What often fills up early are super-specialized camps that focus on a specific topic (like coding or STEM) or have a special draw (say, a sports camp featuring instruction from a star athlete). “We have a few performing arts camps that are really outrageous and sensational and, yes, you have to book those almost a year in advance,” says Andrea Grinspoon, a D.C.-area team member at Summer 365.
In addition to getting lots of interest from families, sometimes specialized camps have constraints that can lead to smaller program numbers. “For a coding camp, if you don’t have your own computer to work on, it’s not going to be as much fun,” says Max McKenna, manager of product marketing at the Headfirst Companies, which runs a variety of summer day camps in the D.C. area. “So we’re limited by some of those capacities.”
McKenna says that most of Headfirst’s camps for preschoolers are already filled up because it’s harder to find options for that age range. “When it comes to formal camp offerings, we’re one of the only ones around that serves campers that young,” he says. “A lot of other programs for that age are based in the nursery schools and preschools they’re already attending.”
But if you look beyond the niche camps, you’ll find plenty of openings, especially if you seek out a spot at less popular times of the summer. During the last few weeks in August, for example, a lot of families squeeze in final summer vacations, so camps are often less full then. The weeks right at the beginning of the summer can also be slower to fill up, especially because some schools get out later than others.
“Most people don’t get geared up for summer until after the Fourth of July, so the first few weeks are always the quietest,” says Dave Boyle, associate executive director of YMCA Camp Letts in Edgewater, Md., which offers both overnight and day camp programs.
Camp Letts provides what it calls a traditional summer camp experience, what today’s parents might have attended in their youth. It’s more old-school than high-tech — a type of camp that can often be overlooked among flashier offerings.
“Because we’re a traditional camp, some people don’t really understand what we do, so we’re often their second choice after they’ve scheduled the rest of the summer,” Boyle says. “So traditional camps like us always have a little space. If people feel like they’ve left things too late, these are the types of camps you should look at.”
In fact, camps that are held outdoors often have fewer space constraints than, say, a cooking or art camp where kids need specific indoor space and equipment. McKenna says it’s easier to add extra counselors for Headfirst’s multisport camps than it is to add more computers for a coding camp. Being flexible is key when it comes to finding open spots. If your child has his or her heart set on a certain camp, be willing to attend a different location than your first choice. The Goddard School, for example, offers summer day camps at many of its locations around the D.C. area.
“While our school in Gaithersburg is at full capacity for the summer session, we still have [spaces] available for the summer program at our Silver Spring location,” says Ashley Harvey, co-owner of the Silver Spring site. “This is likely true with other large operations.”
Talking through options with a service like Summer 365 or the local camp itself can help parents find choices they might not have realized were out there. And while you search, get on the waiting list for a camp that’s filled up, because spots do open up as families’ plans change.
“But you always want to have a Plan B,” says Kasnett Nearpass. “You don’t want to leave your child twiddling their thumbs at home during the summer.”
Ready to commit to a camp? Here are a few more places in the D.C. area that still have plenty of space for kids.
Bar-T: This Gaithersburg, Md., camp is a great example of an outdoor summer camp that still has spots open. Camps that get kids outside with swimming, hiking or sports are less likely to have small class sizes, and thus can expand based on yearly demand.
YMCA of Metropolitan Washington: In addition to Camp Letts, the local YMCA offers traditional summer day camps at about a dozen locations throughout the area. There’s also a wide variety of specialty camps that allow kids to focus on their interests. Scrolling through all the options (Rock climbing! Fashion design! Cartooning! Experimenting with slime! Making crafts out of duct tape!) might make you wish you could ditch work and be a kid again.
School of Rock: Got the next Taylor Swift or Bruce Springsteen in your family? Check out the summer camp offerings at School of Rock, which has locations in Silver Spring, Vienna and Ashburn, Va. There are options for complete beginners and for kids who already know their way around a guitar or drum kit. After their one-week sessions, you’ll have a mini rock god on your hands.
Smithsonian Summer Camp: While several sessions have already sold out, the Smithsonian’s Summer Camp program still has plenty of choices available. Different options explore topics like the circus arts, mapping, storytelling and insects using all the resources on hand at the Smithsonian’s many museums. But if you see a camp that calls to your kiddo, you may want to snag your spot soon!