Parks Defined: What does "park" mean to you?

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Whether it's an urban playground, a nearby greenspace or a national, state or other agency-run park, there are plenty of options to enjoy for the whole family.

This article was updated on May 31, 2024.

What does the word "park" mean to you? City parks are familiar to many of us—from tiny neighborhood playgrounds to larger areas of trees, ponds, wildlife and trails. But there are many other types of parks, like state and national parks. 


You Have a Big BackyardGirl looking through telescope at a park

No matter where you live, how small your yard at home, or how urban your neighborhood—you have a very big backyard. It’s called “public land” and it belongs to all citizens of the United States. It includes vast wilderness areas, lakes, rivers and forests. Having access to such great places to play is a unique privilege.

But All Parks are Not Created Equal

In my some places there may be several nearby public lands with similar names but run by different agencies. For example: Ashford County Park | Nisqually Mashel State Park | Gifford Pinchot National Forest | Mount Rainier National Park. These four different agencies manage these four parks (and forests): one at the county level, one at the state level, and two at the federal level. The name is often your first clue to the type of park you’re heading into and what sorts of activities are allowed there. 

This varies quite a bit because ...

It’s All About the Mission

The agency's mission dictates how land can be used by the public. For example, the National Park Service's mission is “to preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources.” The US Fish and Wildlife Service must “protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.” State park missions often emphasize providing recreation opportunities.

What's Allowed and What's Not?

First, find out the rules and regulations before you go because they can vary greatly! Rules about whether or not dogs, bicycles or strollers are allowed on trails may impact hikers. Camping may be allowed anywhere, or only in designated areas. 

Not sure where to look? Start with the park's website, where regulations are almost always posted. Additionally, entrance stations may hand out literature, or signs may be posted at trailheads. You can also stop at visitor centers for information.

Playing by the rules protects you and the park you're visiting.

Buddy Bison on top of a rock

Buddy Bison and Kids to Parks Day are part of National Park Trust's mission to get kids outside!

Find the Right Park For You

Determine if a particular type of park is going to give you the experience you’re looking for before you go. If you’re envisioning a great family hike but can’t dream of leaving the dog behind, then head to a trail in a national forest instead of a national park, since dogs are prohibited on most national park trails. If you’re looking for a purist backpacking experience with no bikes or pets and very few people, then a wilderness area might be a good fit, as they have the strictest rules on types of use. Looking to canoe or kayak with the family? A national recreation area may have the perfect lake for you.

Get Outside!

Finally, wherever you decide to go, get out there and enjoy your parks! Need more info? Check out these websites:

State Parks:

National Parks:

National Forests:  www.usda/gov/usfs

Bureau of Land Management:

US Fish & Wildlife Service:

Here's a little more about OutGrown:

We're a national, 501c3 nonprofit with over a decade of experience helping families get outside with their babies and young children. We believe it is critical to include and center families from birth because it is a crucial developmental time for both the infant and the parent, where we can create a life-long, multi-generational impact. We know that we protect what we love and we're helping families build a loving connection with the outdoors so they can value and protect it for generations to come. As a community-driven organization, we have been working with indigenous, Latine, BIPOC, immigrant & refugee, and rural families to co-design multilingual and culturally relevant solutions in our programming. Since its grassroots inception in 2013, OutGrown is a growing community of 280,000 families and over 300 volunteers. More information on all of our programs can be found at 


We hope you enjoyed reading this article from OutGrown. We’re working hard to provide our community with content and resources that inform, inspire, and entertain you.

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