Playtime should be fun, but that doesn't mean you can't learn a few lessons along the way. In an age when STEM activities are all the rage, and we race our kids from class to class, sometimes it's worth slowing down and setting the kids free in a park or playground to see what skills they pick up on their own.
We've rounded up a baker's dozen NYC play areas that foster old-fashioned playground skills—like balance, strength, and coordination—while also offering unique features that encourage brain-boosting skills—like problem-solving, engineering, physics, cooperation, imagination, resilience, and teamwork. Plus, they're some of the coolest play zones in the city.
Alley Pond Park – Oakland Gardens, Queens
This brightly-colored playground, located at Springfield Boulevard and 76th Avenue in the heart of Alley Pond Park, has a nature theme—a fitting tribute to its home turf. Getting to the playground is really part of the lesson here, as kids explore the 635-acre park with its nature center and varying, diverse ecosystems. Adults and children 8+ can conquer the on-site ropes course using cooperation, trust, and a bit of physical skill, all for free. Advance registration required.
Explore the multiple routes through the rope-and-netting climbing structure at the Bronx Zoo Nature Trek.
Bronx Zoo Nature Trek – Bronx Park, the Bronx
A newer addition to the Bronx Zoo, the Nature Trek does require a Total Experience ticket for entry, but once inside, kids can explore the multiple routes through the rope-and-netting climbing structure. See the zoo from a new point of view, pose for a picture in a tree-top bird's nest, and exit to a play area where kids can pump water, construct birds' nests, and more. You'll be hard pressed to pull the kids away, even if plenty of other fun awaits at the city's largest zoo.
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Walk the beam at Gertrude Ederle Playground.
Gertrude Ederle Playground – Upper West Side
This recently renovated play area will really test your balance. Almost nothing in the park is stable. Kids can try their skills climbing a winding, rock wall-like structure or slanting webbed structures. They can traverse a balance beam, wobble on the unsteady rope climber, and more. Don't worry, there's plenty of spongy padding on the ground, helping kids pop right back up and tackle the obstacles again and again. Perseverance is always a good skill to hone.
The High Line – Hell's Kitchen
While there's plenty to explore at the southern end of this completely unique greenspace, train lovers delight in exploring the northern end. Visit the Rail Yards to climb on the exposed rails, investigate the switches and explore the relics of the track's bygone history. At 30th Street, kids can clamber over the Pershing Square Beams and contemplate the support these steel structures provided to cargo trains in the past—and to the SUV-sized strollers of the present.
With sand, water, and its trademark blue blocks, kids can build their physical and mental strengths at Imagination Playground.
Imagination Playground – South Street Seaport
We've long been fans of this unique playground in Lower Manhattan. While kids can test their engineering skills in the sand section, or work to stem the flow of the jets in the water play area, we love to see what they can do and build with the trademark blue blocks the playground is named for. The presence of paid play associates who engage children in building projects is a big plus, too.
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The trampoline-like netting at Nelson Rockefeller playground is a physical and mental challenge.
Nelson A. Rockefeller Playground – Battery Park City
One of our favorite destination playgrounds, Nelson Rockefeller Playground features a tricycle merry-go-round we particularly love. Visit on any given day and you'll see kids (and sometimes weary, strong parents) working together to set it in motion. A soaring jungle gym provides challenging fun for big kids, too, particularly if they want to reach the trampoline-like netting and test the laws of gravity!
The massive playground at NYSCI boasts a giant lever, an Archimedes screw and water play area, windpipes, a climbing net, slides, sandboxes and metal drums! Photo courtesy of NYSCI
NYSCI Science Playground – Flushing Meadows, Queens
In terms of educational worth, you can't go wrong with a spot called the Science Playground. Staffed by trained "Explainers," the scientific principles of play are on full display here. You'll interact with simple machines, play with natural elements like sun, wind, and water, and test your balance alongside the properties of motion.
Kids love to explore the bright, cheery and challenging Paul Raimonda Playground. Photo courtesy of NYC Parks
Paul Raimonda Playground – Astoria, Queens
Balance is everything at this popular neighborhood park. Arching structures beg children to climb up one side and slide down the other, while unstable rope climbers offer a challenge to all ages. A pair of bridges is decorated with brightly colored play panels that beg to be touched, thanks to sensory-filled textures and fun, working gears to turn.
Get lost in the exploratory labyrinth at Brooklyn Bridge Park's Pier 3. Photo by Etienne Frossard
Pier 3 Exploratory Labyrinth – Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn
The newest section of Brooklyn Bridge Park lacks the physical play areas of its neighboring playgrounds (more on those below!), but this calm greenspace offers a welcome change of pace. Explore the shrub-lined path that leads to a walk-in kaleidoscope, mirrored games, parabolic reflectors, echo games, structures to climb, dance chimes, and more.
Go rock climbing then slide down the super long and steep slides at Pier 6's Slide Mountain. Photo by Matt Nighswander
Pier 6 Slide Mountain – Brooklyn Heights, Brooklyn
Two-story tall slides may be the highlight in this section of Brooklyn Bridge Park's epic play destination, but getting to the top so you can whiz your way down is a challenge for mind and body. Other out-of-the-ordinary climbing structures abound to test kids' problem-solving skills.
Climb to new heights on the spider climb at Pier 25 Play Area.
Pier 25 Play Area – Tribeca
The water play area at this popular playground offers countless lessons. Encourage your kids' water fights as they investigate how to angle the water cannons just right, or encourage attempts to play chicken with the dumping buckets, avoiding the inevitable deluge when they fill enough to spill over. There's a rock wall and boulders to scale, and little kids will delight in the springy, bouncy creatures and more traditional play equipment.
Kids 6 and up can tinker with loose parts and atypical objects (think cardboard, rope, wood planks, tires) as they work toward creating something out of this world. Photo courtesy of The Yard
The Yard – Governors Island
Parents take note: You'll get nowhere near your kid while they explore this adventure playground on Governors Island. Free play is the name of the game, and kids delight in some good, old-fashioned fun. They're sure to get a little dirty and test their mental and physical strength (hey, hammers are heavy!) building a completely unique space with recycled materials. Trained playworkers provide supervision ... once you've signed the waiver, of course.
Zucker Natural Exploration Area — Prospect Park, Brooklyn
From a distance, the Natural Exploration Area just looks like a forest of twisted trees. But a closer look at this fenceless, wooded environment reveals plenty of things for children to climb, explore, and manipulate. A water-and-sand play area is a hotbed of engineering projects for the toddler set, while the tree fort and climbing stumps encourage wild flights of imagination for older kids.
Visit our Parks and Playground Guide for the scoop on all our favorite places to play.
Unless noted, photos by the author