Our preschool aged child has tagged along with us to New York City two times. Once was a business trip and another time was for a wedding, so we needed to entertain him for a long weekend. Here’s the thing about New York. There’s almost no end to the choice of museums, tours, plays, cultural events, and iconic places to see. But you have a little kid, so you’re not going to “do” everything on your list. A three or four year old doesn’t have the stamina or interest in hitting all the big tourist spots. So what do you do with a preschooler in New York City in winter?
Obviously there are many more options than what I’m about to share. The New York Times Travel Section has a column called 36 Hours. In it, they tell readers what they did in a particular locale over a weekend. It helps give the flavor of an area and a sense of what there is to do. It’s not comprehensive. For me, I’m overwhelmed every time I Google “things to do with a preschooler in NYC.” This post is for those of us who like finite options.
Day 1: Arrive in New York
The airport (JFK or LaGuardia) is no big deal. Standard issue. Get in the cab line. Check into hotel (we stayed in Midtown at The Benjamin). The first question I had about NYC was what to do about the car seat? I have a friend who lives there with three kids under five. She told me there’s basically no way to strap kids into a car seat in a cab. What are you going to do with the car seat once you reach your destination? Carry around a 35lb chair? It’s just not doable. We buckled our son into the middle seat. I know it’s not ideal, but I didn’t have a better idea.
Just a note: our son (at age 3 and 4) is obsessed with cabs. He loves that they’re yellow. He especially loves the Taxi TV that plays an endless loop of advertisements. Remember: at this age, everything’s a thrill!
Pick an Area
Manhattan is only about 23 square miles, but it takes a long time to get from Point A to Point B. There’s a lot of vehicular traffic, and in many spots, you’re also fighting for sidewalk space. And we’re not even talking about the outer boroughs. What I’m trying to say is: pick an area. The last thing your young child is going to be in the mood for after a flight and drive into the city is more driving. Pick an area: Midtown, Downtown, Brooklyn, wherever, and find things to do in the general vicinity. If you’re only in for a weekend, you don’t want to fight traffic the whole time.
For lunch we went to Sarabeth’s on 80th and Amsterdam. We picked the Upper West Side because it’s close to the American Museum of Natural History. Why Sarabeth’s? Simple: you can choose breakfast and lunch items all day. They’ve got stuff kids like (like the two orders of pancakes and strawberries my child had) and delicious food for adults (I had smoked salmon Benedict). Yummy!
We then walked the 3 long blocks to the museum. It was frigid, but we needed the fresh air after being on a plane. The question you might be wondering is: is a natural history museum a waste on the young? I’ll be honest. I was on the fence between this one and the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, which was also nearby. We went with the American Museum of Natural History because we, the adults, wanted to see it. We’re only in NYC so often, and I felt there would be enough exhibits of interest to keep our four year old’s attention. I don’t regret it.
The thing to remember is: 1.) the museum is massive. You’re not going to see it all. And, 2.) You’ve got a little kid, which means he’s probably going to be as interested in the glass elevators as the dinosaurs. It’s cool. Do what you can. It’s a pay-what-you-want museum, but we paid the recommended amount ($23/adult) because it takes a lot to maintain an institution of that caliber. They do have a coat check ($2/coat) so don’t worry about strollers or heavy outerwear. There are also food vendors, so you can get snacks.
We left around 4:30 pm and went straight back to our hotel. The flight to NYC was early in the morning, so we were all bushed. Our son goes to bed at 7 pm on a regular night, so we knew we needed to unpack and eat dinner while we was in a relatively good mood. We had dinner at the hotel to keep things simple. I find that when we travel, we mostly eat at the hotel restaurant for convenience. It’s worth staying somewhere with good food. The restaurant at The Benjamin is called The National, and it’s excellent.
A Note on Hotel Rooms with Small Children
If you don’t already know this, staying in a hotel with a little kid is not fun unless you have a suite or a balcony. Why? Because your kid goes to bed early, which means you have to turn out all lights and TV by 7 pm. Oh, and you have to pretend to leave the room or they won’t sleep (mine won’t sleep). Do you know how many times I’ve had to hide out in the bathroom while he fell asleep in a darkened hotel room? Not fun.
With Expedia points, we were able to get a suite (jump for joy!). We put our son down in our bed, closed the door, and enjoyed hanging out together. Then, we transferred him from our room to the cot we had set up in the living room. Awesome. The only problem with a suite is price. Without miles or points or something to offset the cost, they’re often out of range.
Breakfast at Starbucks. There’s one on every corner. It’s the devil you know, and it’s quick. Next stop? Central Park! We were 11+ blocks away, but we walked. Even though it was January, it was sunny and in the high 40s, so it was nice. We window shopped along the way. Remember: with little kids, the small things are the big things. We never window shop in our home town, so just being together was nice. Sliding down residential stair railings was nice. Your kid’s four. Entertainment is easy!
I think Central Park is the city’s best idea. It’s amazing to see that much real estate devoted to public, natural space. It’s, in my humble opinion, a Grade A example of urban planning. And for those of you who are Law and Order fans: don’t fear. It’s not like the show. It’s a nice place to take your kids. There are families everywhere. I wouldn’t wander around there alone at night, but by day, I felt perfectly safe. We rode the Central Park Carousel ($3/person) and played at Heckscher Playground.
Climbing on the rocks was an adventure! Throwing melting snow at walls was a delight! Did I mention we could climb rocks and throw snow? And there was a slide? It was cool. There were so many iconic buildings around us, and we were at a famous place. Yes, we were basically doing what we do every weekend, but remember: you’re here with a small child. Drinks at The Plaza will have to wait!
We tried to have lunch at Alice’s Tea Cup, a tea-party themed restaurant, but reservations were a must! It was no big deal because there were countless kid-friendly places up and down the street (in this case, Lexington). Actually, our son begged for a corn dog from the lunch cart vendors by the park. He loves the novelty of getting street food and dining on a park bench. Enjoy it while they’re easy (and cheap) to please. We had dessert at Sprinkles. Mmmm, cupcakes:)
By this point, we’d walked five miles (literally, I have an Apple Watch, so I’m sure). We went back to the hotel to rest our feet and watch a few minutes of Paw Patrol. Remember: down time is your friend. Then, it was time to get ready for the wedding we came all that way to attend. It was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is an amazing spot to see whether you’re Catholic or not. We had our night planned, but if we didn’t have the wedding, we were going to go to Sugar Factory. It’s a diner with elaborate desserts that I know our son would have loved. We left the next morning.
Is there more to do in NYC? Uh, yeah. (We went in the summer and did more.) This is just an idea if you’re dragging your kid along for a weekend so you can attend an event. For me, the key to taking a preschool aged child anywhere is to remember what you’re dealing with: hint, a small child. This means they’re easy to entertain, but you need to do things on their level. Schedule breaks. Food doesn’t need to be fancy, but it better come when they’re hungry.
The main thing is to remember you don’t have an 8 year old. You have a 3 or 4 year old. Broadway is probably out. Times Square is a sea of humanity that is #notworthit with a little one. Art museums are not happening. But it’s still a lot of fun to just hit the street and explore. Midtown Manhattan is safe to walk around, and the park is gorgeous by day. Enjoy!
Share with us! What do your preschool aged children like doing in New York in the winter?