Rosheda Stephenson calls NYC and the Caribbean home. Her travel articles are meant to inspire passion, adventure, and curiosity.
The things to do with kids in Central Park run the gamut from the soothing to the exhilarating. There are inventive playgrounds where families flock for outdoor summer fun on some of the coolest playground equipment in the city; an excellent zoo with temperature-controlled tropical and polar zones; ice skating rinks that offer private lessons; wooded areas with numerous waterfalls and excellent hiking, and much more.
If you are visiting New York City with your family, this list of the best spots in Central Park for kids is a great way to get ideas for any season, as it includes activities for both summer and the colder months.
1. The Central Park Carousel
In the southern part of the park, close to the East 65th Street entrance, sits one of the park's most colorful attractions—the Central Park Carousel. The beautiful horses on the park's carousel are a big attraction come summer. More than fifty colorful horses glide rhythmically to calliope music while their tiny riders squeal with glee. Parents are free to enter the carousel and stand by their kids or watch from behind a glass enclosure. Rides are inexpensive (around $3.00) and must be purchased with cash on site. The carousel opens in late spring and offers rides throughout the summer.
2. The Central Park Zoo
Close to the carousel is the small but excellent Central Park Zoo. The small zoo combines a manageable size for younger kids with enough fascinating features to keep older kids interested. The Tropical Zone is an exact recreation of an actual rainforest. Green tangles of trees populated with colorful macaws and other rainforest creatures like hanging lemurs occupy a temperature-controlled section of the zoo where it is always sweltering and humid. In direct contrast, the Polar Seabirds exhibit is kept near freezing to keep the zoo's many species of penguins cool and comfortable. This all adds up to a sensory experience that has made the small zoo one of the most raved-about things to do with kids in Central Park.
For younger kids there are many options for fun: there is Tisch Children's Zoo, where they can pet and feed farm animals, an entertaining sea lion show at scheduled times, and various animal feedings throughout the day. With these and all the other kid favorites (grizzly bears, red pandas, cheeky monkeys) it isn't hard to see why the small zoo is one of the best spots in Central Park for kids
3. The Entrance Area to the Zoo for Face and Balloon Art
Face painters and balloon artists show up in the warmer months right around the pathway that leads to the Central Park Zoo. Try as I may, I can never convince my family that a painted face isn't an absolute necessity for enjoying a day out in the zoo. The face painters offer popular face painting themes—princess art, striped leopards, superheroes etc.—so your kids will find something they can proudly wear as they go about enjoying the park.
Face painters, balloon artists, and caricaturists can also be found in other popular areas of Central Park so even if you don't plan on visiting the zoo but know your kids would love being transformed into a work of art, look out for signs that they normally carry to announce their services.
4. Loeb's Boathouse for Gondola Rides
A little before summer begins, Central Park's best spot for boating opens up to allow visitors to hire graceful Venetian-style gondolas or rent rowboats for some fun on the water. The Loeb Boathouse is both the name of an onsite restaurant and the general area for arranging boat rentals.
Rowboats are perfect for families with older kids who want to help row a boat through Central park's lush greenery. Expect to see waterfowl, ducks, and other birds on the trip. Families with really young kids will want to hire a gondola so that they can safely hold the little ones as they slowly glide around Central Park. No matter which you choose, you won't find a more relaxing thing to do with the kids in Central Park.
After enjoying the water, many families head to Loeb's Boathouse restaurant to enjoy a nice meal in the outdoor seating area where the views of the water make for an incredible atmosphere. Enter the park at the East 72nd Street entrance for Loeb's, which is right next to The Lake.
5. Conservatory Water for Sailing Model Boats
Continue the boating fun at the pretty man-made Conservatory Water (just east of Loeb's) where model boat sailing is a popular pastime during the warmer months. It is not unusual to see whole families enjoy some friendly competition with the remote-controlled boats when the weather permits. Model boats can be rented for a fee and are available until October.
6.The Hans Christian Anderson Statue For Children's Stories
Located near Conservatory Water is the statue of Hans Christian Andersen, the Danish children's author who gave the world classic stories like The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid. The statue is the go-to storytime spot in Central Park for local families. Each summer on scheduled Saturdays kids flock to the statue for a family storytime that has become one of the more popular things to do with kids in Central Park come summer. Storytime is free so it attracts a crowd each time, be sure to get there an hour early to secure a good seat.
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7. The Alice in Wonderland Statue
After storytime head just east to another beloved statue—a lustrous rendition of Alice, the Madhatter and White Rabbit from the Alice in Wonderland novel. The bronze statue is a favorite climbing spot in Central Park for kids who come to both admire the whimsical statue and expend some energy while exploring the nooks of the detailed pieces. The park also offers a tour of the park's famous statues including the Alice in Wonderland statue.
8. The Victorian Gardens Amusement Park
Amusement parks are a summer staple for many families. If you are visiting NYC with young kids in the summer, be sure to check out Central Park's Victorian Gardens Amusement Park. The small park offers gentle rides and amusements that are perfect for a family with little ones.
Don't expect mega roller coasters or any extreme rides, as the park occupies a small area and caters specifically to a really young crowd. For this same reason, plan to spend a couple of hours at most enjoying the rides before enjoying light snacks and lemonade available onsite. If you want to spend a whole day exploring the famous park, I explore more adult ideas in my things to do in Central Park article.
The amusement park is closest to the 59th Street and 6th Ave entrance of Central Park.
9. Any of the Park's 21 Playgrounds
Without a doubt, playing in an amazing playground is the most popular thing to do with kids in Central Park. The celebrated public space is home to countless playgrounds and water sprinkler areas where a kid could spend a whole summer's day and never notice the day's done. The playgrounds each have a different character. There is the Egyptian-themed Ancient Playground with its pyramid climbing structures and obelisks; the nautical-inspired Mariner's playground with its steering wheels, seahorse rockers, and large sand area; the self-explanatory Tarr Coyne Wild West Playground and almost twenty others. Whatever your kid's interests they are sure to find a favorite among the playgrounds. Find more information on Central Park's playgrounds at www.centralpark.com.
10. Lasker Pool
There is no better place in Central Park for kids who want to cool down during the dog days of summer than the gigantic Lasker Pool. The Olympic-sized public pool offers free swimming right in the middle of Central Park. There are certain rules as to what can be brought poolside, so be sure to check www.nycgovparks.org before heading there.
11. Rat Rock
Central Park's geography includes huge rock structures that rise from the ground. These can be observed in many spots around the park but the favorite for climbing can be found around the Heckscher playground area (at Central Park South and 7th Ave.). The huge rock seems to tempt every kid who sees it. During summer, kids can be seen blissfully scampering up and down the rocks, their adults carefully making the way to the top where many families hang out with sandwiches and take in the views of the park.
12. The North Woods for Waterfall Spotting
Families who enjoy hiking and nature will love the North Woods in the northwestern corner of Central Park. Its designers intended this section of the park to feel like the rugged woods common in the more elevated areas of the U.S. Expect to be amazed at the sounds of nature pervading everything in the North Woods. Upon entering, a melody of chirps signaling the presence of numerous winged creatures mingles with the soothing sound of water from the manmade waterfalls that call the North Woods home. Look out for the area's wildlife and try to see how many waterfalls your family can spot. This area may not be for everybody, but for the nature-loving family, hiking the North Woods is one of those can't- miss things to do with kids in Central Park.
The North Woods can be accessed from the West 110 Street entrance to the park.
13. The Shakespeare Garden for Colorful Flowers and Thespian Quotes
One of the most colorful places in Central Park is also home to the words of the most famous thespians to have graced earth. Scattered around the pretty garden are plaques bearing some of William Shakespeare's most famous lines. While younger kids may not be able to yet appreciate their significance, older kids, 'tweens, and teens who study or love theater will enjoy reading some of their favorite Shakespeare quotes while inhaling the sweet smell of roses, tulips, and other rainbow-hued flowers.
Spring is a great time to enjoy the sensory experience that is the Shakespeare Garden. After hunting down the quotes, do take a walk through the gardens for one of the most pleasant things you can do with the kids in Central Park. Even younger kids will enjoy pointing out the flowers or taking a whiff of their favorites.
Before continuing to the list of exciting things to do with kids in winter, here is a map with directions to all the summer activities in Central Park for kids :
14. Wollman Rink
Wollman Rink remains the favorite spot in Central Park for kids and families who want to spend a day ice-skating because of the utterly romantic feel that envelopes the small rink. Set in a part of the park where the NYC skyline forms a perfect backdrop come evening, the rink is the perfect spot for family photos and gorgeous views.
The rink sweetens the day by offering both group and private lessons for kids. For more information on lessons, entrance fees and hours check the website.
15. The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History is one of the best places to spend a cold day with kids in Central Park. The bastion of natural science which occupies about four blocks between Central Park West 77th and West 81st Streets is dedicated to educating the public on the history of the world as it shaped and formed over the course of history.
Kids will love learning about sea creatures, dinosaurs, and outer space through creative reproductions and actual fossils. In addition to these regular displays, the museum's special attractions make it a favorite thing to do with kids in Central Park for both locals and visitors. Special attractions include a planetarium (Hayden Planetarium), exciting 3D shows, and a butterfly conservancy (starts late fall and continues through winter) which offers an interactive experience with actual butterflies for an extra fee.
16. Swedish Cottage Puppet Theater
Not far from the American Museum of Natural History (either the West 77th St. or West 81st St. entrance may be used) is the only spot in Central Park for kids to see live puppet shows specifically designed for their age group.
The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater is one of the best things to do with kids in Central Park because of the theater's commitment to the knee-high crowd. At around an hour-long, the shows are the perfect length for little kids with small attention spans, the seating is perfect for smaller bodies and the small theater is just the right size to not overwhelm. The shows themselves are filled with music, color, and child-appropriate storylines. If you're looking for more ideas specifically geared toward younger kids, you may like my article, things to do with toddlers in NYC
17. The Ice Sculpture Festival
In recent years, Central Park has put on an ice sculpture festival that draws families with older kids to the park for the annual winter event. The festival is free and features ice sculptors making works of art while the dense crowds watch. In addition to the display of creativity, there is live music, food trucks, and interactive stations where older kids may try their hands at ice sculpting. Younger kids and toddlers may find the crowds overwhelming so unless you can lift your younger kids unto your shoulders to see above the crowds, the ice festival may not be the place for them; for every other member of the family this is a fun event and a chance to mingle with lots of local families
18. Belvedere Castle
Although the picturesque Belvedere Castle is best known for its romantic exterior, inside the building is a nature center where little ones can learn about the park's foliage and other natural features. After taking in the small exhibit many families take the narrow stairs to the top where the views of Central Park is absolutely stunning.
Belvedere Castle is stunning in summer and winter and gives off different vibes depending on when you visit. In winter the castle seems like something out of a fairytale with its still, snow-covered peaks, but in summer it's the picture of a perfect marriage of nature and architecture. The surrounding ponds and lush greenery only serve to highlight the beauty of the building. This is one spot in Central Park that can be enjoyed summer and winter.
19. Cedar Hill For Sledding
Sledding is a favorite winter activity among families of every persuasion. Central Park's Cedar Hill on the park's east side is one of Manhattan's favorite spots for sledding. The gently sloping hill looks like a picturesque green meadow in warmer times, but come winter it transforms into the perfect spot for sledding, making it the best spot in Central Park on a snowy day.
On days when the snow reaches six inches or more Cedar Hill opens up to the public for sledding and other snow fun. When Cedar Hill gets too crowded, many families head to Pilgrim Hill (also in Central Park) where sledding is also allowed.
20. The Bandshell Area for Winter Sports
Speaking of sledding, Central Park is the venue for a winter sports event called Winter Jam which takes place every year in January. If you plan on visiting in January check out the event where winter sports like arctic golf, skiing, and ice sculpting are all part of the fun. Kids can either take part in sporting events or get lessons in a sport of their choice. The event takes place at the Bandshell area at the East 72nd Street entrance.
21. The Arthur Ross Pinetum
Nothing says winter like a picturesque grove of snow-covered pine trees standing majestically in the sky. Central Park has a whole area dedicated to the evergreens that have come to be identified with winter and the holidays. The Arthur Ross Pinetum is the perfect place to admire the beautiful pines, firs, and other evergreens that call the area home. Get even more ideas that the adults in your family will enjoy in my things to do in Central Park article. And, here is a map with directions to all the winter activities mentioned in this section:
These ideas of things to do with kids in Central Park show why the park is so famous. There is something to do in every season and for everyone, even the really young. If you do visit, this list should make finding the perfect activity for your family a breeze.
© 2018 Rosheda Stephenson