Free Summer Outdoor Sports Programs for NYC Kids: No-cost Swimming Lessons, Golfing, Tennis, Kayaking and More
Just because we live in a concrete jungle doesn't mean our kids can't enjoy a summer filled with great outdoor spots. And you don't even need to be a Hilton to afford them.
New York City offers many opportunities for city kids to learn team sports and also try swimming, tennis, golfing, fishing, kayaking, hiking and more at no cost. Of course registering for these free programs takes a little legwork and, since many of them are first-come, first-serve, punctuality. We've got the scoop on what's available, and how your kids can vie for spots.
CityParks Sports – Free Lessons in the Park
City Parks Foundation runs free tennis, golf, and track & field programs for kids in all five boroughs. All equipment is provided. Call 718-760-6999 for additional info on any of the following programs.
CityParks Tennis offers instruction for children ages 5 to 16 of all skill levels, from beginner lessons to tournaments and leagues. This summer, lessons will be held in 37 parks from Monday, July 1-Friday, August 9. Start dates and schedule vary by park.
How to register: Once you pick a location, parents can sign up their kids for the six-week session at the first lesson, no advance registration required. According to the staff, no one is ever turned away. Is your kid an aspiring pro? Then consider the Junior Tennis Academy, a free tournament-training program held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. 2013 tryouts will be held on Saturday, May 18 and 50 players ages 8 to 16 will snag coveted spots.
In CityParks Track & Field, children ages 5 to 16 can jump hurdles, participate in relay races, and try the long jump, shot put and javelin throw. This year, the program runs in 10 locations from Monday, July 1-Friday, August 9. Start dates and schedule vary by park.
How to register: Once you pick a location, parents can sign up their kids at the first lesson, no advance registration required. According to the staff, no one is ever turned away.
CityParks Golf offers lessons for children ages 6 to 17 in 12 locations. There are two sessions this summer: Monday, July 1-Friday, July 26 and Monday, July 29-Friday, August 23.
How to register: Unlike CityParks Tennis and Track & Field programs, Golf requires advance registration. Registration is open so you'll want to apply right away to try to nab a spot. Want to golf this spring? Jack Nicklaus Learning Leagues is sponsoring a pilot golf program in Flushing, Queens for children ages 5 to 8 from Thursday, May 9-Saturday, June 29. Visit the website for more info.
Learn to Swim
The NYC Department of Parks & Recreation offers free summer swimming lessons for children as young as 18 months through adulthood at public pools. There are three separate summer sessions: Tuesday, July 9-Tuesday, July 23; Thursday, July 25-Thursday, August 8; and Monday, August 12-Friday, August 23. In addition, children ages 6 to 18 who can swim 50 meters in reasonably good form can join free swim teams.
How to register: The Parks Department will hold an online lottery beginning on Friday, June 14 at 4am. The session I lottery ends on Friday, June 28; the session II lottery ends on Monday, July 15 and the session III lottery ends on August 5, all at midnight. Visit the Parks Departments' Aquatics page beginning Friday, June 14 to try to snag a spot. Read our post about free swim lessons for more information.
New York Junior Tennis & Learning Community Tennis Program Community Tennis Program
NYJTL offers free programs in all five boroughs for children ages 5 to 18 throughout the spring, summer and fall. All skill levels are welcome and loaner rackets are available. Visit the website for a list of locations and schedule.
How to register: Since registration is ongoing, children can join anytime. Just head to the location of your choice. Registration must be done in person and your child must be present. Call 347-417-8156 for more info.
Urban Park Rangers
The Urban Park Rangers offer a slew of free outdoor programs for kids. The organization's jam-packed online calendar includes hiking, orienteering, canoeing, birding, and fishing activities for families. It's also smart to subscribe to the Rangers' quarterly Outdoors in New York newsletter since some cool events don't seem to make it online until the last minute.
The Urban Park Rangers Weekend Adventures include canoeing, birding, hiking, survival skills, astronomy and more. These activities let you experience New York City's thousands of acres of parkland as you never have before. You'll forget you're in the city entirely!
How to register: For many outings, you just show up and enjoy. Others require preregistration. Visit the website for more info.
The Rangers also oversee the Alley Pond Park Adventure Course, designed to foster trust, problem solving and team-building in a safe and secure environment. Families with children ages 8 and up can try to tackle it on summer Sundays.
How to register: Only 40 slots are available each Sunday so arrive early! Due to demand, in July and August you must enter an online lottery the Monday before to vie for a spot.
The Urban Park Rangers also offer free family camping at various city parks. While dates have yet to be listed on the Rangers' website, the spring newsletter lists a few in June.
How to register: You must enter an online lottery to vie for a spot. Usually the lottery takes place over a 24-hour period about 10 days before the outing. Space is extremely limited. I have yet to win a spot for a Central Park sleepover despite trying three years in a row! The first family campout of the season is coming up on Saturday, June 1 in Van Cortlandt Park and you can enter the lottery on Wednesday, May 22. Check the registration page regularly for other family camping lotteries.
On Sunday mornings in July and August, this nonprofit offers free lacrosse clinics and open play sessions at Pier 5 in Brooklyn Bridge Park for kids in pre-K through 12th grades.
How to register: Families must register in advance online and fill out a U.S. Lacrosse membership form and a Code of Conduct form.
The Central Park Conservancy
The Central Park Conservancy has free kits that families can borrow for a few hours. Birding Discovery Kits containing binoculars, a guidebook, maps and sketching materials are available free of charge at Belvedere Castle (mid-park at 79th Street) so kids can go bird-watching. Meanwhile Field Day Kits are available at the North Meadow Recreation Center (mid-park at 97th Street) and include a variety of balls, bats, Frisbees and jump ropes. In order to borrow the kits, parents or caregivers must leave a valid picture I.D.
Battery Park City Parks Conservancy
This organization sponsors many free (or inexpensive) programs for children of all ages, including gardening, bird watching, fishing and more. Toys, games and play equipment can also be borrowed from the kiosk just south of Rockefeller Park. Registration varies depending on the offering. Visit the website for a complete schedule.
Kayaking on the Hudson
Beginning Memorial Day weekend, The Downtown Boathouse will offer free kayaking on the Hudson River to anyone who can swim at three locations (West 72nd Street, West 56th Street and West Houston Street). Children under age 16 must ride in a double kayak with an adult. No registration required, but you may have to wait on a bit of a line. You'll find similar programs in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Hallets Cove in Long Island City, Queens, and other NYC locations on the water.
Catch-and-Release Fishing in Central Park
The Harlem Meer, located at the northeast corner of the park, is probably the best spot to fish with kids in the city (despite recent unsubstantiated fishzilla sightings). The lake is stocked with a wide variety of fish, including golden shiner, largemouth bass, pumpkinseed sunfish, bluegill sunfish, carp and chain pickerel. Bamboo fishing poles are available free of charge (you must leave a valid picture I.D.) through Saturday, October 5 at the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, located on the north shore of the Harlem Meer at 110th Street between Lenox and Fifth Avenues.
There are lots of other places for catch-and-release fishing in NYC. Check the Parks Department's website for a complete list.
Summer Play Streets
There are two programs that turn designated streets into makeshift play spots: The Police Athletic League Summer Play Streets and the Parks Department Play Streets. PAL's Summer Play Streets run Monday, July 8 through Friday, August 23 and offer a variety of athletic and arts fun at schools, playgrounds and streets. The Parks Department hasn't yet determined the dates and locations of its Play Streets but the info should be available on the website soon.
Big Apple Games
Big Apple Games takes place indoors but it's worth knowing about: The Public Schools Athletic League sponsors this program, which runs Monday, July 8-Thursday, August 1. From Monday-Thursday, 1-5pm and 6-9pm, students in ninth to 12th grades can hit the Afternoon & Evening Teen Recreational Centers for wrestling, volleyball, basketball, softball, floor hockey, team handball, gymnastics, ultimate Frisbee, arts and crafts, and swimming lessons. The Junior High School Program for students in fourth to eighth grades is open 9am-3pm on weekdays, and offers a variety of activities including arts and crafts, game room fun and sports. All sites are staffed with licensed teachers and school safety officers. Visit the website for a list of locations and schedule.
How to register: Kids can show up at the location of their choice on the days they want. Call 718-707-4224 for more info.
Kids Bowl Free
Again, we're cheating a bit with this one since it's also indoors, but it's still free (and air conditioned)! Queens' Astoria Bowl (April 15-September 6) and Brooklyn's Shell Lanes (June 20-August 31) both run Kids Bowl Free programs. Children under 16 can bowl up to two free games per day—times vary and shoe rental is not included.
How to register: Sign up online at their respective websites and receive your coupons via email. Sadly, now that 300 New York has been taken over by Bowlmor, its free bowling program for kids has been discontinued.
If you'd like to find out about additional programs, here are two sites to bookmark. BeFitNYC on the Parks Department website allows you to search for all sorts of athletic activities for any age. Some programs are free, others aren't. But it's a useful tool to use, just be mindful of the details. Also, check out the Parks Department's list of Youth Sports Programs & Instructional Clinics. All programs are free, but often participants must be registered members of a NYC recreation center. Happily, children under 18 are eligible for free annual memberships.
Liked this post? Then check out our roundup of free and cheap summer camps.