The Secret Sauce of the Best Academic Summer Camps and 15 Camps to Consider

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Introduction

We all want the best for our children. We obsess over finding the best schools with the best teachers. We try to live in the best neighborhoods. We nourish our children’s health with the best food and feed their brains with the best books and entertainment.

So if you’re looking for an academic camp to send your 11- to 15-year-old child to this summer, of course you want the best. But when you’re looking for an academic summer camp, what does it mean to be the “best”?

It’s not an easy question to answer — not without knowing anything about your child, anyway. Just as in searching for a college, a career, or really, anything in life, there is no one-size-fits-all “best” summer camp that will be a good fit for every child. The real questions are:

  • What do you and your child want out of their summer camp experience?

  • What academic summer camp will provide that experience best, in a way that resonates with your child’s unique learning style, personality, interests, and goals?

Before you start your search for the best educational summer camp for your child, think about what “best” means to you. And don’t leave your child out of the discussion. Have a conversation with your child about what they want to achieve and experience this summer.

Find Your Child’s "Best"

Summer is a critical and valuable opportunity to let your child explore the world, pursue new interests, take on new challenges, and experiment free from the pressure of grades and the rigidity of exams. The time and energy you put into searching for a camp that is the right fit for your child are well worth it.

We recommend a complete search process: talking to reference families, visiting campuses and attending informational meetings, and perhaps enlisting the help of a referral agent.

If you need help with your search, be sure to check out our 10-step guide for finding the perfect educational summer camp.

That said, most experts would tell you there are some academic summer camps that provide experiences that are a step above the rest. The camps in this top tier are known for offering enriching, transformative experiences to a wide range of students with a wide variety of learning styles, personalities, interests, and backgrounds.

Here are some of the most common traits of the best camps.

An Experiential Approach to Learning

If you really want your child to sit through lectures during the summer, there are plenty available on YouTube. But summer is an opportunity for your child to experience teaching styles they won’t get in school.

The best academic summer camps use a teaching approach that is:

  • Active. Research shows that when students participate in their own learning — as opposed to being passive consumers — they retain information longer.

  • Social. When students collaborate, discuss, and debate with others, they engage more with the subject. They also build their people skills, which organizations like the World Economic Forum say will be critical for thriving throughout the rest of this century.

  • Meaningful. Learning for a test or just to “check off the boxes” doesn’t lead to deep engagement. When students can connect and apply what they learn to their lives, to larger social issues, public policy, and real-world problems, they think about the subject matter more, they retain more information, and they’re encouraged to pursue it beyond the boundaries of school.

Breadth and Depth of Opportunities

When their summer programs — or even just their schools — offer too much of the same thing or not enough of any one thing, children can get bored. Children want to be able to dig deeply into the subjects that interest them, while still having opportunities to try new things.

This doesn’t just apply to academics. Fulfilling summer experiences mean having recreational options (salsa dancing, cooking, friendly sports competitions), weekend field trips, talent shows, clubs, and discussion groups. Campers should be able to chart their own course through their summer program, choosing the academic and recreational options that spark their curiosity, creativity, and sense of fun.

Exposure to Experts in Their Field

A great academic summer camp won’t hire just anyone to lead their programs. They will “curate” who speaks with and guides their students. Subject area expertise and experience is essential, but just as important is the ability to engage students during instruction and hands-on learning.

Many summer program attendees are just beginning to think about the careers they may want to pursue. A good summer camp instructor will teach their students not only about their subject area, but what it’s like to work in that area.

For example, a group of girls from the bioengineering program here at EXPLO recently visited the Karp Lab at Harvard. After the visit, one of the girls said the best thing she learned from Dr. Karp was that you don’t have to go to medical school to become a bioengineer.

The best summer camps are transformational. Learn more in our free guide, “The Secrets to a Transformational Summer Camp Experience for your Teen.

15 of the Best Academic Summer Camps in the Country

Here is a sampling of some U.S.-based academic summer camps we feel meet some or all of the criteria outlined above. These are by no means the only good educational summer programs in the country, and their being included here doesn’t mean they will be the best fit for your child.

But we polled some of the experts in the EXPLO community to arrive at this list of 15 programs that provide exceptional summer experiences to a wide range of children.

You can use this list as a starting point as you build your own list of potential academic summer camps for your child, schedule campus visits, and contact camp staff and reference families.

(Note: To be fair to each summer program, we took all the information below directly from each camp’s website. Where a fact was not available on a camp’s site, we omitted it.)


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Location: The foothills of the Berkshire Mountains in Western Connecticut

Ages: 9 through 18

Coed

Operating since: 1942

Program dates and length: Four, six, and eight-week sessions for ages 11 to 18, two-week junior program for ages 9 to 10. Sessions available June 26 through Aug. 17.

Special focus: Performing and creative arts

What makes it one of the best? “More than 30 fully equipped and staffed studios, total creative freedom, and a super relaxed environment where no one is judged or pressured.”

What makes it unique? “At Buck’s Rock you work at your own pace in your own time. By the end of the summer, you’ll have enough work to fill a portfolio… or two!”

camp-greylock

Ages: 7 to 151953865

Boys only

Operating since: 1916

Program dates and length: June 22 to Aug. 9, 2019; most campers stay for the entire session.

Special focus: Traditional residential summer camp for boys

What makes it one of the best? “Greylock features an unparalleled facility of nearly 300 acres on a beautiful lakefront campus and an instructional teaching program that is second to none.  We offer a structured program that combines game play and teaching in all major land sports, waterfront activities, nature/adventure, and the arts.”

What makes it unique? “The best thing you can say about Greylock is that our kids love it – they love the friendships, the counselors, the teaching, the supportive atmosphere, how they feel good about themselves, the structure, and the chance to play sports competitively at the right times and under the right circumstances.”


camp-invention

Location: Over 1,600 programs nationwide

Ages: Kindergarten through sixth grade

Coed

Operating since: 1990

Program dates and length: Dates depend on the program and location. Camp Invention is a day camp that runs for five days.

Special focus: STEM

What makes it one of the best? “Led by local teachers, this program has tapped into kids' natural curiosity since 1990, giving them the opportunity to become innovators through teamwork and immersive, hands-on creative problem-solving.”

What makes it unique? “Each year, our education team collaborates with National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductees to develop a new, action-packed Camp Invention experience for your child.”

camp-vega

Ages: 7 through 15

Girls only

Operating since: 1936

Program dates and length: June 24 through Aug. 11, 2019

Special focus: Traditional residential summer camp for girls

What makes it one of the best? “300+ acres of pristine forest and over a mile of majestic lakefront have been a summer home to generations of campers. Vega’s truly beautiful setting with constantly updated and state-of-the-art facilities is the backdrop for amazing growth in every camper. We appreciate that every child’s interests are different, so girls can focus more on certain activities while also rotating through all of the activities at camp.”

mathcamp

Location: Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Ore.

Ages: 13 through 18

Coed

Operating since: 1993

Program dates and length: June 23 through July 28, 2019

Special focus: Mathematics

What makes it one of the best? “More than just a summer camp, Mathcamp is a vibrant community, made up of a wide variety of people who share a common love of learning and passion for mathematics. At Mathcamp, students can explore undergraduate and even graduate-level topics while building problem-solving skills that will help them in any field they choose to study.”

What makes it unique? “Study with mathematicians who are passionate about their subject – from internationally known researchers to graduate students at the start of their careers, all eager to share their knowledge and enthusiasm with you.”

EXPLO-MiddleSchool-Hero-NF

Location: On the campuses of Yale University (New Haven, Conn.), Wellesley College (Wellesley, Mass.), and Wheaton College (Wheaton, MA.)

Ages: 7 through 17

Coed

Operating since: 1976

Program dates and length: Varies by location and program. The flagship Exploration Programs run for two three-week sessions, June 23 through July 13 and July 14 through Aug. 3.

Special focus: Learning through exploration; subjects include science and engineering, the arts and design, language and writing, and sociology and psychology.

What makes it unique? The curriculum at EXPLO is unusual: It allows students to investigate subjects they’re not likely to encounter during the school year. Our courses aren’t for credit and are ungraded. They encourage students to step away from focusing on performance and evaluation and instead follow their passions and interests. An EXPLO classroom is lively and active. Students are moving, designing projects, and challenging one another. Here, learning is captivating, challenging, and fun.”

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Crow Canyon Archaeology

Location: Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Cortez, Colo.

Ages: Incoming high school freshmen through graduated seniors; must be 14 years old by program start date.

Coed

Program dates and length: July 14 through July 20, 2019

Special focus: Archeology and Pueblo Indian history; science, math, and critical thinking

What makes it one of the best? “Work alongside archaeologists, learning from them as you dig, map, and document your finds.”

What makes it unique? “You’ll dig at an archaeological site inhabited by ancestral Pueblo people nearly 1,000 years ago. You’ll also wash, catalog, and analyze ancient artifacts in the lab. It's an authentic, hands-on introduction to archaeology at the pre-college level.”


iD-Tech-Camps

Location: On 150 college campuses throughout the U.S. and globally

Ages: 7 through 19

Coed

Operating since: 1999

Program dates and length: Weeklong sessions throughout the summer (overnight and day programs)

Special focus: STEM education, including coding, game development, and robotics

What makes it one of the best? “For over 20 years, our family company has paved the way in STEM education, introducing the most relevant, in-demand curriculum to set students on their long-term skill development pathways. We get amazing results. The top universities on the planet—Stanford, NYU, Caltech—have trusted and hosted us since 1999.”

What makes it unique? “iD Tech has deep relationships with the largest portfolio of top-tier partners and educators. Adobe. Apple. Microsoft. Nvidia. Epic Games. Unity. Roblox. X Labs. Our curriculum is always a step ahead, ensuring that our students develop the latest, most in-demand skills.”

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Location: Interlochen, in Northern Michigan

Ages: Third through twelfth grade

Coed

Program dates and length: “Our programs are one, two, three, four and six weeks long, so dates vary by program. For summer 2019, most programs happen between June 22 and August 5, although the one-week "Institute" programs run June 15-21.”

Special focus: The arts, including music, theater, film, visual arts, creative writing, and dance

What makes it one of the best? “Receive intense artistic instruction at a summer camp like no other. Combine your interest in art with all the fun of a traditional summer camp. Join 2,500 young artists at a summer camp devoted to taking your skills further.”

What makes it unique? “Receive the intense instruction and creative support young artists need to grow...Be a part of world-class artistic instruction with more than 90,000 alumni.”


John Hopkins

Location: The Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, Baltimore, Md

Ages: Second through twelfth grade

Coed

Program dates and length: Session 1: June 24 through July 13 (residential), July 2 through July 21 (day); Session 2:  July 15 through Aug. 3 (residential), July 23 through Aug. 11 (day)

Special focus: Rigorous academics for talented youth

What makes it one of the best? “Students choose CTY for a number of reasons. Most need a greater or different intellectual challenge from what they get at home. They look forward to the chance to meet other very bright young people who share their interests and abilities. Some may want to study a subject they can’t find anywhere else, while others want to get an edge back at school.”

middle-bury

Location: St. Michael’s College, Colchester, Vt.; Green Mountain College, Poultney, Vt.; four study-abroad locations

Ages: Eighth through twelfth grade

Coed

Program dates and length: Four weeks, June 23 through July 19, 2019 (U.S. locations)

Special focus: Language immersion in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Spanish

What makes it one of the best? “The Academy’s approach to language learning...gives students the opportunity to spend four weeks immersed in language and culture. By signing the Language Pledge, students commit to speaking in their target language 24/7, while engaging in meaningful cultural exploration projects, resulting in unrivaled language gains.”

What makes it unique? “In an immersion environment learning happens not just in the classroom but also on the soccer field, at the dinner table, in the dorm room and during community excursions. As a student at the Academy—through the support of teachers, residential staff and your own peers—you will make tremendous gains in your language skills.”

NYC Summer Academy

Location: The School of the New York Times, New York City. Residential students stay on a New York college campus.

Ages: Rising high school students and graduating seniors

Coed

Program dates and length: “Four two-week terms spanning from June to August; students may enroll in more than one term.”

Special focus: Culture and learning in New York City

What makes it one of the best? “Our NYC Summer Academy gives intellectually curious high school students the opportunity to live and learn in New York City while studying topics in journalism, media, technology, arts, culture, sports, fashion, business, science and more. Each two-week course draws on the expertise and unrivaled access of The New York Times and encourages students to take their learning beyond the classroom and into the real world.”

What makes it unique? “Explore the cultural and financial capital of the world in your own New York City adventure. Students have the option of living on campus in a university dorm or commuting to class from their local residence.”

louie-castro-garcia-1213198-unsplash

Location: A private lake in the western Catskill Mountains of New York State

Ages: 7 through 17

Coed

Program dates and length: Four three-week sessions and one one-week session, June 8 through Sept. 1, 2019. Sessions may be combined.

Special focus: The performing arts, including theater, dance, music, circus, magic, rock and roll, visual arts, film, and video.

What makes it unique? “Each camper designs his or her own unique summer experience...Campers are able to focus on one particular area of interest, or they may choose to select a variety of our activities.”

Space Camp

Location: Hunstville, Ala., at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, the Official Visitor Center for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

Ages: Weeklong overnight experiences for children ages 9 through 18; three-day and overnight experiences available for younger students

Coed

Operating since: 1982

Special focus: STEM, including space exploration, space hardware, astronaut training, aviation, and robotics

What makes it one of the best? “Our curriculum teaches STEM principles, leadership and teamwork, while encouraging fun and creativity. Program instruction is aligned to national science and math standards and framed with an exciting, immersive experience amidst a backdrop of mankind’s greatest technological achievements in space hardware.”

What makes it unique? “Trainees learn space and flight history, work together as teams, experience simulators, complete simulated space missions, and learn what it really means to be an astronaut.”

stagedoor

Location: Loch Sheldrake, NY

Ages: 10 through 18

Coed

Operating since: 1976

Program dates and length: Three sessions, June 17 through July 7, July 8 through July 28, July 29 through Aug. 18. Campers may attend multiple sessions.

Special focus: Theater

What makes it one of the best? “Stagedoor Manor offers total theater immersion, plus all the fun of a great summer camp. It’s the only performing arts program of its type in the world, with students from every state…and six continents!”

What makes it unique? “At Stagedoor Manor, performers of all levels – beginner and advanced – find expression and fulfillment on stage and in the classroom...You will perform because everyone is cast in a show. You will learn from Directors, Choreographers, and Vocal Coaches who have been selected because of their years of experience motivating and guiding young performers.”

So which summer camp is right for you?

Hopefully we have given you the tools and resources to choose the camp that is the best-fit for your child. Could EXPLO be the camp for you? Click the banner below to learn more about EXPLO, or click here to view our programs

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