In Your Backyard: Fun & Free Activities in NYC Parks

We love the playgrounds in NYC Parks, but you gotta mix it up every now and then. Take advantage of the programming, unique features and special events held in parks around the city—many of which are free! From classics in Central Park to one-of-kind spots in Prospect Park, hidden gems and more, here’s how to make the most of your park time now that warm weather is finally here!

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Programs, Events and More: Fun Things to Do in NYC Parks

Participate in Free Programs with the Urban Rangers

NYC Parks

New York City parks have a huge variety of rotating programs and events, many of them completely free. Programs are led by the city's Urban Rangers and include sports, nature walks, science workshops, survival skills, astronomy, and oh so much more!

Join the rangers for adventures in animal and birdwatching or catch-and-release fishing, or learn about the ecology of the small patches of wilderness around you.

There are even more exciting options if your family is looking for something a bit… different. Learn some outdoor skills like fire making, volunteer to help clean up in your local park, or join a nature workshop — in-person or online!

At certain times of the year, you can even go family camping in city parks through a lottery-based registration, though at the time of this writing, there are no upcoming camping events.



Take in Some Public Art

Tina Sokolovskaya

NYC streets and parks are full of culture, history, and art. For some fresh artworks, check out the temporary installations. At the time of this writing, the temporary artwork on display includes a colorful parrot in Highland Park and a charming reclining gorilla in Bella Abzug Park.

Of course, you can also visit to see the permanent park fixtures, instead — the NYC parks website has an entire database of them. You might already be familiar with some, like Sir John Tenniel's Alice in Wonderland sculptures in eastern Central Park. Others are such a part of their surroundings that you might overlook them — like the iconic Unisphere sculpture in Flushing Meadows Park, which was designed by Gilmore D. Clarke for the 1964 World's Fair.

There are plenty of other cool art and history fixtures to find out there! For a real piece of history, you can seek out the five pieces of the Berlin Wall that reside in NYC parks.

Visit Historic Houses

Dewan A. via Yelp

Standing in certain parks are old historic houses — and many times, they're open to the public as museums. Many, like The Old Stone House in Brooklyn's Washington Park and Manhattan's Dyckman Farmhouse, offer tours, talks and workshops, and often involve children in fun (and educational) activities

At the time of this writing, some historic park houses are closed to the public due to Covid-19, while others are available by appointment only.

Ride a Carousel

Jane Bygion

There's something so wonderfully nostalgic about carousels. And your kids can experience the joy of carousels, too! NYC has several to choose from all over the city, from the more well-known like the Seaglass Carousel at the Battery and Jane's Carousel in Brooklyn Bridge Park, to the hidden gems like the whimsical Totally Kid Carousel in Riverbank State Park or the handicap-accessible Carousel for All Children at Willowbrook Park in Staten Island.

Do Some Extreme Sliding

James Dee

The slide is one of the most common playground staples, but that doesn't mean it can't be exciting! And there are some pretty incredible slides in NYC's parks, from the absurdly tall, to the simply absurd.

Slide down the legs of a giant whimsical sculpture in the Silver Towers Playground, designed by Tom Otterness,

located in 630 W 42nd St. Or, check out the industrial, Domino-sugar-inspired slide in Mark Reigelman's Sweetwater, at 300 Kent Ave in Williamsburg.

For a more extreme slide, the Hills on Governor's Island is home to the tallest slide in the city, reaching up to a whopping 57 feet in length — almost three stories high!

Go Kayaking & Canoeing

Brooklyn Bridge Park

Why limit yourself to the ground, when there's so much water surrounding us? Take off into the water with canoeing and kayaking for the whole family. The city has several spots where visitors can enjoy the water at any skill level.

You can even hit the water for free thanks to several programs, like the Brooklyn Bridge Park kayaking summer program, which launches from Pier 4.

Specific Spots to Check Out in NYC Parks

Central Park Classics, Gems & Lesser-Knowns

Ann L. via Yelp

Yes, there are many, many great playgrounds in Central Park. Some of our favorites are Billy Johnson Park, the Ancient Playground, and Heckscher Playground.

The classic to-dos of Central Park (there are many) include:

Belvedere Castle, once a weather observatory, which provides an impressive lookout spot. Find it mid-park at 79th Street.

The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, where you can catch an affordable show with the kids. (Performances are currently on hold.) It's also at 79th Street on the west side of the park. 

In between the Castle and the Theatre is The Shakespeare Garden. Here you'll find plants featured in the Bard's verse, with plaques that feature the relevant text. Don't miss the Charles B. Stover Bench nearby, which is a whispering bench that amplifies a whisper from one end to another.  

The Charles A. Dana Discovery Center is on the north shore of the Harlem Meer at 110th Street, and you can borrow a complete set of fishing gear for catch-and-release fishing here, as well as lawn games and Discovery kits for kids that include a field guide, binoculars, coloring pencils and more. It's currently open Fri.-Sun., 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.

The Chess & Checkers House is a visitor's center (currently closed) but you can borrow board games here, and on weekends in the summer, get coached by experienced chess players. It's mid-park at 64th Street.

Every kid needs to attend a free storytelling session at the Hans Christen Andersen The Ugly Ducking statue, held Saturdays at 11 a.m., rain or shine, June through September. Find it at 72nd and Fifth Avenue. 

Adventure Course & Orienteering in Alley Pond Park

Amy N. via Yelp

Go on an adventure without ever leaving your home turf with Alley Pond's adventure course and brand new orienteering program.

The Alley Pond outdoor adventure course includes rock climbing and a rope challenge for both notices and advanced adventurers. The "low element" rope course is perfect for the small kiddos who prefer to stay close to the ground, while the "high element" option will take the more daring members of your family 45 feet into the air with a harness, helmet, and belay system to keep things safe. (Details about the 2021 season and free Sundays are TBD.)

New for 2021: you can now take the adventure even further, Survivor-style! Check out the new orienteering maps at Alley Pond, which challenge visitors to make their way through the park grounds with nothing but a compass and a topographic map. These maps challenge participants to find certain spots marked on the map, called "control points," in the correct order. The maps come at different difficulty levels for beginners and intermediate-level members.

The Nature Playground in Prospect Park

Julie Seguss

When life throws an unexpected hurricane at you, you make the best of it. And that's exactly what Prospect Park did with the Zucker Natural Exploration Area, which uses natural materials like trees that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2021. The result is a very natural and unstructured playground for kids of all ages, allowing children to closely interact with nature.

Rock Climbing in DUMBO and Bouldering in Central Park

The Cliffs

The Cliffs at DUMBO bring rock climbing outside for everyone to enjoy. Located under the Manhattan Bridge, this fairly large rock-climbing course isn't free, but for $12 for 2 hours (shoe rental, chalk and hand-sanitizing stations included), it's a bargain. This outdoor rock-climbing spot is open seasonally and is set to reopen on April 19th.

While you wait for the DUMBO spot to reopen, you can try bouldering for a more low-key climbing experience. Clamber up one of the large boulders in Central Park, starting with Rat Rock near Heckscher Ballfields for a beginner-friendly climb, then move on to Cat Rock near Wollman Rink, and finally make your way to the much more challenging Worthless Boulder near 110th St. (Yes, they have names!)


Surfing At Rockaway Beach


Catch a wave at the only legal surfing beach in NYC, Rockaway Beach. Bring your own surfing boards or get lessons at any of the nearby surfing schools. Or, stop by during the surfing competitions to watch some impressive feats on the waves!

—Yuliya Geikhman


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