One of the main reasons we're willing to deal with the challenges of raising kids in NYC (the crazy rents, the stressful school searches, the closets for apartments) is our easy access to enriching cultural activities like theater and museums. When it's time for some good old-fashioned outdoor fun, New York can be equally enriching. The city offers a range of bucolic parks and more destinations where kids can get busy playing outside, without leaving the five boroughs.
From camping under the stars to fishing to zip-lining, here are 25 fresh ways to enjoy a spring staycation with the whole family. Some are FREE, most are accessible by public transportation, and we guarantee that they are all tons of fun.
Hike the trails in the amazing Prospect Park. Photo courtesy of NYC Parks
1. Go hiking! There are plenty of hiking trails across the five boroughs. Staten Island's Wolfe's Pond Park is stunning, especially during fall foliage season. Prospect Park has numerous hiking trails. For city-dwelling beach lovers, Rockaway Beach boasts dune hikes with spectacular views, and Marine Park is a great place to spot birds and other animals.
2. Connect with wildlife. Bring your own binoculars on a National Park Rangers-led tour of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, where you can expect to see beautiful birds and butterflies. There are highly educational (and often FREE!) family programs to choose from.
3. Try bouldering. Inwood Hill Park is a fantastic place to hike, bike, camp, or boulder with the whole family. This tranquil NYC spot is a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.
4. Go kayaking. Seeing the NYC skyline from a kayak is an experience to remember. Many organizations offer FREE walk-up kayaking at launches in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, beginning around Memorial Day. Most all welcome kids of all ages. For amazing views, head to Pier 26 in Tribeca to kayak courtesy of the Downtown Boathouse. But if that's not convenient, there are lots of other no-cost kayaking options.
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Bring your bike on the ferry or rent a bike on Governor's Island. Photo courtesy of Governor's Island
5. Hop on a bike. With dedicated bike paths all over town, Citi Bikes available on practically every corner, and neighborhood rental shops, NYC is more cycling-friendly than ever. Governors Island is a great biking destination for kids as the isle is 100% car-free. You can bring your own bike or rent one on-site. Bonus: Free Bike Mornings allow visitors to borrow a cycle for an hour weekday mornings for free.
6. Explore a landfill-turned-park. My kids still have a hard time believing that Staten Island's beautiful (but unfinished) Freshkills Park was once the world's largest landfill. We visit to hike, see how it's progressing, and learn how its designers are undoing some of the site's environmental damage.
Horseback riding in Prospect Park continues today! Photo courtesy of NYC Parks
7. Go horseback riding. Prospect Park has historically been a destination for horseback riding in NYC. The nearby Kensington Stables offers trail rides on a 3.5-mile bridle path with experienced guides who will gladly answer your questions about the green space. Weather permitting, the facility offers rides every day of the year even as it undergoes an ownership change. Horseback riding lessons are offered at other NYC sites, too.
8. Head to the beach. With the exception of Manhattan, there are beaches in every borough. Before the swimming season starts (or after it closes), take a stroll to pick up shells and seaglass, or watch the wildlife.
9. Discover a new-to-you corner of Central Park. Sure you've been to Central Park, but how well do you know this incredible, 843-acre green space? Guided tours take place throughout and focus on the history and highlights of its various areas. Many tours are FREE though some cost a nominal fee.
Go fishing in Prospect Park. Photo by Paul Martinka for NYC Parks
10. Go fishing. Opportunities to fish in NYC abound. Prospect Park is a fun spot to try and catch some sunfish or largemouth bass. In summer, the Pop-Up Audubon offers FREE fishing clinics for newbies. Note: All fishing in NYC parks is catch and release. If you're looking to fish on the open water, take the kids to Sheepshead Bay for a ride on the Sea Queen VII.
11. Fly a kite. Technically, you're not supposed to fly a kite just anywhere; the NYC Parks Department says it should be done in designated areas... and then doesn't name any. Safest bets are beaches, Long Meadow in Prospect Park, and Central Park's North Meadow and Great Lawn.
12. See a salt marsh. The Salt Marsh Nature Center at Marine Park in Brooklyn educates visitors about preserving this unique ecosystem. The bird-watching and native-to-NYC flora and fauna are also incredible. The Alley Pond Environmental Center in Queens is all about preservation, education and community. Explore the picturesque forests, meadows, ponds, and fresh and saltwater marshes on your own, or check the calendar for special family programs.
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The Greenbelt Nature Center on Staten Island. Photo courtesy of the center
13. Get schooled at a nature center. The Urban Park Rangers oversee 15 nature centers in NYC parks. Staten Island favorite Greenbelt Nature Center offers beautiful hikes and terrific educational programs for families. Even without leaving Manhattan, you can experience a nature sanctuary. Head to Central Park's own Hallett Nature Sanctuary. Previously inaccessible to visitors, the area has remained pristine. You can take a tour or get lost in this oasis of quiet in the middle of the city.
14. Go camping with the Urban Park Rangers. Families lucky enough to win the registration lottery can camp out overnight in select NYC parks. Opportunities are offered in every borough all summer long, and all equipment is provided. Check the schedule, enter and cross your fingers! Hint: Central Park and Prospect Park are next to impossible to get, but you may have better luck if you try for other locations.
15. Or go camping on your own. Family camping at Floyd Bennett Field is one of Brooklyn's best kept secrets. You can make s'mores right next to the beach without ever leaving city limits! Reservations are required and you must bring all of your own gear, including a tent. There are also plenty of close-by camping opportunities outside the city that are well worth the trip!
16. Get farming. There are kid-friendly urban farms scattered across the city, or try the Queens County Farm for a glimpse into NYC's rich agricultural history, spanning all the way back to 1697.
Take a canoe trip on the Gowanus Canal with the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club. Photo courtesy of the club
17. Hop in a canoe. Explore the infamous Gowanus Canal by canoe with the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club. Kids who are old enough to sit still in a canoe are welcome, as long as they are accompanied by a parent. You can also canoe to Hunter Island in gorgeous Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. The most fun way to get there is with an Urban Ranger in a canoe, so keep an eye out for opportunities on the calendar.
18. Go foraging. Skip the farmers' market and go searching for food in the wild! Take the kids on one of Wildman Steve Brill's foraging tours where families can learn to look for edible foods right here in NYC!
19. Look for whales and dolphins. Yes right here in NYC! There are a number of tours not far from the city, or try the American Princess Cruises off Jacob Riis Park in Rockaway.
Community Gardens offers great spaces for kids to play freely. Photo by Louise Finnell
20. Get gardening. The expanded Discovery Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has loads of hands-on, free-with-admission activities for families. Tip: You can visit the BBG all day on Tuesdays and Saturday mornings between 10am and noon for FREE. You can also get your hands dirty in your neighborhood community garden, or Queens kids can try the Queens Botanical Garden for gardening workshops and classes.
21. Go surfing. Rockaway Beach in Queens is the sole shore in the five boroughs where it's is allowed, and only at designated locations. The area is exploding with surf shops and lessons for kids of all ages (we are partial to Boarders for gear and Locals Surf School and New York Surf School for lessons).
22. Go bird-watching. Birding events are held throughout NYC parks. But we're particularly fond of the ones hosted by New York City Audubon. Check out the org's incredible programs, some of which are FREE. If your kid can't get enough of our fine feathered friends, they are in good company. Brooklyn Bird Club is a great resource for bird walks and conservation information.
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Take a night Treetop Adventure at the Bronx Zoo. Photo courtesy of the zoo
23. Try zip-lining. The Bronx Zoo's new Treetop Adventure Course is a unique way to experience NYC from the sky with either the ropes course or dual zip line. Governors Island also offers a zip line with views of the Statue of Liberty, and is suitable for both daredevils and more cautious adventurers. Alley Pond Park is home to an Adventure Course where thrill-seekers ages 8 and up can navigate a challenging ropes course and fly across a zip line (FREE programs are available from October through May at specific times on Sundays). Don't forget to make reservations in advance during the warmer months.
24. Discover history. Clay Pit Ponds State Park Preserve on Staten Island is well worth the trek. It's got exceptional hiking and gorgeous views, but what makes this park unique is its history. My family and I have learned about the Leni Lenape Indians and the Free Blacks of Sandy Ground who once lived here. It's fascinating stuff and accessible for school-age kids.
25. Stop and smell the flowers. Although the New York Botanical Garden is the biggest and best known flower spot in the Bronx, the borough is also home to the gorgeous Wave Hill, a public garden and cultural center. Situated along the Hudson River, it boasts stunning views, gorgeous plants, and flowers, and hosts frequent programs for kids, including nature-themed weekend family art projects.
Additional reporting, photos, and editorial update by Louise Finnell.
Top photo of the zip line at Governors Island. Photo courtesy of Governors Island
A version of this article was first published in 2015.