the maker movement offer weekly camps based on themes such as Far Out Future and Flight. You get a PDF with daily activities that support the theme, such as making slime and designing and flying kites.
Made with Code from Google. Free; age 12 and up.
A wide range of projects, including making emojis, animating GIFs, and composing music, is designed to ignite a passion for coding in teen girls. (There's no stopping boys from doing these projects, though.) The site offers inspiration stories from female tech mentors as well as ideas to make coding social, such as a coding party kit.
Google Arts & Culture. Free; age 12 and up.
Google Arts & Culture puts the worlds of art, science, history, and travel at your fingertips. In addition to letting you take a selfie and compare your face to images from great works of art, it also lets you find information about artists, museums, historic figures, places, and historic events.
CreativeLive, variable costs; age 14 and up.
CreativeLive is a collection of educational video courses, ranging from photography to personal growth. The lessons aren't necessarily aimed at teens, but most of the content is fine for kids who are interested in adding new skills, such as Photoshop, to their resume.
School of Doodle Free, initially designed for teen girls, the site welcomes women, boys and men who support the imagination of its core audience.
School of Doodle bills itself as a free online high school. Teens are encouraged to explore the site in one of three ways: Dabble, Dig or Do. For beginners (or those new to a specific skill) the School of Doodle community features videos that will hopefully inspire users to Dig. A Digger will take online lessons to hone a particular skill and connect with like-minded users to share ideas. Once you've graduated from this stage, you can become a Doer. Doers create classes and mentor Dabblers and Diggers. The site's tagline is "Be Loud," and encourages young women to make their presence known through their creative endeavors. It's got a pretty impressive list of backers who are all “loud” in their own right, including Arianna Huffington, Yoko Ono and Courtney Love.
Khan Academy. Free; age 6 and up.
While Khan Academy doesn't offer specific camps, it provides meaningful, step-by-step exploration in a variety of topics, including math, science, and arts and humanities. Kids can sign up with a coach (a teacher, parent, or tutor) who can monitor their progress and suggest lessons. Kids also can earn badges by learning and teaching. The custom dashboard has a progress map that fills up as kids work their way through the skills.
Brain Chase. Starts at $89, extra for electives; age 7–14.
Created by two parents who were looking for a way to help their kids continue learning during summer, Brain Chase takes a creative approach to enrichment. It starts in June and runs for six weeks; kids work on math, reading, and typing all while competing in a real-life treasure hunt for the chance to win a scholarship.
Camp Wonderopolis. Free for campers; optional instruction guide for parents; age 7 and up.
Sponsored by the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL), this online camp lets kids explore topics such as weather, food, and technology. Each topic includes lessons, outdoor activities, videos, and additional reading suggestions for all ages.
Maker Camp Free; 8 to 12 years old.
We're big fans of the annual Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science, so we were super excited to hear the folks behind it were again sponsoring a summer Maker Camp. Now in its fourth year, Maker Camp has welcomed Kelli Townley, a former Pixar staffer, as its camp head. Features include daily video feeds of at-home challenges and projects to create. Maker Camp also sponsors programs at a number of affiliates worldwide. You can find a complete list of sites where you can team up with other young makers online.
TechRocket. Free for a course sampling; price varies; age 10 and up.
Launched by iDTechCamp (the popular -- and pricey -- computer day and overnight camps), TechRocket offers online instruction in coding, game design, and graphic design. Each camp offers a variety of levels and challenges as well as a dedicated instructor.
Summer Camps for Teens varies; ages 14 and up.
For college-bound teens, the future starts here. At iD Tech, teens enjoy a one-of-a-kind online or on-campus summer experience, alongside peers and faculty who share a love for tech. Whether they're just starting their tech journey or looking for their next challenge, teens can gain a competitive edge for college and beyond with real-world tech skills and portfolio-ready projects.
Coding With Kids varies; ages 5-18.
Coding with Kids offers week-long online camps focusing on coding and web development. Classmates spend about two hours and fifteen minutes on the platform per day during the five day camp. Courses include minecraft modeling, python, and web development. This program again focuses on the technology field of STEM.
Connected Camps Starting @ $80; ages 8 to 16 years old.
Another 5 day program, Connected Camps uses Outschool and Teamscape to engage campers in classes for 8 to 16 year olds. Coding, engineering, art, and history are explored through favorite video games like Minecraft and Roblox. Teens over 13 with experience in these games and other topics could volunteer at this camp or attend. Sessions last for 90 minutes per day, but the summer program also offers a membership for unstructured time on their servers for teens to explore on their own. Connected Camps cost around $80 and also offer three camps specifically for girls in STEM.
This four-week camp is designed to work with the PC/Mac versions of the popular Minecraft game and though it's already underway, the fee for the four-week camp mostly buys your kid access to a secure, kids-only server where they can participate in challenges, interact with counselors and other campers. All challenges are posted on the website and are free to access for anyone; however free users will miss out on the community aspect of the online camp. Once the camp is over, plans are to keep the kids-only server up and running on a subscription basis. A week of coding class can be added for $50.
Camp Google Free; ages 7 to 10.
Camp Google is a four-week online summer camp designed to get kids exploring by asking questions about the world around them. The intro brings up some interesting questions like, "Why can't I tickle myself?" While Google's reputation may be enough to pique your interest, the tech giant has also teamed up with industry experts to create engaging content. Partners include Khan Academy, NASA, National Geographic and the National Park Service. Lessons are broken down into four themed one-week sessions that explore the ocean, outer space, nature and music. Although this camp launched July 13, campers can still access past week's activities. The camp consists of educational videos, simple experiments based on lessons (with supply lists) and camp badges for completed activities.