Free and Cheap Summer Camps for NYC Kids
Even if your family's swimming in money like Uncle Scrooge (and if you are, congrats), we all appreciate a good bargain. Summer camp is an especially stressful financial issue because while we want our children to have a fun, rewarding and safe experience, we don't want to dig into our 401Ks to pay for it. One thing we've learned is that cost and quality don't always correlate. Some wonderful programs are subsidized by arts and education funding so that all children can experience the rich and amazing resources of this city.
Although there seem to be fewer completely free New York City summer camps than in years past, our list of excellent inexpensive camps keeps growing. One of those programs—the NYC Parks Experience Summer Day Camp, which costs $500 for the entire summer—holds its online lottery for spots this week! Read on to find out how to vie for a space and for info on many other free and bargain summer camps for NYC kids.
Goddard Riverside Community Center – Ages 5-13
From Monday, July 1 to Friday, August 15, this Upper West Side nonprofit runs three summer programs for kids, one of which is free. Children ages 11 to 13 can attend Beacon, a no-cost general interest day camp. The other two programs, summer camps at the Bernie Wohl Center for ages 6 to 10 and West 84th Street for ages 5 to 12, cost $850 for the seven weeks (which includes a $50 registration fee).
Chess-in-the-Schools Summer Chess Camp – Ages 6-12
The nonprofit organization, which teaches chess to city kids throughout the school year, is holding multiple no-cost summer programs at yet-to-be-determined NYC sites. Children ages 7 and up of all skill levels are eligible, however, priority registration is given to current Chess-in-the-Schools students; all others will be placed on a waiting list. The camps will run for four weeks in July. Email email@example.com for more info. There's also a chess program at Camp Ramapo Anchorage in Rhinebeck, New York specifically for disadvantaged city kids with special needs. Camp runs July 9-August 3 9am-2pm.
Camp G.O.A.L.S. for Girls – Eighth and ninth graders
G.O.A.L.S. stands for Greater Opportunities Advancing Leadership and Science so if you know a girl who's really into STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics) subjects, listen up. If she's currently in eighth or ninth grades and goes to school in NYC, she's eligible to apply for this no-cost camp at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. From Monday, July 15-Saturday, August 24, participants will do field studies, workshops and hands-on STEM activities. Only 50 kids are accepted into this highly competitive camp, and applications are due by Friday, March 15. Teacher recommendations and an interview also required.
Bard College Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving – Seventh graders
The liberal arts college hosts a free summer sleepaway math camp for low-income kids. Seventh-graders who are fascinated by math spend three weeks on campus with top instructors, solving problems and learning skills not generally covered in middle school, like number theory and computer programming. Other activities include sports, field trips and games. In order to be eligible to attend, students must have just completed seventh grade, live in New York City and go to a public school in which at least 75% of the students receive free lunch. Teacher recommendation and an in-person interview also required. About 100 students apply for 40 spots, and free transportation is provided to and from the Bard campus in Annandale-on-Hudson. Dates for 2013 have yet to be determined but keep checking the website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wingspan Arts Summer Theater Conservatory – Ages 6-18
This programs offers high-quality stage training for middle and high schoolers, and theater classes for younger children. The day is split between rehearsals and classes with breaks for outdoor play, quiet games and lunch. Wingspan's summer theater conservatory is a free program for students in grades five and up. It's by audition only and unfortunately the dates have already passed for 2013, but plan ahead for next year—applications are usually due in January. The program for elementary-age children doesn't require an audition, and starts at $1,000 for a two-week session.
Louis Jonas Foundation Camps – High-school students
Unfortunately, the deadline to apply for this summer was February 1, however, this is an amazing sleepaway camp that you should put on your radar for the future. The foundation operates an international leadership program and selects teens based on character, potential and promise. Every summer, a diverse group of gifted and motivated young people from all over the world participate in the seven-week program, which promotes personal growth, leadership and intercultural understanding. All attendees receive full scholarships (including travel) and come from more than 30 countries. At both the boys' camp in Rhinebeck, NY and a girls' camp in Clinton Corners, NY, participants sleep in tents and follow an experiential learning program. All attendees become members of the alumni network, which consists of 5,000 people from more than 90 countries, including business, academic, political and humanitarian leaders who work together to create positive change around the world. It is truly a life altering experience. As you can imagine, it's quite competitive!
The Wooster Group Summer Institute – Ages 12-17
Celebrated avant-garde theater company The Wooster Group hosts a free three-week summer performance workshop for teenagers every summer. Applicants must attend public school in NYC and apply online by April 1 in order to be considered. The dates for 2013 are Monday, July 8-Friday, July 27. Under the tutelage of ensemble members Kate Valk and Ariana Smart Truman, kids will work on a variety of texts and enjoy daily visits with guest artists in performance, movement, writing and video. Participants will mount a performance for family and friends the final week.
We also keep a list of free summer sports programs for New York City kids, which will be updated when the info for 2013 becomes available later in the spring.
Inexpensive Day and Sleepaway Camps
We realize that everyone has their own definition of what constitutes inexpensive. The camps below range from $25 for the entire summer up to $400 per week, with many prices in between.
NYC Parks Experience Summer Day Camp – Ages 6-13
The Parks Department runs 19 day camps at recreation centers citywide that feature arts and crafts, sports, computers, field trips and more. The program runs Monday, July 8-Friday, August 23 and the cost for the entire seven weeks is $500. To vie for a spot, enter the online lottery from Thursday, March 7 at 9am through Sunday, March 10 at midnight. Some centers will also offer in-person registration during designated hours. Unfortunately, it looks like the Parks Department has discontinued its other bargain camp, the Junior Rangers Day Camp, which was operated by the Urban Park Rangers.
The Children's Aid Society – Ages 3-14
Info on summer 2013 has not yet been finalized, but the nonprofit usually runs camps at 13 sites in the tri-state area, including country day camps in Westchester and Staten Island, and NYC day camps housed at centers in Manhattan and the Bronx, as well as local schools. Tuition varies by location. In the past, the East Harlem camp has been 100% free, while others charged rates around $300 per week and also offered financial aid to those who qualified. Once info for 2013 becomes available, you'll find it on the website.
Riverbank State Park – Ages 6 and up
This stunning Harlem park also runs a day camp that costs $550 for the entire summer. The trouble is getting more info on it (as a budget-crunched New York State Park, it's next to impossible to get anyone on the phone). You can try calling 212-694-3600 but I've found that the staff is better about responding to inquiries on the park's Facebook page. Registration is currently open for camp, which runs Monday, July 8 to Friday, August 9.
The Boys Club of New York – Ages 6 and up
If you've got a son, these camps are for you. The nonprofit runs day camps Monday, July 1-Friday, August 9 at its clubhouses in Harlem, Flushing and the East Village. Boys engage in a variety of activities, including sports, visual and performing arts, city outings and weekly trips to BCNY’s campus in Martinsville, New Jersey. The entire summer costs $25 although there are nominal fees for certain enrichment classes and outings. Registration for current members begins on March 4; members-to-be can vie for spots beginning Monday, April 1.
YMCA – Ages 4 and up
With sleepaway camps and day camps located in all five boroughs, the Y provides youth with supervised activities that teach core values, conflict resolution and leadership skills. There are myriad opportunities to focus on sports from soccer to swimming to martial arts, crafts, science and more. Registration for all YMCA camps is currently underway, so be sure to get in touch with the outpost nearest you to see what's on offer. While these camps are well priced, between $250-$350 a week for the day camps, depending on location, financial aid is available for those who qualify.
NIA's Summer Day Camp – Ages 5-11
One of our readers, Sarah, recommended this program run by the nonprofit Neighborhood Improvement Association. Offered at two Brooklyn schools, P.S. 204 in Dyker Heights and P.S. 264 in Gravesend, this general interest camp offers arts, sports and other summer fun for $850-$1000 for six weeks Monday, July 8-Friday, August 16.
Unity Stage Summer Arts – Sunnyside
Founded in 2009, this Western Queens youth theater arts organization offers creative programs year-round, including a summer camp for students in kindergarten through ninth grade. This year, the camp runs Monday, July 8 to Friday, August 9 from 9am to 5:30pm and costs $350 per week but Unity is offering a special discount to Mommy Poppins readers: $50 off the first week or enrollment and $25 off each additional week. Call 917-548-1086.
Breukelen Farmers Summer Camp – Canarsie
Brooklyn's Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum hosts this nature camp for two weeks: Monday, August 5-Friday, August 9 and Monday, August 19-Friday, August 23. From 9am to 3pm each day, children ages 7 to 12 can learn about historic and current farming practices and get hands-on experience planting, composting, weeding and even cooking what they harvest. Each session ends with a camper presentation. Cost is $250 per week. Email email@example.com or call 718-629-5400 for more information.
Camp Henry – Ages 4½-13
Part of the venerable Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, this program offers arts and crafts, music, drama, sports, swimming and field trips. If you sign up by April 22, the rate is $1150 for six weeks, Monday, July 8-Friday, August 16. Sign up after that deadline and the fee goes up $150. There's an additional fee for coverage until 6pm.
Oasis – Ages 4-11
Oasis runs several camps around the city, including programs near Central Park, in downtown Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and around the tri-state area. Participants go swimming, do sports, crafts and performing arts, and go on field trips. Best of all, the kids are outside almost all day, running around, getting dirty, having fun and getting tired. At $3,450 (or less depending on location) for eight weeks, they're a NYC bargain. Families can also get discounts for paying early, referring friends and more, and kids can sign up for a little as two weeks. Financial aid is also available, and Oasis runs a handful of free camps for students at specific public schools.
ACT Summer Camp – Ages 3-14
Since the early '70s, Adults and Children in Trust has been running a day camp on the campus of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Kids enjoy arts and crafts, cooking, reading and playing on the gorgeous grounds, plus field trips. The July session requires a five-week commitment and costs $2230, but there are individual weeks in August for $350 or $430 per week, depending on the week.
Brooklyn Cultural Adventures Program – Ages 7-12
BCAP is the only camp in the world whose campus includes a garden, a historic house, a nature center, a landmarked park, a library, a zoo and two museums! Campers enjoy a carefully crafted curriculum led by instructors at each site, often combined with behind-the-scenes access. BCAP takes advantage of the incredible resources of Brooklyn's cultural institutions by offering hands-on experiences for children. Campers explore world cultures at the Brooklyn Children's Museum, become plant scientists at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, discover the wonderful wildlife in Prospect Park, celebrate literature at the Brooklyn Public Library, meet sea lions, baboons and meerkats at the Prospect Park Zoo, create an artistic masterpiece at Brooklyn Museum and more. Each two-week session is $675, and the camp runs Monday, July 1-Friday, August 9 8am-3:30pm. Extended day until 6pm is $175 per session. Full and partial scholarships are available to those who qualify.
Frost Valley – Ages 7-16
Frost Valley offers traditional sleepaway camps and specialty programs, like farm camp and horse camp. Tuition is sliding scale, so there are three price tiers. Paying the higher rate is voluntary and not based on income. A two-week session at the regular sleepaway camp ranges from $1600 to $1850.
Third Street Music School Settlement Summer Arts Day Camp – Ages 3-6
The nation's oldest community music school, Third Street (which, despite the name, is currently located on East 11th Street) was founded in 1894 by Emilie Wagner, who believed that music could offer the impoverished immigrants of New York's Lower East Side respite from their daily struggles. Camp includes Orff-based music classes, Bilingual Birdies 'Speakin' Spanish' music classes, storytelling, arts and crafts, creative dramatics, puppetry and more. The facilities include a dance room, a music studio, a kiln for clay work and an enclosed outdoor playground equipped with sprinklers. There are also art, chamber music, dance and piano ensemble workshops for older kids. Tuition is $2,300-2,750 for five weeks but financial assistance is available. Alums get first dibs.
Grants and Other Ideas
Some camp grants are available. Several of my friends have participated in the One Happy Camper program, which offers grants of up to $1,000 off a child's first year of Jewish sleepaway camps. These grants are not based on need so anyone can apply.
There are also needs-based programs like the venerable Fresh Air Fund, which gives inner-city kids the chance to experience sleepaway camp at no cost, and the Sports & Arts in Schools Foundation, which runs day camps at various public schools and community centers.
Another good bet is to contact local Catholic schools, churches or community centers in your area. Many of them run inexpensive summer camps for kids, and not all require that your family be a member.
Finally, if your kids have their hearts set on a particular camp, always inquire about financial aid. Many programs offer assistance to families who qualify.
Read about lots of other wonderful summer programs in or near NYC in our Camp Guide.