When we revisited New York this March with our kids, one thing we learned was that a lot could change in two years. Last time we were there we hit the big museums with a three and a five year old and had a (mostly) great time. But it was mainly parent led, with us taking them on a whirlwind tour of the highlights with the biggest “wow” factor for young kids. This time it was quite different, with an almost six year old and a seven year old who had very definite ideas about where they wanted to go and what they wanted to see, and on top of their list was the American Museum of Natural History.
Part of our preparation for this trip was watching Night at the Museum on one of our family movie nights, which got the kids excited about the museum and familiar with some of the highlights. Of course my “stickler for details” son immediately noticed the many exaggerations and inaccuracies between the film and real life and spent the entire visit pointing them out (Where’s the guy on the horse? That’s not Rexy out in the front! Why isn’t Dum Dum by the stairs?) but it all added to the fun and helped give the kids an introduction to the huge collection.
We were expecting the museum to be busy on the Tuesday before Easter so we planned to arrive right at opening time. The subway line which ran past our hotel and stopped directly under the museum ended up being even more efficient than I had expected and we ended up arriving almost 20 minutes before opening time. This wasn’t a problem since we took the time to enjoy the beautiful views of Central Park across the streets and let the kids run off some energy on the front steps of the impressive old building.
Despite the crowds that had formed by the time the doors opened, getting in was orderly and effecient. It did take about ten minutes to buy tickets, though, so I’m glad we were near the front of the crowd instead of the back. I remembered from last time that the morning was the best time to view the dinosaurs on the fourth floor and sure enough, as we entered everyone seemed to head towards the huge hall of mammals right off the main entrance and we were some of the only ones on the fourth floor with the dinosaurs. This is one of my favourite strategies for touring crowded sights; it always seems easier to go to the farthest point of interest first then work your way back to the entrance instead of following the herd.
We had also checked out the museum’s website and my husband had downloaded the museum’s excellent app free app onto his phone. We were able to use this throughout the museum to get additional, kid friendly information throughout the museum, such as interesting comparisons of the sizes of the dinosaurs and recordings of the sounds the various animals in the galleries made in the wild. We found the kids tended to go between being interested in the app and wanting to use it to learn about things to not having the patience for it and running off before the content loaded, but it was fun to try out and we were glad we had it.
We also found ourselves running around and backtracking a lot more than on our previous visit with younger and more direct-able children. After the dinosaurs we sort of skipped around the various animal galleries, looking for their favourites, then spent quite a bit of time in the undersea gallery with the life sized model of a blue whale hanging overhead, then did a whirlwind trip through the various peoples of the world while looking for Dum Dum (the giant Easter Island stone head statue from the Night at the Museum movie.) Some rooms we saw two or three times and others we didn’t see at all, but I’ve long since stopped worrying about missing things when we go to museums with kids. I’d rather have them see part of the museum and be engaged the whole time than drag them through every room in the place while bored and disengaged.
We stopped briefly for a meagre and expensive lunch in the basement cafe, but aside from that we were moving and exploring from opening at 10 am to 3:30 pm, and even then the kids were still engaged and finding new things to see. But we decided to leave them wanting more and we emerged into the beautiful sunny day just as the local schools were letting out and everyone in the city, or so it seemed, was descending on Central Park. We felt it was just too nice to go back down into the subway, so we diverted into Central Park for our walk home and the kids had a blast climbing on the rocks and exploring the pathways with an assorted crowd of visiting and local kids.
Central Park is full of playgrounds and other attractions for kids, but for my kids the huge rocks that erupt from the manicured lawns at regular intervals are the biggest attraction in the park. They had a blast making me nervous clambering up to the top and scrambling back down, oblivious to the perfect backdrop of skyscrapers to the south. What should have been a 20 minute detour turned into an extra hour in the park, pretending to be locals and enjoying the views.
In the end, we agreed that while the Natural History Museum was a lot of fun with preschoolers, it’s even better with school aged kids who can decide what they want to see and plan their own learning. We can hardly wait to see what happens the next time we visit!