The Best Virtual Summer Camps For 2020: What Parents Should Know

Virtual camps won't replace the real thing, but they offer structure and socialization for kids, and a much needed break for parents.

by Emily Kelleher
Originally Published: 

While much of the country is reopening, coronavirus has put summer at a standstill. Vacations are canceled. Plans are sidelined. The majority of sleep-away camps are either closed or severely restricted; other camps are operating in a socially distanced capacity. Even if there is opportunity to send their kids to summer camp, many parents aren’t comfortable with doing so in the midst of Covid-19. There’s no way around it: This is tough for many families, especially for those with full-time working parents. But there are ways for kids to stay engaged, busy, and socially distanced this summer: virtual summer camps.

This summer, many traditional camps (and other kid-focused organizations) are moving online, bringing children together via video chat to connect with one another, learn new things, and get some of that playtime they’re missing. Virtual camps give kids a chance to talk to new and old friends, learn from experienced educators, and engage in new, structured activities, whether it’s a dance class, an interactive storytime, or a game of imagination. Some even recreate the “bunk” life that defines so many sleep away experiences. No, virtual camps can’t replace time spent outdoors or the good clean fun that comes from spending hours with friends in person. But, when thoughtfully chosen, the right virtual camp can add structure to those long summer days and provide kids with some much-needed socialization,

What to Look For in a Virtual Summer Camp

As they’re a substitute, the best virtual summer camps should provide, as much as possible, the comradery, connection, and socialization that traditional summer camps foster. Parents should opt for virtual camps that feature live, personal instruction, rather than one-way pre-recorded sessions (which have their place as classes, not camps).

“It is a chance for kids to make that social and emotional connection with one another during the time when they may not be able to engage in a playdate,” says Tony Deis, founder of Trackers Earth, a day camp based in Portland, Oregon which is offering a series of virtual camps this summer.

As such, parents should make sure that kids will be placed in a group with other campers that they can get to know over the duration of the session. Small group sessions and low camper-to-counselor ratios are key to creating opportunities for kids to really interact with each other. Think a little smaller than the size of an elementary school class, around 20 or fewer kids.

Virtual camps are available for pretty much all ages, interests, and attention-levels. Sessions range from half-hour to full-day, so parents should obviously consider their child’s interests and how long they can stay focused, says Elisa Pupko, founder and CEO of Treasure Trunk Theater in Brooklyn. It’s also important to ask about general housekeeping items such as the platform on which the camp is hosted, what supplies are needed, and what level of paternal involvement is expected.

One thing that will likely concern a number of parents is the amount of screen time on which virtual summer camps rely. Deis urges parents to prioritize camps with activities that involve outdoor time, movement, or hands-on activities. At Trackers Earth, for instance, that might look like cooking or learning how to tie different knots. “The screen is where they share this, but they do the skill in the real world,” Deis says.

“Not all screen time is created equally,” adds Jesse Engle, director of Camp Good Work House, a virtual camp that focuses on storytelling and being a force for good. “Scrolling on Instagram often times leaves kids feeling worse than when they went into it, especially if they’re already feeling lonely or isolated. Through Zoom, you’re connecting live.”

Finally, when selecting a virtual summer camp, safety is crucial. Parents should take the same steps they’d take when choosing a physical camp. This means making sure that the teachers are background checked and trained directly by the organization.

10 Great Virtual Summer Camps For Kids

With many organizations shifting the way they do business in the midst of coronavirus, there’s no shortage of virtual summer camp programs to choose from. It’s important to research the best programs out there for you and your child’s needs. There are happy mediums. In any case, here are 10 virtual summer camps for kids that reflect the core values of traditional summer camp, have low counselor-to-kid ratios, have flexible schedules, and feature a wide variety of activities and classes to keep campers engaged and active all summer long.

Tracker’s Earth Spark Camp

Ages: 4-18

Price: Starting at $5 for a half-hour session, $155 for a week-long session

What is it: Trackers Earth has been holding in-person camps since 2004 centered around outdoor exploration, survival skills, and things like blacksmithing, homesteading and archery. Their Spark online camps are live sessions lasting one to three hours, with, on average, 12 kids per instructor. Featured themes include wizard academy and outdoor survival. In camp home and craft, kids might learn how to tie boating and fishing knots, made homemade clay, or learn about gardening and woodworking. In camp earth ninja, kids will do animal-inspired marshall arts moves and learn how to create their own parkour course. Trackers Earth prides themselves on expert instructors and a low teacher to student ratio, and camps feature a mix of interactive activities like movement classes, role-play games, socialization time, and crafts made from household supplies. Many activities incorporate reasons to get outside. Campers can participate in one-off a la carte sessions or attend a week-long camp. Parents are told during registration whether sessions require hands-on supervision (for activities like wood carving), eyes on supervision (for activities like cooking class) or what they call phone-on supervision, (counselors will text parents if problems arise).

Camp Super Now

Ages: 5-11

Price: $199 for two weeks

At Camp Super Now, kids are placed into virtual “cabins” via zoom with 6-10 other campers that they’ll get to know over the course of a two-week session. Campers can choose to be placed in a cabin with friends, or be assigned one and make new friends. Cabins meet for one hour per day, and there are additional camp-wide activities like magic shows and movement classes. Each session is centered around a different theme, from explorers club to making a movie to renaissance fair. For those wary of committing to two weeks, Camp Super Now offers a one-day free trial, and promises a full refund for campers who aren’t happy after two days.

The Children’s Theater Company

Ages: 4-18

Price: $50-$395 for 4 weeks

The Children’s Theater Company is a Minneapolis based nonprofit that puts on children’s plays and provides theater training to young people. This summer, they’re offering 4-week camps ranging from creative movement for four and five-year-olds to acting boot camp, voice lessons, and broadway dance for kids ages eight to 18. Camp meets for anywhere from one to two and a half hours depending on the class, and sessions include large and small group activities, independent assignments, and feedback from coaches and peers. Kids might write a short play, perform a mock audition, explore songwriting, or learn some choreography. Campers are given additional activity prompts that they can complete with their family after camp, if they wish. Class sizes are limited to 10-20 participants.

Camp Good Work House

Ages: 11-18

Price: $150 per week

Good Work House is a community of influencers, entrepreneurs, and artists that’s offering a virtual camp for middle and high schoolers centered around the theme of becoming a force for good. Campers are assigned to pods with 12-15 students who they meet with each morning and afternoon of a week-long session. Pods are connected via video calls, chatrooms, and an interface where they can post and connect with each other in between sessions. Pod sessions focus on teaching campers how they can be good to themselves, their neighbors, their community, and the world, and help connect kids with their local nonprofits and service opportunities. Throughout the day there are three optional sessions on topics like songwriting, cinematography, meditation, and cooking. Camp Good Work House has a goal of having 25 percent of campers on scholarship. Their activities are designed to require few materials and little parental involvement.

Neuron Garage

Ages: 7-12

Price: $125 per device per week for a half-day session, $195 for full-day

At the Austin, Texas-based Camp Neuron Garage, kids complete weekly engineering inspired challenges where they build arcade games, catapults, marble rollercoasters, and more out of objects that normally end up in the recycling. This year, as the camp moves online, all necessary supplies (except recycling) are shipped to campers ahead of time, and parents pay per device, so there’s no limit to how many siblings can join in. Each project is open-ended, encouraging kids to think creatively, problem-solve, and give and receive respectful feedback. Sessions, which are offered as half or full days, start with optional morning yoga and meditation, and include games, group discussions, build time, in which kids work on their weekly projects, and secret skill lessons, during which campers get the chance to learn things like magic tricks or sign language. The day ends with an optional workout, and there are supplementary activities to complete off-screen. The program is designed to require little parental involvement, and they offer a free two-day trial.

ID Tech

Ages: 7-19

Price: $399 per week

ID Tech camps teach kids coding during week-long sessions that include two hours of live instruction and materials for two hours of independent activities. Kids can learn python, scratch, Roblox, animation, and more from highly trained instructors, in groups with no more than five students. Sessions are offered in multiple time zones, and are broken up with games and challenges. Camps range from beginner to advanced and are attended by over 50,000 students each year.

Camp Edmo

Ages: 4-14

Price: $30-$150 per week, or $3 to $15 per hour

Camp Edmo offers week-long sessions as well as half or full-day camp, with rotating themes pertaining to either science, tech, or nature. There are also hour-long drop-in sessions. Their mission is to develop social-emotional learning skills, and each day includes projects, games, and independent screen time breaks designed to teach responsibility, empathy, collaboration, initiative, problem-solving, and emotional management. Campers are paired with a group so they see the same kids each day, with a maximum of 10 kids for pre-k and kindergarten sessions and 15 for groups of older kids. The pay scale is based on the honor code, so you pay what you can afford. Each session requires either hands-on, eyes-on, or hand-off supervision, and lists of necessary supplies (and possible substitutions) for each activity are available during registration.

Camp Cloud

Ages: 6-15

Price: $275 per week, $225 for every additional sibling

Camp Cloud is the new virtual offering from Adventure Links, an American Camp Association accredited outdoor education camp based in Virginia. They’re offering six different camps this year, from pet camp to adventure camp, lead by former counselors and other educators whose institutions remain closed (from museums to science centers). Camp Humanity Island, for example, is based on the imaginative premise that campers are stuck on a desert island and must work throughout the week to collect necessities, create a government, and respond to emergencies. In camp adventure, younger participants learn to tie different knots, build a shelter, and keep a nature journal. In pet camp, kids ages 8-14 learn basic veterinary skills like pet CPR, practice tricks, and dive into pet behavior training. Camp Cloud promises 70 percent of activities are off-screen time, and require no parental supervision. The counselor to camper ratio is around 1:10, and the live camp room connects kids with 150 of their peers.

Treasure Trunk Theatre

Ages: 3-8

Price: $40 per day or $185 per week

Treasure Trunk Theater has long offered interactive theater classes in their New York locations, but this summer, campers from all across the country can join in on the fun. As one of the few camps catering exclusively to younger kids, Treasure Trunk Theater offers 90 minutes sessions with a maximum of seven kids. Each session features dance class and interactive storytime, broken up by a 15-minute snack and craft break. (Craft supplies can be shipped or delivered locally.) While they recommend parents are on stand by for technical assistance, the program is designed to fully engage children, so parents won’t need to do any heavy-duty instructing.

Virtual Hoop Academy

Ages: 5-12

Price: First session free; a 10-day sessions start at $137

This summer former WNBA player Val Whiting is teaching virtual basketball lessons for kids, and even offering one 30 minute session for free. The 10-day camps will include one 45-minute session a day with a maximum of 20 kids, broken down by age group, and feature skill instruction, games, and competitions. All kids need are two basketballs, a tennis ball, a jump rope, and water.

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