People who say “the grass is always greener…” are probably talking about places outside of New York City, because–let’s be honest–it would be generous to call most of the grass in the five boroughs anything other than “brownish” or “nonexistent.” But, for a concrete jungle, New York sure has a lot of space devoted to good, old-fashioned outdoor recreation (and no, margaritas on the patio at Rosa Mexicano do not count). In fact, over one quarter of the city’s lot area–that’s more than 75 square miles!–is occupied by parks, playgrounds, and nature preserves. A few standouts:

Prospect Park
Prospect Park West-Ocean Avenue; Eastern Parkway-Parkside Avenue, Brooklyn
Online: prospectpark.org

It’s not as flashy as its Manhattan counterpart, but with 585 acres of natural beauty, including the last remaining natural forest in Brooklyn, Prospect Park is an outdoorsy kid’s dream. Its sprawling Long Meadow (entrance at Grand Army Plaza) is perfect for picnics and sports, its multiple nature trails offer hours of exploration, and its Audubon Center (East Side, near Ocean Avenue) houses interactive exhibits. Prospect Park also has its own zoo, carousel, and quirks: on Sundays, congo drummers gather at–where else?–Drummer’s Grove on the East Drive to play music and dance.
Why go: Hit up Frederick Law Olmstead’s second most famous park if you’re a nature lover.

Brooklyn Bridge Park
Currently open: Pier 1, Pier 6, Main Street and Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn
Online: brooklynbridgeparknyc.org

It’s still a work in progress–due to be completed in the fall of 2013–but this previously undeveloped swath of waterfront is shaping up to be Brooklyn’s answer to the High Line, with flowers and greenery, multiple playgrounds, architectural seating areas, a restored carousel, amazing views of the skyline, bike rentals, and even a pop-up pool designed to help denizens beat the heat in style.
Why go: Love the skyline? You’ll get an eyeful at this waterfront wonderland. I

Highbridge Park
West 155th Street-Dyckman Street; Edgecombe Avenue-Amsterdam Avenue, Manhattan
Online: www.nycgovparks.org/highbridgepark

This Washington Heights Park includes many picturesque landmarks, but the real draw for kids is the brain-bendingly massive pool overlooking the Harlem River and the city’s oldest bridge (Amsterdam Avenue and West 173rd Street). With an Olympic-sized lap section for grown-ups and an enormous wading pool for little swimmers, the whole family can make a splash!
Why go: Need to cool off/show off your crazy monokini tan lines? Go here for the awesome (and gigantic) swimming pool. 

Billy Johnson Playground
Central Park, East 67th Street near 5th Avenue, Manhattan
Online: www.centralparknyc.org/billy-johnson-playground.html

If you never really got the moral message of Chutes & Ladders, slide on over to the Billy Johnson Playground. It’s hard to stand out as one of almost two dozen playgrounds in Manhattan’s sprawling Central Park. But this rustic , constructed entirely of parental phobia-proof natural materials, features a spectacular 45-foot-long granite slide set into a hill that manages to be both elegant and insanely fun at the same time.
Why go: a 45-foot-long granite slide. Need we say more?

Carroll Park Playground
Carroll Street and Smith Street, Brooklyn
Online: www.carrollparkbrooklyn.org

This charming, airy park in the heart of Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens reflects its largely Italian-American community by pairing its ubiquitous basketball courts with something you don’t find on every playground–bocce courts! The bowling-like ball sport is easy to learn and addictive to play, making it a perfect afternoon distraction for kids of all ages.
Why go: Teach your kids the game of bocce at our favorite Carroll Gardens park.

Playground for All Children
111th St. and Corona Avenue, Flushing, Queens
Online: www.nycgovparks.org/playground-for-all-children

In this bright, tree-surrounded spot near Flushing’s famous Unisphere, children with physical disabilities can play without limitations, on structures ranging from a mini schoolbus and firehouse to a multi-tiered jungle gym outfitted with ramps. There are also full-body (and standard) swings, a sprinkler, a basketball court and plenty of picnic tables for a full day of family fun.
Why go: Any parent with a special needs child will love this playground where they can play without limitations. 

Mercer Playground
Mercer Street, near Bleecker Street, Manhattan
Online: www.nycgovparks.org/M295

Got a kid on wheels? Don’t want them to get hit by a bus? Then this park’s for you. There are special paths for skating, skateboarding, bicycling and scooter-riding alongside playground staples like jungle gyms and a summertime sprinkler.
Why go: With tons of paths for biking, skating, walking, and of course, our favorite, riding a tricycle (we’re partial to the red ones), this park is ideal for kids looking to cruise around on wheels. 

And of course our list wouldn’t be complete without…

Central Park
59th Street-110th Street; 5th Avenue-Central Park West, Manhattan
Online: centralparknyc.org

The Godfather of all parks, this massive Frederick Law Olmstead-designed rectangle will make you countless offers you can’t refuse. Loll in its Sheep Meadow (66th-69th Streets, West Side) reading novels while the kids play Frisbee; practice catch-and-release fishing in the Harlem Meer (106th-110th Streets, East Side); spend a day mammal-watching at the Central Park Zoo (63rd-66th Streets, East Side); or, depending on the season, take a ride on its famous carousel (64th Street, mid-park) or test out your triple salchow at the Wollman Rink (62nd-63rd Streets, East Side).
Why go: This is the place to go if you need a park that will occupy your kids all day long (at two and a half miles long and half a mile wide, you could probably take in a matinee movie in the time it would take them just to run the perimeter!)  .

— Una LaMarche

Photo credit: Central Park by acmace, Prospect Park by 8379824@N07, Highbridge Park by Daniel Avila, Brooklyn Bridge Park by Etienne Frossard, Carroll Park Playground by wallyg, Playground for All Children by Joel Shlabotnik via Creative Commons