It can be tough to be a teen in New York City. They're too old to want the 'rents (that's you, mom or dad) to accompany them everywhere, but many destinations don't allow adolescents without adult supervision. If your high schooler's idea of a night out on the town has been reduced to hanging with friends and watching Netflix, help them mix it up by sharing this roundup of sweet 16 drop-in activities they can do on their own, a few of which were created by NYC teens. Worried that 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 actually tell them to go out and try them.
Bonus: Many of these options are FREE or inexpensive, so you won't have to raise their allowance.
The Whitney is one of many NYC museums that host free, teen-only shindigs. Photo by Filip Wolak/courtesy of the museum.
FREE Teen Nights at Museums
While most NYC museums (save for the Museum of Sex) 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 (no preschooler crafts here), immersive multidisciplinary experiences, DJs, and dancing. The Metropolitan Museum, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Arts and Design, The Frick, and The New Museum have annual teen nights. Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney host more frequent teen events, often organized by peers. It's definitely worth checking the museums' respective calendars since they all offer regular programs for teens, like sketching, open art studios, and movie nights, most FREE or included with admission.
Live Culture on the Cheap
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. No, you won't find Hamilton or any Broadway shows on here, but teens can snag seats to excellent offerings at venues like the New York Philharmonic, BAM, and the 92nd Street Y, plus museum passes, too. ArtsConnection also hosts teen events, like its FREE monthly Pizza and a Movie Nights. If your teen really 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 (though they're more than five bucks per person).
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Firebird Youth Theater, founded and run by NYC teens, presents a youth production like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (pictured) each year. Photo by Katherine Bourbeau/courtesy of the theater.
Theater for Teens, By Teens
If your teen is more interested in getting onstage rather 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. Past productions include adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island, and Romeo + Juliet. Shows usually take place in May or June. Teens interested in getting involved should send an email to email@example.com detailing their previous theater experience and how they'd like to contribute, i.e. onstage or behind the scenes.
All-Ages Open Mics
All of the shows at the venerable Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village are open to all ages, which means, of course, plenty of adult language but probably nothing that will scare a teen off. Best known for its spoken-word performances, the Nuyo (as regulars call it) also presents concerts, theater, exhibits, and live experiences that defy easy description. When teens check the calendar to see which events appeal, they'll notice that there are frequent and inexpensive open mics, and while they attract mostly grown-ups, teens are welcome to participate (they just can't drink at the bar). Sound too daunting? Keep an eye out for teens-only open mics organized by educational nonprofit Writopia Lab. They only happen occasionally at the Nuyo, but they're an ideal way for aspiring slammers to start showing off their skills.
Zip-Line in the City
Not too long ago, you had to leave the five boroughs to go zip-lining. But these days there are three seasonal zip lines in NYC: Queens' Alley Pond Park Adventure Course, Adventures at Governors Island, and the Bronx Zoo Treetop Adventure. For teens, the latter is the best destination since its two side-by-side zip lines are the longest and highest—50 feet in the air spanning 400 feet across the Bronx River and back. Plus there are seven suspended ropes courses that challenge you to swing from tree to tree, encountering obstacles and chills along the way. The one downside: While teens can absolutely 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 brood there alone!
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Test out the flying trapeze or "Popaction" moves with a drop-in session at Streb's Teen Action Club. Photo courtesy of Streb.
A Teen Circus Meet-Up
While there are lots of fantastic, ongoing circus and trapeze classes for NYC kids, most require a commitment and a lot of cash. That's what makes Streb's drop-in Teen Action Club so special. For $15, kids ages 13 to 17 can hit the Williamsburg studio to try the flying trapeze, the tightrope, various aerial arts, and learn the acrobatic dance company's signature "Popaction" moves. The 2½-hour sessions take place once a month on a Saturday night, and all skill levels are welcome. Note: a signed parental waiver is required so email firstname.lastname@example.org to ask for one in advance.
Chill at YMCA Teen Centers
Families already know that the city's many YMCAs offer classes and programs for all ages. But did you know that approximately 30 local branches of the Y have Teen Centers where high schoolers can go to play pool, Ping-Pong, video games, a variety of sports, make art, learn computer coding, get homework help and college application assistance, or just hang out with their peers under the watchful eye of understanding adults? Well it's true, and in most cases 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.
New York Public Library’s annual Anti-Prom. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.
Don't Count Out the Library
Many branches in NYC's three library systems—the New York Public Library in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island; the Queens Library; and the Brooklyn Public Library—host FREE classes and programs just for teens on a regular basis. They range from the casual, like movie screenings, clubs, and homework help, to big special events like NYPL's popular and FREE Anti-Prom every June, which always has a wild lit theme and edgy entertainment. Even if your teen hasn't been to the library in years, it's worth perusing the calendar of your local branch to see what it offers for adolescents, and all three systems have teen-centric info pages on their respective websites.
Obviously, teens can hang in any of NYC's myriad parks and maybe even a playground (though many are designated for ages 12 and under). 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 a New York City teen skating without any of that, so make sure you go over your own rules with your kids before they head out. Teens more into BMX biking? Williamsburg's outdoor Velosolutions PumpTrack Brooklyn is a hot spot for extreme cycling, but a signed parental waiver is required and there's an admission fee.
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 Ping-Pong and arcade games. Teens are welcome up until 8pm, when it becomes 21 and over. Warning: They'll most likely blow an entire month's allowance here.
Take a Walk on the VR Side
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 like 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.
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Teens will dig the old-school vibe of the Chinatown Fair arcade. Photo by Jason Lam via Flickr.
Old-School Video Game Arcades
Back when I was a teen, there were arcades all over the city where I could get my Pac-Man on (are my gray hairs showing?) These days, there seem to be more barcades, 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 is bursting with teens who seem to love its slightly seedy vibe, and games like Ultra Street Fighter, Dance Dance Revolution, and basketball hoops. If your teens are more into pinball, Modern Pinball boasts more than 30 different machines, from restored classics to newfangled releases.
Get Your Analog Geek On
Want to make the teens ditch the screens all together? Send them to a board game cafe. The Brooklyn Strategist hosts workshops in everything from chess to Dungeons & Dragons, as well as drop-in open play sessions for an hourly fee. The Geekery HQ in Astoria boasts a full calendar of collaborative games, too. The Uncommons cafe in Greenwich Village lets you rent games from a huge onsite collection. And the Upper West Side has Hex&Co. There's also Brooklyn Game Lab though most of its events require a membership.
Cool Pool Halls
While not all NYC pool halls are kid-friendly, we rounded up five that welcome families. Eastside Billiards on the Upper East Side allows kids over age 12 to visit on their own during daytime hours, and also offers Ping-Pong, Foosball, and Skee-ball. Chances are if your teen is well-behaved and looks fairly mature, they won't be questioned at any of these billiard spots.
Drop-in Parkour Classes
If your teen has ever wanted to try parkour, in which participants basically treat our city as 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.
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 Coney Island Circus Sideshow, the glorious junk food. But even off-season it can be an intriguing destination, 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.