Exotic summer learning programs for children are more plentiful than ever. That’s good news for parents. These programs tend to fill up fast, however, so you might find that some already have waiting lists. But don’t despair if you haven’t made plans for your child’s summer yet — even the most popular programs have last-minute cancellations.

What kinds of programs are there?

  • Family programs
  • Kids-only programs
  • College programs for high school students
  • General interest camps for the younger set
  • Specialty camps

A summer program sampler

The Whale Camp

If you’d like to give your child the opportunity to sail near a rare Right Whale, kayak past a falcon’s nest and hike to a Native American graveyard, check out The Whale Camp. Located off the southeastern tip of Maine, on the Bay of Fundy, The Whale Camp is situated near one of the world’s most diverse marine environments. Says co-director Dennis Bowen, “The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world and that tidal action creates excessive amounts of plankton, which is the basis of the food web. So there are lots of whales, dolphins, porpoises and seals. There’s also a little island with hundreds of nesting puffins and there’s always bald eagles around.”

Whale Camp offers youth-only sessions as well as family programs. The youth sessions include whale, marine mammal and bird observation, sailing, and ecology studies. “We go out on a sail boat with the manager of the whale research station. The kids participate in not only whale watching, which is awesome, but whale research,” says Bowen.

Sessions last from one to three weeks.

Crow Canyon Archeology Camp

Located in the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, Crow Canyon offers programs in archeology for teens and families. “Right now we’re working at Goodman Point Pueblo which is part of Hovenweep National Monument,” says Stephanie Ramsey of Crow Canyon Camp. “Goodman Point is rare in the sense that the area was one of the first to be designated for protection and conservation over a 100 years ago, so it hasn’t been homesteaded or farmed in all that time. It’s a pristine landscape. Some of the artifacts may not have been touched by human hands for 800 years or more. Of course, the Southwest is one of the most prolific archeological areas in the United States.”

With history lessons about the Pueblo Indians and hands-on archeology activities, campers will experience the thrill of uncovering the past. No previous archeological experience is required to enjoy this program. The teen program offers high school students the opportunity to work alongside professional archaeologists as they dig into the Pre-Columbian past of the Pueblos.

Yellowstone for Families

This program is a must for nature-lovers. Explore Yellowstone’s amazing canyons, geysers, wildlife and waterfalls. Lodging and meals for four nights are included in the price, plus guided explorations with a Yellowstone Association naturalist. Programs are available for families with 5 to 7 year olds, and for families with 8 to 12 year olds. Other national parks also offer learning adventures.

Cornell University Summer College

If you have a teen with an academic bent, you might want to consider Cornell University’s summer program, where your scholar can enjoy an Ivy League setting, take courses for college credit and contemplate her future college career. Cornell is one of many universities that open their college campuses to high school students and offer special programs geared to them during the summer. Check out Harvard University, University of California at Santa Barbara and Northwestern University, to name a few.

U.S. Space and Rocket Center’s Space Camp

Your child will build rockets, experience simulated moonwalks and take command of space missions. Located in Huntsville, Alabama, camps range from three to thirteen days in length and you can choose between kids-only or parent/child programs.

Safari Sleepover at the San Diego Zoo

Take a bus tour of the zoo, see a night-time animal show, enjoy a campfire sing-along and sleep out at Camp Timbuktu. This one-night program for children and their parents is a good way for families to get acquainted with the concept of learning adventures. Overnight educational programs are available at many zoos, including the Buffalo Zoo and the Brevard Zoo in Florida.

What to consider when choosing

  • How far away are you willing to let your child go? Most children aren’t ready to go away by themselves until they’re 8 or 9 years old. If you’re not sure what your child can handle, start with a local day camp that includes an overnight trip as part of the activities. If your child is eager for that sleepaway experience, but has never been away by himself, start with camps nearby. As he becomes older and more independent, you can let him venture further away.
  • What kind of program is best for your child? Younger children are better suited to general interest summer programs. This is a good time for them to gain experiences not available to them during the school year and to discover new passions. If your child is older, with developed interests, a specialty camp might be the way to go. You’ll want to make sure that the instruction available matches your child’s skill level.
  • How much are you willing to pay? Some of these programs are expensive. When calculating costs, be sure to factor in what you would pay for food and childcare if your child stayed home. The actual cost of a summer program is really the difference between what it costs for your child to stay home and the out-of-pocket cost of the program. If it still seems too expensive for your family, be sure to ask about financial aid or scholarships.

Timing can be critical

Al Whitaker of Space Camp recommends that families plan six months in advance. “That’s because some of the programs, like the robotics track or the aviation track, fill up just a few days after they’re offered,” he says. “Also, that way, if your child is flying in, you’ll get a better rate if you make those reservations in advance.”

According to Julianne Baker, an instructor at Yellowstone for Families, they’re already taking reservations for next year. But, don’t give up if you need a fun adventure for this summer. Baker advises, “You just never know if there’ll be cancellations. Or perhaps there’s room for three people and you have a family of three and you just happen to call at the right time. We always have little spots here and there. We also have private tours that a family might be interested in. Say you come to Yellowstone and you have one day and you would like to make up your own itinerary, but you’d like a guide and to learn about what it is you’re seeing. You could schedule your own private tour with us.”

Additional resources

For more ideas for great summer learning programs, check out the following Web sites:

  • KidsCamp.com has a comprehensive directory of camps, teen tours, day camps and adventure programs that pay to be listed on the site.
  • Teen Ink.com, a Web site for the monthly print magazine Teen Ink, has a comprehensive listing of summer programs for teens.
  • The American Camp Association Web site is for camp professionals, but has a parent center with a camp locator and lots of valuable information for parents. The ACA accredits both day and sleepaway camps, and its site lets you search by type of camp and your child’s age.
  • The National Camp Association, which only lists sleepaway camps, also accredits camps and features a useful Camp Recommendation guide.