I’ve lived in New York for more than seven years now, and in that time, I’ve logged a LOT of hours as a nanny. At one point I was working ten to sixteen hour days for a family on the UES with two very young children, and I ended up finding a huge number of child-friendly New York attractions to occupy their time. There are, as I often say, a truly overwhelming number of things to do in New York. Children’s attractions are certainly no exception, and I’m quite looking forward to raising kids in the City someday.
My favorite things to do in New York with small humans––
• Central Park is a pretty obvious one (probably the most obvious), but a lot of people don’t know exactly how much there is to do there. The Ancient Playground is a large, Egyptian themed play area near the Met, and my favorite kid-friendly place in the Park second to Heckscher Playground (enter at 59th street), which is the oldest and largest playground in Central Park and basically has everything, including a water play area and wading pool. The kids I’ve nannied for also really liked the little remote control sailboats in the Conservatory, which you can rent for $11. My favorite picnic spot with or without kids is hands down Sheep Meadow. Perfect for kite flying and champagne lunch.
• Obviously the Central Park Zoo is great for kids too, although when I first moved to New York I was surprised by how small it was. It’s not tiny, but much smaller than the Bronx Zoo. Definitely big enough when you’re visiting with young children though, because by the time your kids get tired you’ll have seen everything there. There’s a very nice children’s zoo with farm animals you can feed, and various little play areas.
• Washington Square Park is my favorite in the City, and it has a few playgrounds. Generally it has a slightly more adult feel to it as it’s basically the NYU quad, and famously attracts a lot of people buying and selling weed (but that’s mostly after dark). Also there are thousands of dead bodies buried beneath it. While I’m selling you on the place, there’s also a small but very cool little playspot made up of a bunch of nets kids can climb over, almost like a giant spider’s web. The massive fountain in the center of the park is also super fun to splash around in no matter how old you are.
• Definitely spend a day in Chelsea if you’re visiting New York with kids. Chelsea Piers is a massive sports complex with bowling, ice skating, rock climbing, and basically every other sport. There’s also an absolutely amazing waterside playground within Hudson River Park with a giant fish shaped slide and jungle gym, and great views. Not that your kid will care, but it’s a really aesthetically pleasing playground. You could spend the entire day between Chelsea Piers and Chelsea Waterside Park, but I also highly recommend going to Chelsea Market. It’s an indoor market, mostly restaurants, but there’s also a nice bookstore and some other shops. Great place to grab lunch or just get out of the summer heat.
• The Museum of Natural History is, in my experience, one of the only museums in the city that will occupy kids’ attention for an entire rainy day. It’s absolutely humongous and isn’t boring to little kids like the Met or MoMa might be. In addition to all the standard cool stuff (gemstones, dinosaurs, best planetarium ever, etc.) they have a really good kids’ room for the really little ones, where they can hold huge live bugs and do other less horrifying things like dig for dinosaur bones.
• Children’s Museum of Manhattan is the other NYC museum that will occupy kids’ attention for an entire day. It’s big, and has a large number of rotating exhibits generally best for kids six and under. The Children’s Museum of the Arts (temporarily closed) is much smaller but it’s better for older kids. Like 26-year-old children—I genuinely love it there and would go by myself if it wouldn’t be weird. Lots of space to create, and a very fun little “clay bar” where kids can (…) sit at a bar and make various things out of clay.
• Sloomoo Institute has been a big hit with the kids I’ve nannied. It’s a slime themed pop-up / experience in Soho where you can make slime (including really delicious scented slime), amongst a bunch of other slime related sensory activities––unadulterated ASMR. The Museum of Ice Cream is also in Soho, and very fun for kids. It’s also fun for adults, if a little bit obnoxious and Instagram-y. But there’s a pool full of sprinkles and a multi-story slide, in addition to several rotating exhibits. Like Sloomoo, it’s overpriced. You just have to decide if it’s worth it, and I think it is if you have young kids (or are willing to pay $40 for some pictures and a cup of ice cream / slime).
• Spyscape is another museum billed as an “experience”…but it actually is kind of an experience, much more worth the price than Sloomoo or the Museum of Ice Cream. At Spyscape kids can take a lie detector test, crawl through a bunch of lasers…I don’t want to give it all away, but it’s a kid’s dream. Seriously, I wish this place existed twenty years ago because little Alien would’ve loved it.
• Good stores for kids elsewhere in the City: The Lego Store (Flatiron), American Girl Place (Midtown East), FAO Schwarz (Rockefeller Plaza), Dylan’s Candy Bar (Midtown East), and Strand Books (Union Square). All great for killing an hour even if you don’t buy anything. The older kids I’ve watched spent hours reading in Strand, just hiding amongst the maze of bookshelves in the basement. It’s an introvert’s paradise. I could honestly live there.
• If you’re planning on having Eloise’s tea at the Plaza, consider Madeline’s Tea at the Carlyle Hotel instead. It’s a little less grand, but it’s also less stuffy, and more kid friendly. Food’s better.
• Times Square is my least favorite place in the city. The kids I’ve nannied found it as stressful as I do. But Times Square is kind of necessary when you visit New York, particularly if you come into the City through Grand Central or Port Authority. The Disney store and M&M store are both good for kids (and for ending up with a bunch of useless crap in your hotel room).
• Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are fun and definitely worth doing once, but I haven’t been in years because they’re very touristy and stressful. Governors Island is way better for kids––it’s basically a big park, only 800 yards off the bottom of Manhattan. It’s a much, MUCH less crowded alternative if one of the main reasons you’re going to Ellis Island is the ferry ride. From the ferry to Governors Island, you get a perfect view of the Statue of Liberty. There are a few playgrounds on the island, go-karts, NYC’s longest slide (57 feet on Slide Hill), and a couple restaurants in addition to food carts. Here’s a post I wrote on what to do there.
• If you’re in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum is a smaller alternative to the one on the UWS. Pretty standard, but a good way to spend an afternoon with kids under ten in Crown Heights.
• Coney Island is a great summer day trip, around a ninety minute subway ride from the UES. It’s an iconic location in NYC history, and even though it’s changed a lot over the years (marginally less shady now than it was in the 70s as portrayed in the Warriors), Coney Island still feels like old New York. Luna Park is the main amusement park, and you can definitely spend most of a day there. But there’s also the New York Aquarium, and a recently renovated boardwalk full of carnival food, beachy drinks, shops, and family-owned Russian restaurants down on the Brighton Beach end of the pier. And the beach, of course. Fireworks every Friday night in the summer.
• Brooklyn Bridge Park in Dumbo (neighborhood guide) is an absolutely huge park in North Brooklyn, with numerous unique playgrounds, water play areas, a huge sandbox, and a carousel. There’s also a lot of great dining around the perimeter. Oddfellows Ice Cream is fun for kids; in addition to all the classsics, they have a bunch of rotating Harry Potter Bertie Bott’s style flavors (nothing like vomit or anything genuinely nasty…more weird culinary flavors like rosemary or PB&J).
• Fairy Tale Island in Bay Ridge (Brooklyn) is my favorite indoor playspace in the City. It’s far bigger and better than any other similar space that I’ve been to so far. There’s a ball pit, rock climbing, trampolines, and play kitchens among other things. Kids Play World in Queens is also very cool––a globally minded playspace that has little activities meant to represent various countries in the world. Kind of like a mini Epcot World Showcase. Another favorite rainy day play spot—the Art Farm. They have classes and drop-in hours. Dedicated to all things creative, from painting to music and dance.
• Queens County Farm Museum is a bit of a hike (from the other boroughs), but it’s the closest you’ll come to being in the middle of nowhere in the City. It’s a fully operational farm, with animals you can feed, a children’s garden, and a variety of seasonal events. Their honey and eggs are for sale in the store. It’s a good escape and definitely makes you feel as though you’re (far) outside the City.
Oof. That was a lot. And having been in New York for several years, having nannied for numerous children, there are many more places I’d recommend going. But these are the places I have no complaints about, and I have complaints about almost everything. Ending with a few key tips when you’re in New York with children. Possibly my biggest piece of advice––have a bathroom plan. I’ve been astonished by how many stores and even restaurants don’t have public restrooms, although a lot of places that usually don’t allow people to use their restroom will make an exception if you have a young child that looks as though they’re 100% about to pee on the floor.
One other tough thing to navigate with kids is the subway. Not even tough per se, just stressful and confusing if you’re new to the City. One thing to make it easier up front––bring a lightweight, easily foldable stroller if at all possible, because the big ones are so cumbersome at stations with no elevator or escalator. You will likely have to carry your stroller down multiple flights of stairs. Once you make it underground, don’t feel the need to buy a Metrocard for your small child. Generally speaking, the MTA is totally fine with you letting your kids just crawl under the turnstile rather than paying $2.75 for a ride. This is, in my experience, considered acceptable as long if your child looks ten or under. When you get on the train, make sure your kids know what to do in the event that they somehow get separated from you. I always used to tell the school-aged kids I watched to get off at the next stop and stay there (never actually lost them, I just like to be prepared) until I came back for them. In general, being prepared and hypervigilant as far as keeping an eye on your kids is the best way to go about NYC with children. You’ll stress less if you don’t give yourself a reason to.