Raising kids in New York is a commitment. But what offsets that high cost of living and those cramped apartments are the attractions literally right outside your front door. We decided to round up the 10 absolute top picks for what all kids should do out of the hundreds of options. After hours of debate, these are our definitive picks. What made these so worthy? They are all especially astounding through a child’s eyes and help them see New York in a different light. They let them experience how the city has changed and grown and really appreciate how lucky they are to live in such a world-class city. And don’t tell the kids, but they can be pretty educational as well.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which holds court on Fifth Avenue right on Central Park, is, deservedly, one of the top museums in the world and a master-class in art history and ancient civilizations. And its immense size and breadth of art styles means it might take until the kids are in college to explore it all. The curators at the Met know that their treasure trove can be overwhelming, especially for families, so they created PDFs to help guide kids through the galleries and make learning about art and history fun (metmuseum.org/learn/for-kids/family-guides). Download them before you go to help get everyone excited. Once you arrive at the museum, start off in the spectacular Egyptian rooms. Every child will remember the first time they encountered the Temple of Dendur, looming large surrounded by a moat, beckoning them to come explore. Use the Think Sphinx PDF to discuss the monuments and have a scavenger hunt through the Egyptian galleries. If your tweens are huge Percy Jackson fans, take them to the Greek galleries, where the mythology is represented through sculpture and pottery. The Kids’ Q&A PDF also highlights exhibits through the rest of the museum that children find particularly interesting, like a Renoir painting of a family that dates back to the mid-1800s. Use it as a way to discuss how life has changed for kids (needless to say, no one is playing with an iPad). There are many family programs at the museum as well, most free with paid admission. These tours give kids the inside-scoop on the art, and give them the opportunity to stop and sketch along the way. Get tickets to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York Transit Museum
It’s no exaggeration that city kids learn their numbers, letters and colors by riding the subway. Trains are endlessly fascinating, and this museum, in a decommissioned station in Downtown Brooklyn, takes the learning opportunities a step further with exhibits that will teach children about the building of subway tunnels and the science behind keeping the trains running. On the main level, kids can generate power by turning wheels and combining metals (preschoolers will love it) in the interactive ElectriCity exhibit. Older kids can also learn about sustainable energy and the eco benefits of public transportation. The real reason to come here is one level below. Parked along the platform are vintage railway cars, dating all the way back to 1907, that are a visual history of just how far the transit system has come, with fans instead of air conditioning and actual straps for straphangers instead of metal poles. Once the kids have had their fill of the trains – if that’s possible – head back to the main level and head to the bus exhibit, where kids can get behind the wheel of an MTA bus. Corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street, Brooklyn; mta.info/mta/museum
A Professional Baseball Game
Many cities have MLB teams, of course. It is America’s pasttime after all. But no other city has stadiums like in New York. The Yankees in the Bronx and the Mets in Queens both have new state-of-the-art homes, where the roar of the crowd is accompanied by artisanal hot dogs for the discerning New York kid’s palette and there are museums and monuments to explore and learn about the rich history of the teams. The Mets also organize family days at Citi Field, where kids under 12 get to run the bases after the game (the Yankees offer perks like this to season-ticket holders only). And only in New York does the excitement begin just through the process of commuting to the game. Take public transportation, where kids will laugh and cheer in subway cars filled with fans that get the energy rising well before you take your seat at the game. Of course, children loving baseball in New York is a long-standing tradition. Though the Dodgers decamped for Los Angeles in 1957, long-time residents still have a fervent love for the long-gone Brooklyn team, including George Heney, subject of one of our New York Moment videos.
A Broadway Show
Broadway is part of the fabric of American culture, where performers take to the stage and amaze audiences in an incredible eight shows a week. Stories come to life, literally, in a way those shown on a flat movie screen never can. There are many family-friendly shows on the Great White Way (in all of our Broadway listings, we call out if the show is good for kids), with many story lines already familiar to most children, plus matinee options and early curtains that cater to younger theatergoers. The Lion King has lost none of its wonder since opening in 1997, and is now thrilling the next generation with Julie Taymor’s elaborate puppetry. Annie, which will celebrate a year on Broadway in early October 2013, is one of the most successful revivals, and along with Matilda, has a cast of talented young actresses and actors who will inspire kids to dream big.
The Bronx Zoo
Each of New York’s five boroughs has a zoo, but the Bronx Zoo is the best in the city, and one of the best in the world. Within the 265 acres are 4,000 animals from 650 species. You will never forget the look on your child’s face the first time they see a lanky giraffe ramble into view, or a gorilla saunter by in search of a snack. There is also a monorail that takes you on a guided tour along the Bronx River and through the habitats for tigers, elephants and rhinos, perfect for when little legs get tired. Besides the fun and excitement of seeing the animals, there are many educational programs focused on teaching children as young as two to appreciate the planet’s other inhabitants. And every year there are Family Overnight Safaris, where families with kids 5 and over can bring tents and sleeping bags and have the unforgettable experience of actually spending the night at the zoo – and being woken up by howling sea lions. 2300 Southern Blvd., Bronx; get tickets to the Bronx Zoo
The Top of the Empire State Building
It takes less than a minute to zoom up to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. But the quick ride doesn’t lessen the excitement. This Art Deco skyscraper has been a fixture in New York’s skyline since 1931 and the observatory gives a 360-degree perspective on the city that is astounding. Keep going 16 more stories up to the 102nd floor observatory, the highest public spot in the city. From almost a quarter mile above Manhattan you can see as far as Massachusetts on a clear day. What better way to discuss the landmark buildings and bridges that contribute to the majesty of New York. Who knows, you may even be able to point out your home from up there. Get tickets to the Empire State Building Observatory
A Sail Around the Island
Seeing New York from the water gives kids a whole new appreciation of the island of Manhattan, which has obviously changed significantly since Henry Hudson sailed here a little over 400 years ago. Use the trip to discuss the importance of New York in the history of the country. Point out how the geography of the island was altered to expand lower Manhattan, the piers that date back to when New York was a strategic port city and how the skyline continues to change with the addition of buildings like the under-construction Freedom Tower. A low-tech sailboat is the closest you can get to traveling like a Dutch settler. Choose a small boat like the 50-passenger Shearwater from Manhattan by Sail, where kids will be amazed when the grand sails are unfurled and you can chat with the captain as the boat glides through New York Harbor.
Hurricane Sandy devastated some of New York’s most important landmarks, specifically Ellis Island, which remains closed almost a year later. The photographs, documents and artifacts that make up the museum’s collection were thankfully spared of any damage, and were relocated to storage facilities while the 113-year-old building and systems are repaired. But when it reopens, and it will, this most important symbol of the quest for the American dream is a must-visit for all children. Millions of immigrants arrived here between 1892 and 1954, and today an estimated 100 million Americans can trace their lineage back to someone who passed through this island. The museum tells their story, showing children what these immigrants endured to get to America, what they sought here and how they have shaped our nation. Neighboring Liberty Island, home to the Statue of Liberty, was less affected by the storm and reopened on July 4th of this year. Book tickets in advance to climb all the way up to the crown, a test to your own endurance. statuecruises.com
A More Natural New York
As New York was developed into the city it is today, officials thankfully set aside land for incredible parks that are city kids’ backyards. Some are more manicured than others, and it is important for every kid to experience what New York was really like before the grids were laid out, foundations were dug and concrete was poured. Queens, New York’s largest borough geographically, has impressive protected areas that will make you forget that you are even in a city at all. A great introduction is the 538-acre Forest Park, near Woodhaven and accessible via the J train. Head to the eastern section, where the three gentle hiking trails are totally doable for younger kids and lined with native trees like Northern red oak and Wild black cherry. The terrain is rocky though, remnants of the area’s glacial history, a science lesson as well as a way to explore the outdoors. Don’t worry if you don’t remember much from seventh grade earth science class. The Parks Department’s Urban Park Rangers devise scavengers hunts for kids to learn more about the natural setting and how it is being protected for future generations. nycgovparks.org/parks/forestpark
The American Museum of Natural History
Visiting the American Museum of Natural History is quite different today from when it was conceived back in 1869. The mission of the museum is the same – opening the eyes of children (and adults) to the history of earth and the plants, animals and people that inhabit it. But over the last almost 150 years it has relocated to a stately building on Central Park West, the Hall of Ocean Life was added as well as the Hayden Planetarium and of course the dinosaur bones in the Fossil Halls. Exploring and really getting the most out of the museum has evolved as well, thanks to a range of free iPhone and iPad apps that give in-depth info and help you plan your visit (invaluable when you have kids in tow). The Explorer app uses GPS to track where you are in the museum and help you find exhibits (and restrooms). Once the kids have gotten over the shock of seeing the towering Tyrannosaurus rex, use the Dinosaur app to see renderings and read more about what dinosaurs may have looked like 65 million years ago. There are also apps for the planetarium and one for the North American Mammals room (this one is also available for Android). Download the mammals app for commentary from the curators that will make the dioramas come alive. Get tickets to the American Museum of Natural History.