Timeout New York Kids

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Bank on these free (and nearly free) fitness programs

Photo: Courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy

WALL FLOWER Climbing skills blossom at North Meadow Rec.

Photo: Courtesy of the Central Park Conservancy

If lush green grass and Hudson River views can't lure you to Battery Park City, how about free fitness activities for children? Every summer during scheduled playtimes (Mon--Wed 10am--noon; Sun 2--4pm), the BPC Parks Conservancy gives preschoolers a fun workout by rolling big, bright exercise toys onto the lawn. Under the supervision of helpful staff members, children play with a molly ball (a giant olive shape that tots crawl into or push), a massive nylon parachute and a small fleet of hopping balls. When they graduate to real sports, kids ages four and up can develop their ball-control skills in after-school basketball and soccer sessions. Led by specialists, these free programs combine come-as-often-as-you-want flexibility and a noncompetitive philosophy with real learning: Kids develop an appreciation for the game while they work on their moves.—Lana Le

Kids who think that running means chasing the school bus should sprint to the Armory in Washington Heights. There, they can enroll in the weekly two-hour City Sports for Kids track-and-field clinic sponsored by the New York Road Runners Foundation. These year-round, low-cost sessions (six-week series $25; scholarships are available) teach children ages 6 to 14, and at all fitness levels, the basics of long-distance running, sprints, relays, hurdles, long jump, high jump and javelin throwing. Sessions include a low-pressure meet with ribbons and T-shirts. For the less motivated, the New York Road Runners Club offers kids' pee-wee races in Central Park: This summer's are on May 8, June 19 and July 23. Children from 2 to 12 years are grouped by age, so your toddler can waddle 25 yards while your middle-schooler runs a half-mile. Call 212-860-4455, or visit www.nyrrc.org, for start times and locations, and to register in advance ($5 per child), although if you just show up on the morning of a race, you'll be pretty likely to snag a spot.—Erica Keirstead

Kids might think they're just learning how to use a compass while they trek through the outdoors on an Urban Park Ranger orienteering walk. In fact, they'll be getting their bodies—and their minds—in shape too. Every weekend, in locations throughout all five boroughs, New York's trusty rangers take kids and adults orienteering, teaching participants the basics of how to find their way from point A to point B in the wilderness. During the free one-and-a-half hour treks, intrepid New Yorkers—equipped by the rangers with extra-large compasses and maps—set off to search for the natural and man-made landmarks that lead to the final destination. Besides Central Park, this year's orienteering locations include Alley Pond's marshy 1,000 acres and Queens's vast Inwood Park. Recently, team orienteering has been touted as the next Olympic sport. But for most of us, it's another great day in the park. For information and to sign up, go to www.nyc.gov/parks.—Pat Wadsley

Think of the North Meadow Recreation Center as a brick-and-mortar mini bar from which you can sample an enticing smorgasbord of sports, snacks and services. Here, kids can climb a wall, shoot hoops, play handball, use a bathroom (hurray) and enjoy a smoothie. For kids ages eight and up, the center offers both open rock-climbing sessions (free) and four-class series on indoor and outdoor walls ($25). And the sports clinics are expanding: This spring, there's girls' basketball and even mommy b-ball, where Mom gets to play and receive advice on coaching her kids (free). Call 212-348-4867, or go to www.centralparknyc.org, for a lot more.—Jill Weiner

If you think $10 for the city's junior tennis permit is a steal, wise up: There's an even better deal in town. The New York Junior Tennis League's totally free after-school and summer programs, held at 53 sites around the city, are an excellent way for kids ages 6 to 18 to learn, practice and play tennis. The nonprofit JTL supplies everything—racquets, balls, coaches, courts, even transportation to tournaments around the boroughs—in its effort to bring tennis to the masses and promote strong character, healthy bodies and good social skills. "There's no such thing as 'registration is closed,'" says recreation director Allan Shweky. "If kids make the effort to come, they'll get a chance to play." For information, call 718-786-7110, ext 157, or visit www.nyjtl.org.—JW

The best thing about city-parks-department gyms is that they're free for kids (children and teens must sign up for free membership; call for details). But the Chelsea Recreation Center has even more going for it. This brand-spanking new $22.4 million parks department facility devotes six floors and 56,000 square feet to physical fitness. The gym holds weekly clinics for kids ages 6 to 17: Basketball (on a high-school-regulation--size court), volleyball, tennis and soccer rotate every four weeks. There's also a sparkling—if a little chilly—pool, where tadpoles learn to swim under the watchful eyes of parents, instructors and dolphins (they're in the Italian mosaic). Youngsters who'd rather play ping-pong or foosball can steal away to the game room.—JW

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