New York City has some of the greatest museums on the planet, but planning a trip to the museum with a young child often feels a bit intimidating and overwhelming. How do you balance dueling agendas of cultural contemplation and constant amusement?
Luckily, many NYC museums have an excellent playground just a few steps away, which means you have an adventure day for the books. And if your child is prone to stroller naps, you can always go to the playground beforehand, letting them zonk out in the quiet of the museum while you commune with art.
As a mother to a 3-year-old, I’m always looking for fun and disruptive ways to turn day into night with my child. To that end, I took my tiny human to six museums in the city near subways, each paired with the best playground option available. These museum-and-playground pairings offered a full-day adventure that left us both feeling satisfied and exhausted in the best way.
American Museum of Natural History
This one is a no-brainer. The American Museum of Natural History is absolutely appropriate and interesting for all ages. New York residents can also opt to “pay what you wish” for general entry, which makes it feel especially accessible and low stakes. Plus… ceiling whale! Dinosaur bones! What else is there to say?
Well, you can also take your rock-obsessed kid to the renovated Hall of Gems and Minerals. Show them animals from around the world in the famous dioramas, painstakingly assembled and “accurate down to the tiniest twig and muddy elephant footprint.”
Touch a meteorite and try to explain what “outer space” is to your four-year-old for the duration of your subway ride home (and later again before bed, and again the next night and once more the following night…). And, with the new Gilder Center, with an elaborate leaf cutter ant display and a dedicated butterfly vivarium, there are even more opportunities for interaction and awe.
The AMNH is a workout for your brain - attempting to take in the whole of evolution, of time and space and human civilizations and cultures from around the world…it’s a lot for anyone at any age. My kid was (maybe pleasantly?) burned out after four hours — even with a requisite trip to the cafeteria. Thankfully, the Diana Ross Playground is practically across the street in Central Park.
The American Museum of Natural History is at 200 Central Park West in Manhattan on the Upper West Side.
Diana Ross Playground
The Diana Ross Playground (the legendary singer donated the money to build the park in 1986) is a sweet play area with two wooden structures, sand, toddler swings, slides and a wobblier-than-you-think balance bridge. It also includes a small but adequate water spray area for hot days so pack an extra outfit. This playground isn’t a destination in and of itself, but the fact that it’s less than 200 feet from both the museum and the subway entrance makes it an obvious choice.
If you find yourself craving even more, you have all of Central Park just beyond the playground. Note: This playground doesn’t have a bathroom so be sure to use the restroom at the museum first.
The Diana Ross Playground is located at Central Park West and West 81st Street, inside Central Park.
1 minute walk from 81 Street - Museum of Natural History station
The Brooklyn Museum is also “pay what you wish” for New York City residents so it’s easy to come for just one or two exhibits and give your kid a little taste of what an art museum feels like.
This was my kid’s first time at an art museum and we approached it as an opportunity for her to learn how they work and what’s expected of her.
An art museum is a confusing place for a toddler, full of curious objects you can’t touch, display steps you can’t climb and staff members that will correct you if you attempt to do so. She was intimidated at first and very unsure of what she was and wasn’t allowed to do. Eventually, her unease melted away enough for her to understand some of the rules and take in the art.
The Beaux-Arts Court on the 3rd floor also offers a huge, gorgeous space to explore. At over 10,000-sq-feet and two stories high, it’s an especially jaw-dropping experience for New York City kids who aren’t exactly used to giant, open, indoor spaces.
I should also note that the exterior of the Brooklyn Museum is itself a bit of a playground — with giant steps to climb, an elevated walkway and climbable art. You can easily let your kids get their wiggles out right outside the museum — and if you require an actual playground, there’s one maybe 500 feet away at Mount Prospect Park.
The Brooklyn Museum of Art is at 200 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.
Mount Prospect Park Playground
Right on Eastern Pkwy Between Washington Ave & Flatbush Ave, Mount Prospect Park Playground has two sizable structures, toddler swings, benches, and a few stone chess tables. There’s also a splash pad for the summer months and a large field just beyond the playground.
I might not take a subway ride for this playground alone — but paired with the museum, it’s a fantastic, well-rounded day. And if you are incredibly ambitious, this playground is surrounded not only by the museum but the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on one side and the Brooklyn Public Library's Central Library and Prospect Park on the other.
The Mount Prospect Park Playground is on Eastern Parkway, between the Brooklyn Museum and Central Library.
1 minute walk from Eastern Parkway - Brooklyn Museum
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
One of the finest museums in the world, and “pay what you wish" for city residents, as a New Yorker, you are practically obligated to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art from time to time. It contains 5,000 years of world art and culture within its two-million-square foot building. Among its holdings are approximately 2,500 European paintings and 36,000 objects in its collection of Egyptian art.
The Met presents more exhibitions than any art museum in the world. Go with your expectations in check. You won’t be able to take in a fraction of their collection even without a small human in tow–you’ll be lucky if you get to read a single placard.
Maybe they will pass out in the stroller halfway though and give you some time to take it in yourself. Either way, the experience is an absolute spectacle for the eyes. My kid was especially interested in massive European paintings that featured animals, naked women or "the babies with wings."
It's also worth noting that there’s a little known “Mother’s Room” for nursing on the fourth floor; in summer months, the rooftop is a great option for a snack break with an incredible view, while in colder weather, the American Wing is a peaceful place to take a moment to relax.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is at 1000 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
A playground worthy of its neighbor, the Ancient Playground deserves a visit even without the immense museum next door. Inspired by the Met’s extensive Egyptian collection (the largest outside of Cairo), this playground is designed to evoke an ancient city.
It features pyramids that feel a bit like a castle, an obelisk, a sundial, and of course toddler and big kid swings, a sandbox and a couple water features. Still, it doesn’t exactly look like much from afar. Not bright and colorful like a typical playground - this is an adventure-style playground: an alternative to traditional playground equipment, it offers interconnected play structures that encourage exploration and imaginative play.
For example, I witnessed a group of kids reroute the water from the splash pad, up through one of the pyramids and down a slide to turn it into a water slide. This playground is a marvel and you don’t really begin to appreciate it until you spend a couple of hours watching your kid navigate their way through it.
The Ancient Playground is on Fifth Avenue at East 85th Street.
Take the 4, 5, 6 to 86th Street, about a 10-minute walk from the museum.
The Brooklyn Children’s Museum
A treat for everyone - here’s a place that offers your child a world of sensory play and exploration, and you get a chance for some hands-off parenting. Founded in 1899, The Brooklyn Children’s Museum is the very first children’s museum.
It offers a variety of interactive exploration with three different types of sandboxes, a number of large water ladders, a separate water lab and instruments galore. There is also a mini-city, with a market, bakery, travel agency, pizza shop and of course, a giant MTA bus.
The roof also offers a fun climbing structure and plenty of room to run around or to sit down for snack time. There is a cafe where you can buy snacks and drinks, but you may want to pack your lunch (the museum is in a residential neighborhood).
The Brooklyn Children's Museum is at 145 Brooklyn Ave, Brooklyn in Crown Heights.
(Note: The Brooklyn Children's Museum is closed September 1-15 for its annual cleaning and upkeep.)
Brower Park Playground
The Brower Park Playground is probably the most basic of the playgrounds on this list, but it’s next to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Plus, it offers an easy way to transition your kid away from the excitement of the museum. After all, it’s infinitely easier to get your kid to leave if you say, "Okay, let’s go to the playground now," instead of "Okay, time to exit this magical wonderland built specifically for you and go back to the world of adults now."
There are toddler swings, a small toddler/baby structure and a larger kid structure with slides—and a field is nearby, if you want to run around or picnic.
Brower Park Playground is on Brooklyn Avenue at Prospect Place.
The A or C train to Nostrand Avenue, or the 2, 3, 4 trains to Kingston Avenue, are your best bets for getting here
The Whitney Museum of American Art
The Whitney Museum of American Art, located in the Meatpacking District, might be the most ambitious museum on the list to take a small child. My kid was probably the only person we saw under the age of 20 (maybe 30) while we were there.
That said, The Whitney offers a children’s workbook upon entrance that really helped my kid engage with the art.
She wanted to draw her favorite pieces in each room and I loved hearing her interpretations of the pieces that caught her eye.
She was exhausted after a couple of hours though. Thankfully, one of the best playgrounds on this list was a short walk away at Pier 51.
The Whitney Museum is at 99 Gansevoort Street in Manhattan.
Take the A, C, E to 14th Street and then it's about a 10-minute walk to the museum.
Pier 51 Playground
The Pier 51 Playground is right on the water and appropriately, has a nautical theme running throughout. It has three different play structures and a sand pit.
Plus, it has that nice, squishy flooring that makes it feel extra fancy. It’s a great playground, but during the warmer months, when the water turns on - it’s one of the best in the city.
The water element is especially magical because it features a stream that runs from one end of the playground to the other with bronze inlays of aquatic life throughout. It provides a wonderful release of energy after a quiet and contemplative time at The Whitney — and during the summer months, I would say this is worth the trip even on its own.
Pier 51 is on the Henry Hudson Parkway, across from Jane Street.
Take the A, C, E to 14th Street and then it's about a 10-minute walk to the museum.
Children's Museum of Manhattan
Similar to the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Children's Museum of Manhattan is an excellent option for a day of easy parenting that will leave your child happy and exhausted. It’s a great place to entertain your child while you quietly get some work (or nonsense!) done on your phone.
The museum offers five floors of fun, as well as an outdoor area with two large and elaborate water tables that are worth the trip alone (bring a change of clothes!). However, the water area is only open when the weather is above 65 degrees.
If I had to recommend only one children’s museum in all of New York City, I would go with the one in Brooklyn, hands down — but this museum has a charm of its own and it’s definitely worth exploring.
Heads up, they require (free) stroller check in at the door and there is no place designated for eating inside the museum, so plan accordingly.
The Children's Museum of Manhattan is at 212 West 83rd Street in Manhattan.
River Run Playground
The River Run Playground — what a wonderful playground this is! True to its name, there is a long river running all the way down this playground that makes it feel especially magical in the summer months.
Even without the water on, this playground is a great way to cap off a full adventure day that’s all for the kids.
It has one massive play structure for big kids and a tiny structure for babies. It also has some of the only seesaws you can find in New York City and both toddler and “big kid” swings, which seem to be increasingly difficult to find. Even after a full museum visit, my kid put in a solid two hours here and I had to lure her with a slice of pizza on the way to the train to get her to walk out willingly.
The River Run Playground is on Riverside Drive at West 83rd Street.
Take the 1 to West 79th Street and the museum is a five-minute walk away.
Some of these museums are built for children and some are decidedly not — but I think they all offer valuable experiences for a child. Even a work of art that might fly over our heads can leave an imprint on our kids. After all, the cliche about modern art is that “a kid could make that” — and that’s part of the magic of an art museum for a child.
Seeing works of art treated with such reverence can be a powerful experience, and if they think “I could make that” — even better! I swear, my kid’s drawings have changed and become much more elaborate since our museum adventures.