By Caroline Knorr, Common Sense Media
OK, don't laugh. Virtual summer camps -- where kids head to the computer instead of the pool or park -- are a thing now. And before you say, "Over my dead body," these aren't the solitary, sedentary, screen-centered experiences you fear. Plenty of virtual summer camps offer kids the chance to make projects, investigate ideas, and explore the world. And many are free.
Going to camp online can also give kids something unique: individual attention. You, a babysitter, a grandparent, or even an older sibling act as virtual camp counselors, leading -- and even learning alongside -- your kids. With many of the virtual camps below, you can mix and match activities to tailor the experience to your kids' interests. Expect to be more involved if you go for the free, choose-your-own-adventure camps. But fee-based camps call for some adult participation, too. Check out these offerings:
Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Summer Camps
Start with a Book. Free; age 6 and up.
In addition to a summer science camp, this site offers a long list of themes, such as Art, Night Sky, and Weather Report, for kids to explore. For each theme, you get a Reading Adventure Pack, which includes book suggestions (for all reading levels), parent information, and outdoor activities based on the theme. You'll need to shell out for books if you can't find them at the library.
Camp Google. Free, but materials cost extra; age 7 and up.
Each week, Camp Google offers a new adventure, centered on topics such as space or the ocean. Kids complete indoor activities, such as making a magnifying glass, and take their learning outdoors -- for example, to examine insects. They'll also watch videos to see topics such as what the bottom of the ocean looks like or view an astronaut/space-friendly food cook-off.
DIY. Free and fee-based; age 7 and up.
This site offers dozens of skill-based activities (which it calls "challenges") in a variety of categories, including Art, Business, and Engineering, that kids can do year-round. Every summer, DIY runs camps and shorter courses. Some of the camps have online counselors who interact with your kid. Sign up to get notified of the latest offerings.
Make: Online. Free, but materials cost extra; age 12 and up.
The folks behind the maker movement offer weekly camps based on themes such as Far Out Future and Flight. You get a PDF with daily activities that support the theme, such as making slime and designing and flying kites.
Khan Academy. Free; age 6 and up.
While Khan Academy doesn't offer specific camps, it provides meaningful, step-by-step exploration in a variety topics, including math, science, and arts and humanities. Kids can sign up with a coach (a teacher, parent, or tutor) who can monitor their progress and suggest lessons. Kids also can earn badges and energy points, which are meant to engage and motivate. The custom dashboard has a progress map that fills up as kids work their way through the skills.
Brain Chase. $79, extra for electives; age 6-16.
Created by two parents who were looking for a way to help their kids continue learning during summer, Brain Chase is a clever, creative, and, most importantly, fun six-week program, starting June 20, 2016, that provides both virtual and real-world payoffs. Kids practice and learn math, reading, and typing all while competing in a treasure hunt for the chance to win a $10,000 scholarship.
Camp Wonderopolis. Free for campers; optional $25 instruction guide for parents; age 7 and up.
Sponsored by the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL), this online camp lets kids explore topics such as weather, food, and technology. Each topic includes lessons, outdoor activities, videos, and additional reading suggestions for all ages.
Connected Camps. $49-$79; age 8 and up.
If full-Minecraft immersion is on your kid's summer agenda, check out Connected Camps. This site offers instructor-led, Minecraft-based sessions in architecture, coding, game design, and more. There also are special girls-only camps and free hosted events for Minecraft enthusiasts.
TechRocket. Free for a course sampling; memberships: $19/year, $29/month; age 10 and up.
Launched by iDTechCamp (the popular -- and pricey -- computer day and overnight camps), TechRocket offers online instruction in coding, game design, and graphic design. Each camp offers a variety of levels and challenges as well as a dedicated instructor.
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