Even if your family's swimming in money (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 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 FREE New York City summer camps than in years past, our list of inexpensive camps keeps growing. Read on for all the info on our picks for FREE and bargain summer camps for NYC kids. You can find even more summer options in our jam-packed Camp Guide and search for programs by interest, age range and location in our Camp Directory.
Good Shepherd Services – Ages 6-18
Every summer, this nonprofit runs more than 20 FREE camps in the Bronx and Brooklyn. The programs are meant to be fun, educational and combat the dreaded summer slide. Healthy lunches are also provided. Age requirements vary by site. Some camps are held at the group's existing after-school centers, while others will be held at to-be-determined public school spaces. You can find a complete list of centers at elementary, middle and high schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx on the website. Contact the location nearest you to find out whether it's hosting a camp and how to apply.
NIA Community Services Network – Ages 5-13
This reader-recommended general-interest camp is run by the Neighborhood Improvement Association, which offers a number of FREE camps at public schools throughout Brooklyn. Full information is available in early April so email email@example.com to be notified when registration materials are available.
Camp G.O.A.L.S. for Girls – 8th & 9th 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 FREE camp at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. From Monday, July 6-Saturday, August 15, participants will participate in field studies, workshops and hands-on STEM activities. Only 50 kids are accepted into this highly-competitive camp, and applications are due Monday, March 21. Teacher recommendations and an interview are also required. Organizers say GO.A.L.S. is more youth leadership program than traditional camp and participants are expected to attend school-year alumni events and will also have access to internship and mentorship opportunities down the line.
Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics – 6th & 7th graders
Formerly called the College Summer Program in Mathematical Problem Solving, this FREE summer sleepaway math camp is aimed at low-income NYC kids. Seventh-graders who are fascinated by math spend three weeks 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, students must have completed seventh grade this year, live in New York City and go to a public school in which at least 75 percent of the students receive free lunch. Teacher recommendations and an in-person interview are also required. About 200 students apply for 80 spots, and free transportation is provided to and from the two program campuses: Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson and Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y. Another big plus: In 2016, BEAM will welcome sixth graders to a city-based day camp for the first time. Visit the website for more information and application materials, which should be available in mid-February.
Girls Who Code – 10th & 11th graders
These days, it's almost a requirement that kids learn to code. If you have a daughter in high school, this seven-week summer immersion program can help. Participants go on field trips and take classes in robotics, website and app design, and meet industry pros. Applications are now available and must be submitted by March 1.
Wingspan Arts Summer Theater Conservatory – 5th-11th graders
This program 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 5 to 11. It's by audition only and 2016 application deadline is February 4. Wingspan also has a program for elementary-age children that doesn't require an audition and costs around $600 per week with discounts for multi-week registration.
Louis Jonas Foundation Camp Rising Sun – High-school students
Unfortunately, the deadline to apply for this summer was January 8. 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 program, which promotes personal growth, leadership and intercultural understanding. All attendees receive full scholarships (including travel) and come from more than 30 countries. In 2016, campers will enjoy a four-week session at the camp in Clinton Corners, N.Y., with separate sessions for boys and girls. 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!
We also keep a list of FREE summer sports programs for New York City kids that will be updated in May when the info for 2015 becomes available.
Inexpensive Day Camps
We realize that we all have our own definition of what constitutes inexpensive. The camps below range from $25 for the entire summer up to $430 per week for day camps, with many prices in between.
NYC Parks Experience Summer Day Camp – Ages 6-13
The Parks Department runs day camps at recreation centers throughout the city that feature arts and crafts, sports, computer time and field trips. To vie for a spot, enter the online lottery, which is generally held in early March.
The Children's Aid Society – Ages 3-14
Details on this summer are still being finalized, but the nonprofit usually runs camps at approximately 17 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 FREE, while others charged rates around $300 per week and also offered financial aid to those who qualified. If you are interested in a particular location, reach out to that center directly to find out when registration starts.
Riverbank State Park – Ages 7-12
This stunning Harlem park hosts a day camp that costs around $550 for five weeks, and registration takes place in person during the spring. Find more info on the green space's Facebook page.
The Boys Club of New York – Ages 6 & up
If you've got a son, listen up: This nonprofit runs day camps from Tuesday, July 5-Friday, August 12 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, N.J. The entire session costs $25 for the first kid, $35 for all siblings living in the same home, though there are nominal fees for certain enrichment classes and outings. For current members, registration takes place Monday, March 7 through Sunday, April 10. New members can vie for spots beginning on Monday, April 11. For more info, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
YMCA – Ages 4 & 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 get in touch with the outpost nearest you to see what's offered. While these camps are well priced, between $250-$400 a week for the day camps depending on location, financial aid is available for those who qualify.
Camp Henry – Ages 5-13
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 Thursday, March 31, the rate is $1,450 for six weeks, Tuesday, July 5-Friday, August 19.
Uptown Sports Complex – Ages 5-13
Located in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, this youth athletics complex runs a number of different camps that range in price from $250-$275 per week. Dates, prices and athletic activities vary but gymnastics, baseball and other group sports are available. Check the website for more info.
Oasis – Ages 3-11
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 $2,415 for the entire summer in the outer boroughs, it's fairly well priced. Families can also get discounts for paying early, referring friends and more, and kids can sign up for as little as two weeks. Financial aid is also available. Additionally, 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.
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. Two-week sessions cost $645-$695 and the camp runs Tuesday, July 5-Friday, August 12. Full and partial scholarships are available to those who qualify.
Grants & 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 camp. These grants are not based on need so anyone can apply.
There are also need-based programs like the venerable Fresh Air Fund, which gives inner-city kids the chance to experience sleepaway camp at no cost, the Sports & Arts in Schools Foundation, which runs day camps at various public schools and community centers and Wishbone, a nonprofit that helps promising low-income NYC high school students attend the summer or after-school program of their choice.
The wonderful website InsideSchools has a list of 100 FREE or low-cost after-school and summer programs. We looked through it and most of the opportunities (though not all) are for middle and high school students. Also, many programs don't operate in the summer, are outside of NYC or aren't happening this year. Still, it's a good resource to have on your radar. Just be prepared to do additional research.
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 membership.
Finally, if your kids have their hearts set on a particular camp, inquire about financial aid. Many programs offer assistance to families who qualify.
Read about lots of other wonderful summer programs in our Camp Guide. You can even search for programs by interest, age range and location in our Camp Directory.
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Photo courtesy of Eco Explorers.