24 Free (or Super Cheap) National Summer Programs for Kids

It’s time to ask yourself the dreaded question “What will I do with my kids this summer?” While many day camps and sleepaway camps might still not be happening,  there are still tons of cool summer camps and programs that have taken their operations online and are keeping costs very low or even free. From cooking classes to reading challenges, these kid-approved summer programs are the best way to fill your time this summer.

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photo: Photograph by Matthew Rakola

National Geographic's Planet Possible Family Challenge

This brand-new eight-week series from National Geographic hopes to inspire families to get outside, explore the habitats that surround us, and empower kids to understand why it's so important to protect them. Each challenge will have three steps: 

  1. MAKE IT! A step-by-step DIY for a tool or craft that will help kids explore the microhabitat
  2. TRY IT! Prompts or activities to encourage kids to explore and learn about biodiversity, using the Make It! craft
  3. SAVE IT! Kid-friendly tips on protecting the microhabitat

Running until the end of July, the Planet Possible Family Challenge is a great way to make sure there's minimal summer brain drain! The first family challenge is already underway, you can check it out here. Also, stay tuned to natgeofamily.com/challenge for a new craft every Thursday!

Cost: Free 

Online: nationalgeographic.com/family/topic/planet-possible-family-challenges 

photo: MOCA North Miami

MOCA Art Camp

MOCA North Miami is offering a contemporary art experience with virtual art camps this summer. Kids ages six to 13 will be introduced to mixed media, painting, drawing and textile arts during Zoom workshops, and their final projects will be featured in a virtual exhibition on MOCA’s website. There will be five two-week sessions, starting on Jun. 14 and running through Aug. 20. Reservations are made on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Cost: $10 a day, $50 for a week, or $90 per full two-week session.

Online: mocanomi.org/2021/04/virtual-summer-art-camp-2021/ 

Barnes & Noble Summer Reading Program

If you need an incentive to get the kids to go screen-free every once in a while, check out the Barnes & Noble Summer Reading Program. Download a reading journal from the Barnes & Noble website, then have your little bookworm log each book as it’s completed. Once they’ve read eight books, bring the completed journal to your local Barnes & Noble between July 1 and Aug. 31 to get a free book.*** Score!

Cost: Free

Online: barnesandnoble.com/b/summer-reading/_/N-rs9



Varsity Tutors

Get learning time in this summer with Varsity Tutors’ weeklong, totally free virtual summer camps. Running Jun. 7 through Aug., kids can sign up to make their own LEGO movie, crack detective cases and create their own worlds in Minecraft. Space is limited, so grab your spot soon.

Cost: $150 a week

Online: varsitytutors.com/virtual-summer-camps

Family Maker Camp

Get your whole crew involved with Family Maker Camp—it’s a great way to flex your imagination and create something new. Join in on one of their live streams or pick something that sounds interesting out of their project library. Before you know it, you’ll have built a hovercraft or a musical instrument.

Cost: Free

Online: makercamp.com


If you’re worried about getting your middle or high school kids up to speed in the new school year, Numerade has a fabulous (and free) solution. They’re offering free STEM summer camps covering SAT test prep, precalculus, physics and more. 

Cost: Free

Online: numerade.com/summer-camp

photo: Gigi’s Playhouse

Gigi’s At Home

With the onset of Covid-19, GiGi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Centers were forced to temporarily close, but they were able to bring a ton of content to their website tailored for families with Down Syndrome. Browse more than 28 national programs for all ages, covering everything from math to cooking. 

Cost: Free

Online: gigisplayhouse.org/gigisathome/

photo: courtesy Marathon Kids

Walk & Talk from Marathon Kids

Research shows that kids connect when they're participating in an activity with you whether it's cooking, playing outside or being creative. Non-profit organization Marathon Kids, which works to ignite the joy of physical activity in kids, is launching a free summer program in hopes of making this easier for parents. Simply walk a mile and talk while doing it. Each day you'll receive a new prompt, there's a special mileage tracker, and by the end, you'll have walked the length of a marathon (26 miles) while getting to know your child better. 

Cost: Free 

Get registered and get your daily prompts here

LEGO Magazine

Your master builder can receive a free magazine as part of the LEGO life program. There are stories, activities and news updates for kids ages 5-9.

Cost: Free

Online: lego.com/life/magazine

photo: courtesy Microsoft

Microsoft Kids Camp

Microsoft normally offers free kids camp at their stores during the summer, but they've moved online for now. Kids can sign up for free online workshops to tour the Smithsonian, plan a virtual road trip, put their Minecraft skills to the test and more. Ages range from 6-14, and while the camps are free, advance registration is required.

Cost: Free

Online: microsoft.com/store/eventsforkids

photo: Brain Chase

Brain Chase

Give your kids an exciting and engaging adventure this summer with one of Brain Chase's 2021 treasure hunt programs! How does it work? There are four programs, The Jungle Book, the Sunstone of Cortes, The Mask of Tomoe Gozen and The Globe of Magellan to choose from. Once your kiddo has picked which one (or maybe they want to do all four!), they'll choose three electives out of 15 (depending on which package you select), including math, engineering, cooking, typing and even yoga, to solve each weekly challenge. Once solved, an original webisode containing the next hidden clue will be unlocked. The first treasure hunter to solve the mystery will jet off to unearth the real buried treasure—$1,000 in gold! The fun starts on May 24th. 

Cost: $99 and up. Click here for more information.

Online: brainchase.com

photo: istock

Scholastic's Read-a-Palooza

Your avid reader can help underprivileged kids gain access to books by keeping track of his total minutes read this summer. Sign up on Scholastic's new Home Base to get started. As kids track their reading streaks, they’ll unlock fun videos, book excerpts and other exclusive summer content. For every two days in a row kids track their reading streaks, Scholastic, with the help of other sponsors, will donate a book (totaling up to 100,000 books) to underserved kids across the country. You can register here, and check out the info for parents here.

Cost: Free


Ranger Rick Photo Contest

If you’ve got a budding Ansel Adams at home, the Ranger Rick photo contest is a great way to keep her busy over the summer. First, head for the great outdoors (or your own backyard) and have her take nature photos. Then, select her favorite one and send it in with proper sizing (2 MB or smaller, JPG format, at least 600 pixels wide or 600 pixels tall). If your kid doesn’t have a digital camera, no worries! Phone images are also accepted. Recent winners (this is an ongoing contest) are entered into the running for Ranger Rick’s "Your Best Shots" Magazine Award and are selected three times a year. Each winner receives a certificate of achievement and copies of the magazine featuring the winning image!

Cost: Free

Online: rangerrick.org/photo-contest

photo: Dana Porrazzo via Kids That Do Good

Kids That Do Good Volunteer Program

It's never too early to instill the habit of giving to others. Have your little philanthropists sign up with Kids That Do Good this summer in order to spend time giving back to their local community. The online (kid-founded!) resource allows kids to get involved with a cause or charity of their choosing—or, if you’ve got real go-getters at home—create their own! Once you’ve created an account and found an organization, kids can track their service hours via social profiles and certificates. During Covid-19, they're highlighting ways that you can volunteer safely from home, including sewing masks, transcribing historic documents and more.

Cost: Free

Online: kidsthatdogood.com

Apple Camp

It's possible that the very popular Apple Camp will return for Summer 2021. Designed to help spark the imaginations of kiddos ages 8-12, this three-day workshop allows kids to explore and expand on their digital creativity. They’ll choose one of three tracks, and spend 90 minutes of each day working on their project. Be sure to sign up here to get an email announcing open registration—spots fill up quickly!

Cost: Free

Online: apple.com/retail/camp

Home Depot Maker Classes

The Home Depot offers workshops that are perfect for mini-makers. Simply pre-register online, and then show up on the selected Saturday to build fun projects like a putting green. At the end of the two-hour workshop, kids receive a certificate of achievement, a workshop apron, and a commemorative pin while supplies last.

Cost: Free

Online: homedepot.com/workshops

Camp Creativity at Michael's

Does your artist dream of paint, paper, glitter and glue? If so, Michael’s Camp Creativity is the perfect way to beat the summer brain drain. Running from Jul. 12-Aug 1. at 3 pm CT, your creative kid can log in for a new craft or art project. 

Cost: Free

Online: michaels.com/camp-creativity

Kids Bowl Free

Budding bowlers can perfect their technique all summer long thanks to Kids Bowl Free, which allows them to play up to two games a day free of charge. All that's missing is a pair of those sweet bowling shoes. To find a participating bowling alley near you, click here.

Cost: Free

Online: kidsbowlfree.com

Summer Movie Programs

Sometimes a dark and cool movie theater is the only way to beat the heat. Your kids can sign up for a punch card or show up at participating Megaplex and Regal theaters to catch a fun, kid-friendly flick for just $1. Even better, most movies show before noon, making it easy to catch a flick and head home for nap time.

Cost: $1 per movie at both locations.

Online: megaplextheatres.com/i/kidsmovies and regmovies.com/movies/summer-movie-express

photo: iStock

Kids Skate Free

Xanadu your heart out and head for the local roller rink this summer. Whether your kids like to skate or rollerblade, a few laps will get their blood pumping, and the cool, A/C-induced temps are a total bonus. The Kids Skate Free program allows families to take advantage of this offer once a week (during summer months). Click here to find out if it’s happening at your local rink.

Cost: Free

Online: kidsskatefree.com

National Park Jr. Ranger Program

If you’ve got a National Park nearby, be sure to sign up your mini explorers for the NPS Junior Ranger Program. Each kiddo will be outfitted with a handy Junior Ranger guidebook that's filled with historical facts and cool tips about all the National Parks. Every adventurer also gets the chance to complete a series of activities, share answers with a park ranger, and receive an official Junior Ranger patch and certificate. Click here to learn more. 

Insider Tip: Kids can earn badges at home by downloading activity books and information packets. Click here for more info

Cost: Free

Online: nps.gov/kids/become-a-junior-ranger.htm

photo: Gabby Cullen

Museums on Us

If you are a Bank of America or a Merrill Lynch cardholder, you can snag free admission at more than 150 museums, science centers and botanical gardens across the country on two days every month just by showing your card. Find out if your favorite museum is participating, and on what days, by clicking here.

Cost: Free

Covid-19 update: Be sure to check your local museum's website to see if they're open before you visit.

Online: museums.bankofamerica.com

photo: iStock

Camp Tinkergarten

From the popular hands-on outdoor learning program for kids comes an 11-week summer course you can do at home. Filled with all sorts of fun like a printable "trail map," reading summer list, songs and rituals for camp, plus articles and resources for parents, each week focuses on a different core Tinkergarten skill: persistence, empathy, creativity, focus and more.

Cost: $149 per family

Online: tinkergarten.com/camp 

MarcoPolo World School

Keep the summer boredom away with this fun digital learning platform. Kids ages three to seven can learn STEAM concepts while watching videos and participating in interactive online activities. You can try it out with a seven-day free trial; after that, it’s $7.99 a month.

Cost: $7.99/month

Online: marcopololearning.com

Camp Bonkers

From the creative minds behind Angry Birds, Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Ice Age comes a free, interactive camp-style YouTube summer experience for kids. Every day is new, and activities include making food, doing science experiments, singing songs and more. Counselors will be on hand to lead extra content, and be on the lookout for special guest stars including Sparkles and Beaver and Scribbles the Cat. 

Dates: Anytime on YouTube

Online: youtube.com/channel/UCezC6uWpNz8Mcx-DV7OO7SQ

—Susie Foresman & Gabby Cullen

Featured image: iStock


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