I run through my local park almost every day, and I’m surprised by how empty it normally is.
Even during the weekend, I’ll often pass only a few dozen people over the course of an hour-long jog. In a city with a population nearing half a million, that isn’t very many at all.
It seems a waste to me that such beautiful, freely available spaces can go so underutilized.
I worry that many people are simply unaware of all the resources that most park systems have to offer.
Sure, everyone knows that parks have playgrounds and trails for walking and running, but they also offer so much more.
The exact activities and events that a park system offers will, of course, vary from city to city. Small towns likely to have a bit less to do, and big cities are likely to have more.
With that said, there are a few things that I’ve seen at parks in nearly every city I’ve lived in, and they are normally completely free. (Or at least already paid for with your taxes.)
Free Fields and Courts
There are normally all kinds of fields and courts available for sports. Soccer and basketball tend to be the most common, but I’ve also found plenty of baseball fields, tennis courts, and more obscure sports as well.
Generally, the fields are first-come, first-serve, with options to reserve them.
These days, a lot of park departments offer free classes. Two of the most common that I’ve seen are yoga classes and nature lessons. These classes tend to be fairly low-key and beginner friendly.
In addition to wildlife, some park systems have small petting zoos or other domesticated animals that you can watch or interact with. Last month I went to pet a few goats at my local park, and it made my day.
When I lived in Chicago, there was even an entire free zoo.
If you’re interested in trying out calisthenics, your local park may be a great place to start. Pull-up bars are a mainstay of public parks. Lately, I’ve noticed a trend for even more complex equipment, including dip bars, climbing ropes, and boxes to jump on.
Free Concerts and Theater
Many parks offer a variety of free shows. These occur throughout the year, but are particularly frequent in summer and right around Christmas. Sometimes they’ll get very big name bands and singers to play, and it’ll be completely free.
Similarly, but perhaps a little less exciting, many cities offer free movies in the parks.
Some of the bigger parks that I’ve visited even have small rides built inside them. Carousels are a classic park attraction, and a park near me also has a mini-train. These can be a great way to entertain little kids for cheap.
Enclosures and Grills
If you want to have a small cookout but live in an apartment without a yard, your local park can be a great alternative location. Many of them have picnic tables, enclosures, and free-to-use grills.
These fill up quickly on the weekends and holidays but tend to be emptier after work during the weekdays.
Not only do many parks allow fishing, but some of them even stock the lakes with fish. You can often buy a fishing license and gear right at the park, so even if you’re new to fishing, you can jump right in.
If you want a boat for just the afternoon, the park system can be a great place to go for cheap rentals. Kayaks near me rent for as little as $5 an hour — way cheaper than I’ve ever seen from a private boat rental business. You also won’t have to deal with the hassle of transporting the boat to the park.
Some cities build mini-museums right into their parks. I recently visited a new park for the first time (the same one with the goats I mentioned earlier) and was surprised to find out they had a series of historic farm buildings that had been converted into a museum.
It was a fun an educational way to spend the day, and it was all completely free.
Cities often purchase outdoor art installations for their parks, and some of these can be truly world-class. These can be some of the trickiest park attractions to find, because, in my experience, they normally aren’t cataloged anywhere. You’ll have to do some searching or ask around to find the ones in your city.
How to Find Out What Your Parks Offer
So, how can you actually find out what’s available at local parks? The best place to start is the parks department’s website.
The website will normally have an overview of the permanent activities at each local park, as well as an event calendar.
Unfortunately, not everything available will necessarily be listed on the park website. To really know for sure, you’ve got to go out and wander the parks.
One thing to keep an eye out for is a bulletin board, which will most often be located at the park entrance. Most of the larger parks that I’ve been to have one, and they can list all kinds of events that never show up online.