Top Free Things to Do in New York with Kids

Posted by Fodor's Guest Blogger on May 21, 2012 at 4:14:48 PM EDT | Post a Comment

New York City might be a huge metropolis of museums, shows, elegant dinners, and historic sites to you. But not to your kids (unless they've recently waxed poetic about the subtleties in Rothko's Untitled or requested more frisée in their salads). Kid-friendly New York looks a little different, what with Alice in Wonderland sculptures to climb on and toy stores to raid. All it takes to meet in the middle, and make sure it's all more stimulating and less stressful than everyday life, is some advance planning, realistic expectations, and creative juggling. So let's start with something we can all agree on—free kid-friendly activities. New York is full of them, and here are our picks.

And check out our book, Fodor's Around New York City with Kids for more.

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Alley Pond Environmental Center

Brace yourself. Kids lacking a mini-zoo at home will be begging you for at least one pet upon departure. Lucky for you, the gift shop doesn't sell anything live. For nature- and animal-loving kids, an excursion to this environmental center in Queens is well worth the travel time, thanks to its placement (secreted next to a major freeway, yet a world away) and its price.

The Alley Pond Environmental Center is two facilities. One is an indoor building with classrooms, a party area, a gift shop, two aquarium tanks, and—most relevant to kids—a room with plenty of small mammals and reptiles. The other is the surrounding grounds, which include a butterfly garden, pond, windmill, marsh, play area, and trail.

Start indoors. The very helpful volunteers and staff are more than happy to help children hold some of the small animals. There are several friendly rabbits, turtles, snakes, lizards, and prairie dogs.

In warmer months a walk around the quick trail is a must-do for all ages. It takes less than 10 minutes to stroll the flat, scenic boardwalk around the pond and marsh. Take advantage of the weekend drop-in programs—one of the nicest features for visiting families. For younger kids, these short programs teach kids simple concepts like the frog's life cycle or how to care for caterpillars. For ages 8– 12, recent programs have included Animal Care Trainee (the ABCs of animal care), Mad Scientist (answering important environmental questions), Young Chefs (cooking with a natural ingredient like honey), and APEC Safari.

Good to Know: Various factors determine whether your little one gets to hold any given animal. An animal may be out for a party or a class or your child could be too young to hold it on his or her own. To prevent meltdowns, avoid promising snuggles with a specific bunny or turtle. But definitely do the indoor animal area before anything else, as most kids find it to be the star attraction.

Where to Eat: Naturally, the grounds here make an ideal picnic spot. Pick up some of the sandwiches locals rave about at Malba Deli (14524 14th Ave., tel. 718/ 746– 9789) before heading over. For a sit-down meal, Villagio Restaurant (15007 14th Rd., tel. 718/ 747– 1111) on Cross Island Parkway serves super-pleasing brick-oven pizzas and pastas at good prices.

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The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine

Regardless of your religious affiliation, you gotta love a place in the middle of Manhattan that's so big the Statue of Liberty could fit under the dome without her pedestal. (It's the world's largest cathedral at 121,000 square feet.)

A walk around the exterior will get imaginations spinning, thanks to some pretty funky architectural elements. In addition to the usual creepy gargoyles, species-confused animals, and saints and martyrs with no eyes, there are some figures that are simply baffling. The workman with hardhat and measuring tape; Hamlet holding poor Yorick's skull; a baby's head emerging from a flower? All things weird and wonderful.

A walk around inside reinforces the church's inclusive motto, "A House of Prayer for All People." Each of its chapels is dedicated to a different national, ethnic, or social group, including The American Poet's Corner (where 30 writers have been inducted including Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost), the FDNY memorial (originally honoring firefighters killed in a 1966 fire but now expanded to be a tribute to 9/ 11 heros), and the St. Savior's chapel to honor Christian communities of the East, which includes two Buddhist temple cabinets to honor Asians as well.

On Saturdays do one of the nature- or medieval-based workshops. Recent ones have included Stained Glass, Medieval Arts (such as designing gargoyles), and Wonders of the Sun (making sundials). On the vertical tour, kids 12 and up climb 124 feet via spiral staircase to the top for the magnificent view of Manhattan.

Good to Know: Call to make workshop reservations in advance, as they can fill up quickly, especially in winter. Plan to spend 20– 40 minutes outside exclusive of participating in any of the organized tours. The wonderful peace-themed children's sculpture garden is a favorite on a warm day.

Where to Eat: Before you venture toward healthier foods, get some cookies at The Hungarian Pastry Shop (1030 Amsterdam Ave., tel. 212/ 866– 4230). A neighborhood institution for a zillion years, it's pretty much frozen in time, from the menu (painted on upper cabinets and never changed) to the specialties (baklava, streudels, cookies) to the cash-only policy. Or pop into Whole Foods (808 Columbus Ave., tel. 212/ 222– 6160) to cobble together a healthy picnic for the Cathedral grounds.

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National Museum of the American Indian

Manhattan for $24? This Dutch "bargain" was no more legit than buying an iPad that "fell off the truck." Native Americans, lacking the same land ownership beliefs as European explorers, were really just offering to share use of the land.

Beyond appealing to children's natural curiosity about other cultures, this NYC branch of the Washington DC Smithsonian Institution clears up this and other misconceptions about Native Americans, largely through personal interaction.

As part of the Institution's mission to empower the Indian voice, there are more live family-friendly programs than almost any NYC museum, and that's the main reason to come here.

Throughout the year kids can meet Native Americans across nations and tribes through dances, hands-on workshops, concerts, and storytelling programs. These participation-heavy programs encourage children to ask questions and learn about native beliefs, history, legends, and lifestyle.

Visitors with younger children start at the Resource Center, a family-friendly room filled with materials to make the visit more enjoyable and give it context. Kids love to play with the computers loaded with interactive exhibits (these can be accessed at home as well), do the art projects, and read picture books. Often there are cultural interpreters on hand.

Children also enjoy browsing the museum's only permanent exhibit, Infinity of Nations, because the majority of objects were made for everyday use, of familiar materials, and have an animal theme. Allow 30– 45 minutes to walk around the two floors looking at carved animal figures, elaborate clothes, feathers, baskets, and painted hides. Adults, be sure to look up at the frescoes painted on the rotunda wall. The neoclassical building itself is impressive and the interior even more so.

Good to Know: As there are really only two places to take kids (the permanent exhibit and the Resource Center), this museum can easily be done in an hour or less. Consider passing through on your way to the Statue of Liberty or other points of interest downtown (its free, so there's nothing to lose if you breeze through quickly).

Where to Eat: Pick up salad-bar food (sandwiches, salads, or soups) at Zaytuna (17 Battery Pl., tel. 212/ 871– 6300), a few blocks from the museum. Take it to Battery Park across the street, and enjoy a picnic overlooking the water. Stone Street, a few blocks away, is considered this area's restaurant row, with several sit-down options. Try Adrienne's Pizza Bar (54 Stone St., tel. 212/ 248– 3838) to sample their delicious rectangular pizza.

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New York Public Library

If there were an award for Most Underused NYC Resource, this would win. With a plethora of family programs throughout the library's 87 branches; dozens of child-centric reading rooms; and visits by celebrities, authors, and celebrity-authors; a visit to the New York Public Library should be at the top of your list. And don't worry, you don't need a local library card to participate.

The Main Library—on 42nd and 5th, guarded by its two iconic lion statues—is huge by Midtown standards and stocked with a collection so big you'd have to extend your visit by a few years to read every book. Not only does it have a Children's Center, but it also contains a permanent Winnie-the-Pooh exhibit. For a first birthday present, Christopher Robin Milne (A. A. Milne's son) was given a small teddy bear. Soon he was given four more friends (Eeyore, Piglet, Kanga, and Tigger). His father decided to use them in a bedtime story, and the rest, as we say, is history. The library displays all of them here.

Other branches with custom-designed children's centers are well worth a visit (especially on inclement-weather days). Visit St. Agnes (Upper West Side), Mulberry Street (a former chocolate factory and a great place to read Dr. Seuss's And To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street), and the brand new Battery Park City Library.

There's a fun activity for children almost every day of the week. For the youngest children, toddlers, pre-school and below, there are usually morning story times. For school-age children, K– 6, the offerings expand greatly to include arts and crafts, computer classes, movies, game sessions (including both traditional games, e. g., chess/board games, and modern video games), knitting, reading aloud, karaoke, gardening, and story time.

Special events (called "Touring Programs") are limited in location and regularity, often repeating fewer than four times. Recent events have included Mario Batali reading to kids, a performance of Czech fairy tales complete with marionettes, Mad Science workshops, book making, stamp making, and face painting.

Good to Know: Go to the NYPL website to search for weekly recurring events and special happenings. Check nearby locations and also those slightly farther afield, as a quick subway ride may be all that stands between you and something free to do every day.

Where to Eat: If you're visiting the main branch, Zeytinz (24 W. 40th St., tel. 212/ 575– 8080) is a deli with the usual suspects of sandwiches, salads, and more to buy and eat at Bryant Park tables or on the lawn. After they finish some greens, head to The Treat Truck, a roving sugar operation featuring nostalgic sweets like jammies (cookies with filling) and brownies is usually at either 38th & 5th Ave. (Tu and Th) or 45th & 6th Ave. (W and F). Check TreatsTruck.com for the latest location.

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Queens Museum

Families heading to the New York Hall of Science or Alley Pond Environmental Center absolutely must pass through the Queens Museum. While the majority of the museum is fine, the real draw is a miraculous miniature city—The Panorama.

Imagine giving your kids unlimited Legos, a 10,000-square-foot table, turning on Google maps (street view), then throwing in a little electricity, and you'll begin to picture what's on display here. It's the most magnificent replica of New York City you will see anywhere. On a massive platform, the Panorama is an architectural model of the five boroughs of the city, and every single building (before 1992) is represented. Yes, every single one from the grand (Empire State) to the teeny average three-floor town house is on there, totaling 895,000 individual structures.

Most of the other civic and natural city features are there as well, including bridges, parks, rivers, roads, tugboats, stadiums, and more. It was commissioned by Robert Moses for the 1964 World's Fair with a contract stipulating there be no more than one percent margin of error between reality and model—talk about pressure! One hundred people working for Lester Associates built it originally, and the same company then updated it in 1992, changing 60,000 structures. The coolest change was made in 2006, allowing it to be displayed in different light conditions to highlight different buildings or areas and to re-create sounds of the city. And you may spot planes taking off and landing at the airport, as they travel along a transparent string.

On weekends the museum runs family drop-in art workshops (not connected to the Panorama).

Good to Know: The first Sunday of every month is MetLife First Sundays for Families. Recent activities have included meeting the collaborative team behind the Curse of Bigness exhibit and seeing a Toy Theater in action.

Where to Eat: Empanada Cafe (56-27 Van Doren St., tel. 718/ 592– 7288) is known as the "United Nations of Empanadas," with over 20 varieties including organic and vegetarian options. The prices can't be beat (most are under $2).

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Sony Wonder Technology Lab

From the moment you step into the lobby atrium of Sony Wonder Technology Lab, you feel the excitement of cutting-edge communication technology.

First kids make a personal profile that follows them throughout the lab. Then—à la Disney circa 1975—using extensive lighting, color, and sound effects, the exhibit leads kids down a "path" of data (e. g., e-mail, music, downloads) throughout cyberspace.

Experiences kids can try as they travel the lab include singing, making music with electronic instruments, designing video games, making movies, and playing with the latest PlayStation games.

Of most interest to older kids and adults are the interactive exhibits such as Robot Zone (programming robots), Animation Studio (make a short animation), Virtual Surgery (just like it sounds), and the two favorites of all ages: Dance Motion Capture (you dance, a Sony animated character mimics your movements) and WSWL Production Studio (be a part of a television newscast).

Good to Know: Tickets are required for admission and are often booked far in advance. Try to book when reservations first open, 3 months before your desired visit, by calling 212/ 833– 8100 Tuesday– Friday, 9 AM– 2 PM. A minimum number of same-day tickets are available from the walk-up window beginning 10 AM Tuesday– Saturday and noon on Sunday.

Where to Eat: In Sony Plaza, Starbucks offers sandwiches and pastries. If you can brave the often long lines, visit Serendipity 3 (225 E. 60th St., tel. 212/ 838– 3531) for dessert, ice-cream treats, and their famous frozen hot chocolate.

Thinking of a trip to New York?

For up-to-the-minute hotel and restaurant recommendations, as well as the best planning advice, check out our New York Travel Guide.

Photo credits: Alley Pond Environmental Center courtesy of Alley Pond Environmental Center; Cathedral of St. John the Divine via Shutterstock; Sony Wonder Technology Lab via Flickr/Superrad_; Queens Museum via Flickr/Wallyg; National Museum of the American Indian via Anthony Correia / Shutterstock.com; New York Public Library via ValeStock / Shutterstock.com

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