15 Teen Activities For New York City's Ultra-Cool Big Kids
It can be tough to be a teen in New York City. They're too old to want the 'rents (that's you, mom and dad) to accompany them everywhere, but many destinations don't allow adolescents without adult supervision. If your high schooler's social life has been reduced to a Netflix party or online gaming, help them mix it up by sharing this roundup of 15 sweet drop-in teen activities they can do on their own, a few of which were created by NYC teens. Worried your teen never listens to you? Print this list out and leave it for them to find—perhaps they'll like these ideas better if you don't tell them to go out and try them.
Bonus: Many of these teen activities are FREE or inexpensive, so you won't have to raise their allowance. Find more teen activities in our Teen and Tweens Guide to NYC and our jam-packed Activity Calendar.
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1. Check Out Teen Nights at Local Museums
While most NYC museums are great destinations for teens, especially during FREE visiting hours, a few go out of their way to appeal to adolescents by hosting special teen nights—no adults or kid siblings allowed. These FREE gatherings are organized with input from teens and feature age-appropriate art projects, immersive multidisciplinary experiences, DJs, and dancing. The Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Arts and Design have annual teen nights. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney host more frequent teen events, often organized by peers. It's worth checking the museums' respective calendars since they all offer regular programs for teens, like sketching, open art studios, and movie nights; most are FREE. Some are currently held on Zoom, but it's a more enriching and interactive form of screen time.
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2. Enjoy Live Culture on the Cheap
While live entertainment is one of the last industries to return during the pandemic, it's worth knowing about these programs, so you're teen is ready when the curtains rise! ArtsConnection's High 5 Tickets to the Arts program for NYC middle and high school students allows them to buy up to two tickets per show for just $5 each. If your teen wants Broadway tickets, high schoolers can apply for a Theatre Development Fund membership, which comes with access to deeply discounted seats for theater, music, and dance performances).
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Firebird Youth Theater is an award-winning theater company that is entirely teen-run and teen-directed. Photo courtesy of the theater
3. Star in Theater For Teens, by Teens
If your teen is more interested in getting on stage than watching from the audience, check out the Firebird Youth Theater. Founded in 2013 by a committed group of talented NYC teens, the award-winning company presents one full-fledged, off-Broadway production a year, starring and directed by youngsters. This year's production is A Midsummer Night's Dream and employs a hybrid of online and in-person programming. Register now for the summer intensive or a roleplaying workshop.
4. Attend an All-Ages Open Mic Night
The brand new Little Island is a cool place to hang, but select summer Fridays are Teen Night, where big kids take over The Glade to showcase their talents. For a wider—albeit virtual audience—consider letting your kid register for one of the shows at the venerable Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village. All are open to all ages, which means, of course, plenty of adult language but probably nothing that will scare a teen off. Its current Zoom format allows performers 4 minutes to shine, and registration opens 24 hours before the event. Sound too daunting? Educational nonprofit Writopia Lab offers a teens-only open mic, and both summer sessions are on Zoom, too.
5. Cruise a Serious Skatepark
Obviously, teens can hang in any of NYC's myriad parks and maybe even a big-kid-friendly playground. But for teens who like to Rollerblade or skateboard, NYC's many outdoor skateparks are a great option. They're all FREE and filled with teens and young adults—you rarely see anyone under 10 or over 30. Note that officially, all public skateparks require a signed parental waiver, plus protective gear like helmets, knee and elbow pads, and wrist guards for anyone under age 18. That said, we've seen many New York City teens skating without any of that, so make sure you go over your own rules with your kids before they head out.
You've seen the birds; now get a bird's eye view at The Bronx Zoo's Treetop Adventure. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher
6. Soar Across a Zip-Line in the City
The Bronx Zoo's Treetop Adventure is an ultra-fun destination, letting a duo of BFFs race on its side-by-side zip lines—50 feet in the air spanning 400 feet across the Bronx River and back. Seven suspended ropes courses challenge you to swing from tree to tree, encountering obstacles and chills along the way. The one downside: While teens can tackle these thrilling activities on their own, an adult must be present on-site at all times to supervise and sign the necessary waivers, so don't send the kids alone!
7. Chill at a YMCA Teen Center
Families already know the city's many YMCAs offer classes and programs for all ages. But did you know that approximately 30 local branches have Teen Centers where high schoolers can go to play pool, pingpong, video games, a variety of sports, make art, learn computer coding, get homework help and college application assistance, or hang out with their peers under the watchful eye of understanding adults? Well, it's true, and it's FREE, too. Contact your local branch to find out about specific Teen Center hours and offerings, as they vary by location. Registration usually has to be done in person with a parent or guardian present.
8. Go Bowling and Beyond
There are a lot of bowling alleys in NYC that welcome teens. But the state-of-the-art Bowlmor Chelsea Piers offers so much more, including a 3,000-square-foot, NYC-themed laser tag arena featuring replicas of landmarks like the Washington Square Park Arch and the Statue of Liberty, an aerial ropes course, plus pingpong and arcade games. Teens are welcome until 8pm when it becomes 21 and over. Warning: They'll most likely blow an entire month's allowance here.
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Teens will dig the old-school vibe of the Chinatown Fair arcade. Photo courtesy of Chinatown Fair
9. Play Old-School Video Games at an Arcade
Back when I was a teen, there were arcades all over the city where I could play Pac-Man. These days, there seem to be more gaming bars, and teens can't go to those. However, there are a few old-school video game havens that are great for minors, so tell them to skip Times Square's touristy Dave & Buster's and head down to Chinatown Fair. Overhauled in 2012, this longtime arcade bursts with teens who seem to love its slightly seedy vibe and games like Ultra Street Fighter, Dance Dance Revolution, and pop-a-shot.
10. Enter Another Dimension
Everyday reality in NYC can be pretty crazy. But at VR World NYC—the largest virtual reality experience center in the country—teens can cross over to the truly wild side. Located in Midtown East and spread over three floors, this destination is a 21st-century arcade with a wide variety of cutting-edge immersive "games," from the athletic (rock climbing and working out) to the artistic (physics-defying painting, interactive music videos) to heart-pumping action (a zombie survival tutorial, space pirates training). Yes, there's a bit of a tourist vibe, and it does not come cheap. But you could unleash the teens here all day and even take away their regular screens since it's hard to check Snapchat when you're wearing an Oculus headset. Do note, it's 21+ after 5pm, and ages 9-14 require a paying chaperone, so you'll have to play, too.
Meet new people, think, strategize and...interact through board games! Photo courtesy of The Brooklyn Strategist
11. Go Analog at a Board Game Cafe
Want to make the teens ditch the screens altogether? Send them to a board game cafe. There are tons within the five boroughs, and the list is growing all the time. The Brooklyn Strategist hosts workshops in everything from chess to Dungeons & Dragons, as well as drop-in open-play sessions for an hourly fee. Gamestoria boasts a full calendar of collaborative games, too. The Uncommons cafe in Greenwich Village lets you choose from a vast on-site collection. Hex&Co now has locations on both the Upper East and Upper West Sides. There's also Brooklyn Game Lab, which offers afterschool games, summer sessions, and virtual Friday Night Hangouts, where kids can play Dungeons & Dragons with a master.
12. Embark on an Adventure
Send your teens and their crew to Area 53 NYC, a trio of brand new action-packed entertainment centers, that's great for a group and offers tons of activities to choose from. With locations in Williamsburg, Hunts Point, and Dumbo, teens can tackle everything from ropes courses to laser tag, paintball, mazes, climbing walls, air hockey, and even kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding. Teens must bring a signed waiver and copy of their parent's driver's license to play sans supervision.
Get outdoors with The Movement Creative. Photo courtesy of the Movement Creative
13. Get Physical With Parkour
If your teen has ever wanted to try parkour, in which participants treat our city like one big obstacle course, NY Parkour Academy offers outdoor beginner sessions for ages 15 and up. It's challenging, exhilarating, and admittedly dangerous to try on your own (just Google "parkour fails," and you'll see what we mean), but the pros at NY Parkour put safety first in their classes, which are held on Sunday afternoons in the East River Amphitheater on the Lower East Side. No long-term commitment is necessary. Just show up at the specified time with $20 for two hours of training. Also check out The Movement Creative, which offers parkour classes in Central Park and other locations all over NYC.
14. Go Rock Climbing
If your kid would prefer to climb walls instead of hopping over them, consider sending them to one of these kid-friendly rock-climbing spots. Those that are particularly teen-friendly include Brooklyn Boulders Teen Academy and Steep Rock Bouldering's two Harlem locations. We love The Cliffs at Harlem, a sprawling new bouldering gym, too. You can also climb at one of The Cliffs' other locations, including the seasonal, outdoor wall in Dumbo.
15. Embark on a Coney Island Adventure
Chinatown, the East Village, Dumbo—NYC is filled with fascinating neighborhoods to explore. But if we have to pick the best area for teens to check out, it's Coney Island. Its warm-weather attractions are adolescent catnip—the beach, the thrilling amusement park rides, the glorious junk food. But it's an intriguing destination even in the off-season, especially if you add nearby Russian enclave Brighton Beach to your itinerary. It's like taking a trip to another country for the price of a MetroCard swipe.
A version of this article was first published in March 2016, but it has since been updated. Sonia Gonzalez contributed additional reporting.