Just because we live in a concrete jungle doesn't mean our kids can't enjoy a summer filled with athletic activities outdoors. The best news: You don't need to be a banker to afford it.
New York City offers many opportunities for kids to learn team sports and to try swimming, tennis, golf, fishing, kayaking, camping, and more for FREE. Of course registering for these FREE programs takes a little legwork and, since many are first-come, first-served, punctuality. We've got the scoop on what's available, and how your kids can vie for spots. You can find more no-cost activities in our Free in NYC Guide, or check out these FREE or inexpensive summer camp options around NYC.
Note: A few of these programs haven't finalized details for summer 2017. Please check back as we'll do our best to continue to update this post as info comes in.
My kids participated in the FREE programs offered by CityParks Foundation last summer and I don't have enough good things to say about the quality of instruction and the opportunities it afforded them. My son was even invited to a pair of summer tennis tournaments, including one in the shadow of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which was quite an experience for a first-time player.
In addition to tennis, the CityParks Foundation runs free golf, soccer, and track and field programs for kids who reside in NYC. All equipment is provided. Call 718-760-6999 or email Sports@CityParksFoundation.org for additional info about any of the following programs.
CityParks Tennis offers instruction for children ages 6 to 16 of all skill levels, from beginner lessons to tournaments and leagues.
How to register: Online registration is now open. If your kid is an aspiring pro, consider the Junior Tennis Academy, a FREE tournament-training program held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. In 2017, tryouts will be held on Saturday, May 20, and 50 players ages 8 to 17 will snag coveted spots.
RELATED: NYC Summer Day & Overnight Camp Directory
Participants in the City Parks Foundation track program can compete in local races or in citywide events. Photo by Durst Breneiser/courtesy the City Parks Foundation.
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.
How to register: Online registration is now open.
Practice patience and learn to putt with the CityParks Golf program. Photo by Justina Wong/courtesy City Parks Foundation.
CityParks Golf offers lessons for children ages 6 to 17 at ball fields citywide. The summer concludes with a visit to a local course for a day of play.
How to register: Online registration opens in June.
CityParks Soccer debuted in 2016 when the organization teamed up with NYCFC to offer clinics at parks citywide. Only five parks were offered at the time, but the program doubled for this summer. Each session offers kids ages 8 to 12 technical instruction as well as time for team play.
How to register: Online registration is now open.
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 multiple summer sessions. 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 in June. You can find additional details in our in-depth free swim lessons post.
New York Junior Tennis 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: Because 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. For more info, call 347-417-8177 or email email@example.com.
Set up camp in the Bronx with the Urban Park Rangers. Photo courtesy of the Urban Park Rangers.
Urban Park Rangers
The Urban Park Rangers offer lots of free outdoor programs for kids. The organization's online calendar includes hiking, orienteering, canoeing, birding, and fishing activities for families. It's also smart to subscribe to the quarterly Nature and Outdoors newsletter because 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 entering an online lottery. Visit the website for more info.
The Rangers also oversee the Alley Pond Park Adventure Course in Queens, 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 Sundays from May 14 through October 29.
How to register: Only limited slots are available each Sunday so arrive early! In July and August you must enter an online lottery the Monday before to vie for a spot given the program's popularity.
The Urban Park Rangers also offer free family camping at various city parks.
How to register: You must enter an online lottery to vie for spots. Usually the lottery takes place over a 24-hour period about 10 days before the outing. Space is extremely limited. The first family campout of the season generally happens near Memorial Day weekend.
RELATED: Parks & Playgrounds Guide for NYC Kids
Pick up a birding Discovery Kit at Belvedere Castle before heading out on a Central Park walk. Photo courtesy of The Central Park Conservancy.
The Central Park Conservancy
The Central Park Conservancy has free kits 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 ID.
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.
Paddle the harbor and East River with a free kayak. Photo by Charlie via Flickr.
A number of volunteer-run organizations offer no-cost, walk-up kayaking at various launch points throughout NYC over the summer. Rules vary but usually children under age 16 must ride in a double kayak with an adult. No registration is required but you may have to wait on a line.
Downtown Boathouse at the newly renovated Pier 26 offers kayaking from late May to October. In June, the organization returns to Governors Island offering a FREE Saturday kayaking program on the bucolic isle.
Manhattan Community Boathouse offers kayaking at 56th Street on the Hudson River from June to September. Repairs are ongoing on the org's 72nd Street location and it's unclear when it may open in 2017. Check the website for current schedule.
Brooklyn Bridge Boathouse offers kayaking every Saturday from 10am to 3pm and Thursday from 5:30pm to 6:45pm from June to August in Brooklyn Bridge Park between Piers 1 and 2.
Long Island City Boathouse hosts kayaking at Hallets Cove in Long Island City, Queens. See the website for schedule. On occasion, longer "Trip Paddles" are announced and offered free-of-charge.
Kayak Staten Island moves its operation to Conference House Park this season. Check the website for the complete schedule.
Rent a free fishing pole to fish at the Harlem Meer, which is stocked with fish. Photo courtesy of the Central Park Conservatory.
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. 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 ID) from April through November 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.
Kids Bowl Free
We're cheating a bit with this one; it's indoors, but it's still free (and air conditioned)! Astoria Bowl (April 15-September 4) and Jib Lanes (May 1-September 5) in Queens, and Brooklyn's Shell Lanes (June 21-August 31) offer 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 the respective websites and receive your coupons via email.
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, 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.
Top photo: If your child is interested in tennis, there are learn-to-play programs across the five boroughs and more advanced lessons for promising players are held at the USTA Tennis Center in Queens. Photo by Alan Roche/courtesy of the City Parks Foundation.
This article was first published in May 2010 and is updated annually.