Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many summer day camps and sleep-away camps are closing their doors for the 2020 season simply because there’s no way to stay open safely while complying with state guidelines for social distancing.
For example, how do you keep kids at a safe distance in the cabins and bunkhouses at night? How can you organize classes, activities, and meals so that campers stay 6 feet apart? Many camps say it’s impossible, while others are trying to create a virtual camp experience for kids at home.
Another issue is affordability. Many families can’t afford to send their kids to camp as planned because of the staggering job losses that have swept through the country. Canceled summer plans can leave both you and your kids feeling helpless and disappointed.
The good news is you can recreate the camp experience at home on a budget. It won’t be exactly the same experience. However, by adjusting your expectations and being creative, you can help your kids make memories to last a lifetime and have a blast in the process.
Summer camp is something special, which means planning an at-home camp requires more work and planning. But there are plenty of budget-friendly summer activities that can help your kids learn and pass the time. Plus, you can customize it to suit your kids’ interests and your family’s schedule.
Talk to Your Kids
Before you start planning activities, sit down and talk to your kids about what they wanted to experience at camp. If they’ve been to camp before, what are they going to miss? Out of these memories and activities, which ones can you recreate at home?
For example, your child might regret not being able to meet new friends, tell stories at the nightly bonfire, or learn how to canoe. While you can’t do much about the first experience, many people can handle the last two.
Decide on a Timeline
You also need to think about a timeline. Do you want to organize and plan for a week-long camp, or do you want to spread it out and do camp-style activities for two weeks or all summer?
Before you balk at the “all summer” scenario, keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you’re doing camp eight hours a day through August. Many parents who do camp at home choose different themes for each week and do one or two daily activities that match that theme. That leaves the rest of the day for work, errands, or personal activities.
For example, one week’s theme might be “nighttime.” So one night, you’d take your kids out stargazing and teach them how to identify constellations. Another night, you can play outdoor games, such as flashlight tag or Grandmother’s footsteps, while another night, you all go out searching for nighttime animals and insects.
If you decide to use themes for your at-home camp, these are some ideas to help you start planning. As you can see, many of these themes allow you to sneak in some learning opportunities as well.
- STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math)
- Down on the farm
- U.S. history
- “Ninja Warrior”
- Your state
- Around the world/global awareness
- Adventure and survival
- The natural world (including plants, flowers, trees, and gardens)
- “Harry Potter” (or another favorite character or book)
- Kindness and gratitude
- Racial awareness
- Zero-waste and recycling
- Fantasy, such as mermaids, myths, and knights
Then use your imagination to turn these ideas into a camp.
For example, let’s say you choose the natural world for one week’s theme. You could do some of the following activities with your kids:
- Learn how to forage for wild edibles.
- Learn how to cook the edibles you find.
- Start an herb garden or container garden.
- Use found objects in the yard to make a natural windcatcher.
- Visit a farmers market.
- Turn a corner of your backyard into a Certified Wildlife Habitat through the National Wildlife Federation.
- Raise butterflies indoors with a butterfly garden kit and then release them into the wild.
- Make a homemade flower press and preserve wildflowers.
- Use vegetables like beets, red cabbage, and brown onions to dye fabrics naturally.
- Visit a local botanical garden and learn about the plants that grow there.
- Purchase a tree identification book and identify the trees in your yard or neighborhood.
- Use plants and other materials to create art projects (you can find plenty of ideas on Pinterest).
- Visit a plant nursery and let each child pick out an indoor plant to care for at home.
- Make a bird feeder. Learn to identify the different birds that come to the feeder using Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird website.
There are endless activities and crafts you can do around each theme to spark interest and engagement and keep your kids entertained.
Before you decide on topics, show this list to your children and ask which they’re most interested in doing. Getting preapproval helps ensure their buy-in to any activities so you don’t waste time and money on supplies and outings they’re not excited about.
If you decide to hold a more intense week or two-week camp, you can dedicate a different theme for each day. You can use the above ideas, or have each day focus on the type of activities you want to do. As an example, parenting website Power of Families offers these ideas:
- Make-It Monday
- Take a Trip Tuesday
- Wet Wednesday
- Thinking Thursday
- Friend Friday
Due to COVID-19 and social distancing guidelines, you might have to get creative with some of these themes. For example, “Take a Trip Tuesday” could mean heading to the park for a picnic or going on a hike. “Friend Friday” could mean video-calling a friend or making a present for a friend your child hasn’t seen in a while.
Organize Field Day
Many elementary schools host a field day on the last day of school, and these outdoor games and obstacles signal the arrival of summer. Camps also often have a field day to wrap up the week.
Chances are your kids didn’t get to experience a field day this year. So why not have a field day at home? You can use these ideas on their own or combine several of them to create a full field day experience.
- Water Balloon Toss. Two kids must walk across the finish line while tossing a water balloon back and forth without dropping it. The team with the fastest time wins the race.
- Water Bucket Race. Fill a bucket with soapy water. At the other end of the yard, put an empty cup for each child (all the same size) on the ground. Give each child a large sponge, like the kind you use to wash cars. Each child must soak his or her sponge in the soapy water and then race to fill up their empty cup, which will likely take several trips. The first child to fill the cup is the winner.
- Egg-&-Spoon Race. Give each child a spoon and a raw egg. They must balance the egg on the spoon while racing to the finish line without dropping it. If you don’t want to waste eggs (or clean up the inevitable mess), use grapes instead.
- Hula-Hoop Race. This activity is simple: Who can Hula-Hoop the longest? Who can run to the finish line while Hula-Hooping? You can find inexpensive Hula-Hoops on Amazon or at The Dollar Store.
- Noodle Race. Cut pool noodles into 24-inch segments. Give each child a section of noodle. Each child must hold the noodle between their knees or on top of their hands and then race to the finish line.
- Sack Race. Schools typically use potato sacks for this race. At home? Use old pillowcases. Kids have to race with their legs in the bag or sack to the finish line.
Due to the pandemic, the Summer Olympics have been put on hold. However, you and your kids can host your own Olympics at home for summer camp.
For some inspiration, check out this segment from “Today,” which profiled a dad in Ridgefield, Washington, who created at-home Olympics for his kids during quarantine. The Presley family in North Carolina also came up with plenty of unique at-home Olympics ideas and posted them on TikTok.
Tell Ghost Stories
Part of camp’s magic is listening to ghost stories around the campfire at night while munching on s’mores.
If you have a backyard, it could be relatively easy to build a fire pit and recreate this experience. This YouTube video from The Home Depot shows you how. Pair this with a reading from the classic “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” and plenty of s’mores ingredients, and you’re on your way to making some great memories with your kids.
If you don’t have a backyard or can’t build a fire pit, try this idea from Parents magazine: get some walkie-talkies with decent range. Give one to your child and the other to one of their friends in the neighborhood. Let them stay up late talking and telling stories to each other.
Plan a Vintage Movie Night
Camps often have a stash of family-friendly movies for when rain cancels the bonfire sing-along. So you should too.
Your kids have likely watched “Frozen 2” and “The Incredibles” enough to recite the script from memory. So, why not pull out some classics they’ve never seen before? Consider these vintage family favorites, available on Amazon or in some cases Disney+:
- “Old Yeller” (1957)
- “The Parent Trap” (1961)
- “Swiss Family Robinson” (1960)
- “Pollyanna” (1960)
- “The Sound of Music” (1965)
- “E.T.” (1982)
- “The Karate Kid” (1984)
- “The Goonies” (1985)
- “Back to the Future” (1985)
- “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984)
- “The Princess Bride” (1987)
- “The Sandlot” (1993)
- “Rookie of the Year” (1993)
Before pressing play on any old movie, check out Common Sense Media, a website dedicated to helping parents review movies before letting their kids watch something they object to, such as excessive drinking or drug use, problematic representations, violence, sex, and language.
Do Camp Crafts
Think back to the camp crafts you loved doing as a kid. Chances are you made friendship bracelets, tie-dyed shirts, built wind chimes with empty cans, threaded a God’s eye, or even made a coffee mug.
Camp crafts are easy to do at home if you have the right supplies and know-how.
You can tie-dye just about anything, including white T-shirts, curtains, sheets, and dish towels. Tie-dying is fun and inexpensive, and your kids get something personal and unique to wear or decorate.
You only need a few supplies to get started:
- White T-shirts (or other white fabrics you’d like to tie-dye)
- A tie-dye kit or multiple bottles of Rit dye and color fixative (available in most supermarkets)
- Rubber bands
Parent’s Magazine has eight tie-dye patterns you can do with kids.
Friendship bracelets never go out of style. And all you really need are embroidery floss and tape.
There is an endless number of friendship bracelet patterns your kids can use. A Girl and a Glue Gun’s YouTube video teaches you how to weave four popular patterns.
Leaf printing is a wonderful way for your kids to be inspired by nature and make a beautiful work of art. You can make leaf prints on shirts or any type of cotton fabric or paper.
To make a leaf print, you need:
- Leaves, fern fronds, and flowers your kids find in the yard
- Paint in several different colors (if you’re printing on fabric, you need fabric paint)
- Mini paint roller (for fabric) or paint brushes
- White or colored T-shirts or other fabrics
- Canvas or paper (if you’re making wall art)
- Newspaper (for catching spills)
You can find the full instructions for making leaf prints on fabric at The Artful Parent.
If you need more inspiration, check out Creative Bug, which has unique arts-and-crafts classes for kids (and adults). Classes include free-form needlepoint samplers, finger knitting, and painting animal portraits. The site offers a 30-day free trial, with monthly prices ranging from $7.95 to $9.95.
Sign Up for Virtual Camp
Many parents are trying to work from home while juggling summer child care and maybe even homeschooling or distance learning to help their kids catch up academically. It’s an exhausting prospect, and if this is your situation, you’d be forgiven for not having the time or energy to plan a summer camp for your kids.
That’s when it can help to bring in the experts. Many organizations that had to close their summer camps created virtual camps to keep kids learning and connected. And some of these are surprisingly creative and fun.
- The Bronx Zoo Wildlife Camp. The Bronx Zoo has wildlife camps, which last a week for Pre-K kids through 8th grade. Kids get a behind-the-scenes look at different zoo animals and plenty of hands-on activities that help cement new information.
- Great Lakes Aquarium. Great Lakes Aquarium is hosting Camp In a Box this year for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. Kids receive a box with materials for experiments and art projects every day, and there will be a daily live virtual camp session with counselors and other camps every day on Zoom.
- The Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami (MOCA). MOCA is hosting free virtual art camp this summer for kids of all ages. There are art classes taught by professional instructors twice weekly.
- Little Passports. The subscription-box service Little Passports has created Summer Camp In a Box, which helps children learn more about the world with letters from pen pals and hands-on activities. Summer Camp in a Box has enough activities to keep your kids busy three to four hours each day for six days.
- Children’s Theater Company. Sign up your budding thespian for virtual drama camp with Children’s Theater Company, who’s hosting camps for kids aged Pre-K through 12th grade. Classes include acting, digital performance, dance, songwriting, storytelling, writing scripts, and much more.
- Camp Hello Bello. Actors Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard created Camp Hello Bello to help younger children stay busy and entertained at home this summer. Camp “classes” include sing-alongs, art projects, and science experiments.
Summer camp is an iconic right of passage for many kids. And if your child’s camp canceled this year or you can no longer afford to send them, all of you might be feeling let down and disappointed.
However, with some planning, you can create a fun and memorable experience for your kids at home. Thankfully, around the world, people and organizations are stepping up to help children learn and feel supported during such uncertain times.
For example, the National Children’s Museum in Washington, D.C., has created a wealth of fun at-home learning opportunities with their STEAMwork videos. You could create a week’s worth of camp activities based on these videos alone. For even more ideas, see our article on keeping your kids busy when you need to work from home. It’s full of ideas you can use as camp activities this summer.
Are you planning an at-home camp for your kids this summer?