credit: NYC Department of Parks & Recreation

credit: NYC Department of Parks & Recreation

In recent years, more and more playgrounds have moved away from organized structures and safe, soft surfaces to rough-and-tumble zones that encourage kids to use their imaginations and direct the activities. Below are our five favorite adventure and natural playgrounds in the city. Each one is a truly unique place, designed to help kids learn by doing, burn off energy, and have tons of fun. By Jessica Allen.

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Central Park has no shortage of playgrounds, from one that lets you pretend you’re in the Wild West, to one that takes you back to ancient Egypt, and even one that mimics the bucolic landscape of the Ramble. Adventure Playground has slides both short and long, strap and tire swings, rope ladders and real live moats with running water — all of which encourage shared play. Speaking of the wet stuff, there’s a huge spray zone and sand pit. There are also steps and secret passageways—and just about everything is wheelchair accessible.

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Newly opened on Governors Island, playgroundNYC is “a space for young people to test themselves and develop a sense of ownership and belonging which fosters long term responsibility to their community and world.” You’ll find lots of loose random objects like wood, wires, flashlights, rope, tarps, bricks, and tires, lots of mud, and basic hand tools (Saws! Hammers! Nails! Duct tape!) and craft supplies. There’s no set structure — and almost no limit — to what kids can do. (Note: this fun zone is recommended for kids 6 and up.)

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Science Playground, part of the New York Hall of Science in Queens, seeks to foster a love of science through imaginative and active play. Kids can climb on the giant spider web, shoot down the super-long slide, run along a see-through floor, twist an Archimedes screw, listen to the wind pipes, tug a ginormous lever, and bang on the metal drums, and/or learn about gravity at the nearby Rocket Park Mini Golf course. Check the calendar and combine your visit with one of the child-focused, hands-on workshops at the museum, on topics like Japanese print-making, insect habitats, custom stuffed animals and rubber band-powered cars.

Land ho! Ahoy, ye mateys! You’ll want to brush up on your salty talk before heading to Staten Island’s Seaside Wildlife Nature Park (sometimes called Pirate Park). It overlooks Great Kills Harbor, so the setting neatly ties into the park’s nautical theme. We’re talking a lighthouse, a model of the Staten Island Ferry, sand, drums, and a climbable horseshoe crab. If/when your young friends get tired of pretending to be sailors and mermaids, they can roam around the 20 acres of wilderness surrounding the playground.

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The city’s first truly natural playground, the Zucker Natural Exploration Area was created out of the chaos of Superstorm Sandy. Using storm-damaged trees and other materials, the Prospect Park Alliance opened the playground in 2013. If you’ve got a kid in your life who loves to scuttle, root, climb and wander in the wild, then this is their ideal playground. While it’s a bit hard to find — tucked in a leafy area off the park’s Long Meadow — it’s good for hours and hours of unstructured, self-directed play. Ah, to be 10 again.

Jessica Allen writes about New York.