Whether your kids knew it or not, they were learning quite a bit during all of those rip-roaring camp activities, playdates and family vacations this summer. It may be back-to-school time, but there’s no reason the playful summer spirit can’t linger for learning as the air crisps up and school buses get ready to rumble.
The Empire State has dozens of immersive, specialized museums created for youngsters (with plenty to entertain and interest their chaperoning oldsters) that will remind everyone that learning can be fun.
Below, our mom-tested, kid-approved favorites for (mini-, weekend) staycations.
Photo from Instagram by @stormkingartcenter
This 500-acre museum resembles a play zone for deranged (and very lucky) toddler giants. Just an hour north of New York City, this magical patch of land harbors treasures from modern masters like Alexander Calder, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein and Richard Serra. While the art world cognoscenti flock to Storm King for its unparalleled collection of outdoor sculptures set against a bucolic backdrop of rolling hills, swaths of forest and fields of flowers, children of all ages adore and are awed by the enormous scale of this park, the riot of colors and textures and unexpected creations waiting over every hill. Best of all, it’s inherently informal nature allows children who might normally bridle at the strictures (inside voices, keeping their hands to themselves, walking, not running) imposed by conventional institutions harboring priceless cultural artifacts, to “be themselves”. I’ve brought my children there at least once a year since they were babies, and it never disappoints. Arrive with a picnic and prepare to dig in for hours. Check the website for seasonal opening hours. Children 4 and under are free, $8 ages 5-18, $18 adults.
1 Museum Road, New Windsor, NY 12553, 845-534-3115
Photo from Instagram by @nysmuseum
The New York State Museum, located in Albany, documents, in mind-boggling detail, the history of New York State’s artistic, social, cultural, political and environmental legacy through permanent exhibits such as Native Peoples of New York, Birds of New York, Black Capital: Harlem in the 20s and the current temporary show, Enterprising Waters. Children delight in the antique car, fire engine and carriage exhibits, the interactive New York City Subway, the skeletal remains of a mastodon excavated in Cohoes in 1866. Don’t miss a ride on the carousel made by the Herschell-Spillman Company in the early 20th century featuring horses, deer and donkeys. The carousel is on the top floor of the building, with views of the entire city. The rest of the museum occupies the first four floors of the Cultural Education Center, a 1.5 million-square foot building also containing the New York State Archives and the New York State Library. This year is a particularly good time to visit as the Erie Canal is celebrating its Bicentennial this year, Molly Belmont, director of marketing for Albany County’s Visitor Bureau notes. “We all learned about Sal the Mule, and 15 Miles on the Erie Canal in elementary school, but this waterway has so many more stories to tell,” Molly explains. “It’s a great lens to look at history with, whether it’s the impact of immigrants on America, the canal’s impact on civil rights, or the way that the canal changed New York’s local economies. Don’t miss New York State Museum’s comprehensive new exhibit Enterprising Waters.” The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 am-5:00 pm. Admission is free, suggested donation per family is $10.
222 Madison Avenue, Albany, NY 12230, 518-474-5877
The average American child spends 4 to 7 minutes outside and seven hours in front of a screen. While no parent needs a study to tell them that’s a dangerous imbalance, reams of research exist showing that children who spend more time outside have better vision, superior resistance to disease, are less prone to stress and concentration issues and perform better in the classroom when compared to their couch-bound counterparts. It would be tough to find a better place to correct that imbalance than The Wild Center. With 81 acres of stunning trails including some through the treetops, a 54-000 square foot museum with live animals and hands-on everything, canoes and paddleboards to take on its own river, guided walks and cutting-edge green building systems, even the most connected kid will happily unplug. As Audra Herman, New York Makers’ Marketplace Director says, “it’s the Adirondack version of New York City’s High Line. It gives you a bird’s eye view of the forest.” A tree will never look tame again after going to The Wild Center. Open daily 10 am-6 pm. Free age 4 and under, $13 age 5-17, $20 adults.
45 Museum Drive, Tupper Lake, NY 12986, 518-359-7800
Annual Harvest Festival. This year: Saturday & Sunday, September 10 & 11. Photo from Instagram by @thefarmersmuseum
In 1790, 90% of the labor force in the United States was comprised of farmers. Now, that number hovers around 2%, according to the USDA. Nearly 10% of adult Americans believe chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Seriously. The Farmer’s Museum reconnects kids (and us!) to the country’s agrarian roots. The museum is part of a farm previously owned by James Fenimore Cooper in 1813 and opened its doors as a living history museum in 1944. The Farmers’ Museum contains thousands of fascinating artifacts, tools and farming implements, but more essentially, it recreates 19th century rural life, complete with craftspeople demonstrating their rural trades in interactive workshops. There’s also a children’s barnyard, a hand-crafted merry-go-round that celebrates New York State’s history with 25 hand-carved animals representing separate agricultural and natural resources and the Cardiff Giant, one of the most infamous hoaxes in history. (It’s fake a 10-foot-tall petrified giant uncovered by workers digging in Cardiff, New York in 1869.) Baseball aficionados can then skip over to the neighboring National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. Check website for hours, which are seasonal. Admission for children 6 and under is free, $6 ages 7-12; $12 ages 13+.
5775 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y., 13326, 607-547-1450
The 100,000 square-foot Strong Museum is dedicated entirely to play, surely something any child can get behind. The museum features the world’s largest collection of dolls, toys and games and features permanent collections of American Comic Book Heroes, an interactive Berenstain Bears world, a Butterfly Garden, a Pinball Playfield, a train and many other temporary and permanent exhibits that dive into the history, mechanics and culture of fun. The only hitch in a perfect day of family fun will be when it’s time to leave, which, in my family at least, turns into a rugged tear-and-drama-filled forced march to the door. The museum is open Monday-Thursday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Friday & Saturday noon-8 p.m. and Sunday noon-5 p.m. Admission ages 2 and older is $14.50.
One Manhattan Square, Rochester, N.Y. 14607, 585-263-2700
These are just our favorites. New York State is packed with museums (The Children’s Museum of the Arts, The Corning Museum of Glass, The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, The Children’s Museum of Science + Technology) that connect us to learning our history, culture, progress and future…through play.
Photo from Instagram by @corningmuseum. Caption: "Flameworker Caitlin Hyde recently made this ninja dinosaur designed by one of our Museum guests as part of our You Design It; We Make It! program."