One of our favorite NYC stores where kids can play for FREE (and one of our favorite new additions to NYC last year, period) is the Flatiron District's CAMP Store, which has recently unveiled its second theme: Cooking Camp, as well as a membership program, with the promise of a second location coming to Brooklyn in the fall.
Situated on the corner of 16th and Fifth Avenue, CAMP looks like just another retail shop; albeit one with an onsite Milk Bar and a funky collection of merchandise—from toys and games to books and clothing—but there's something spectacular hiding behind a secret door. Find the entrance (with the help of a super-friendly CAMP counselor) and you're in for hours of fun and a cool new indoor place to play.
The door leads to a secret path that deposits you right into the 10,000-square-foot store, which at its heart is meant to be an experiential retail space. If you visited during the initial run of Basecamp, you'll see some familiar features, but also many brand new engaging experiences.
RELATED: Other NYC Stores Where Kids Play FREE
Grab a cart and do some shopping.
Each of these sections is stocked with a funky, fun, curated selection of toys and gifts. And while my kids saw plenty of things they wanted to have, they also spent nearly two hours exploring the space, focused on having fun and interacting with the energetic, kid-friendly counselors. It's hard to leave totally empty handed, but each of our multiple visits has produced a unique, reasonably priced purchase or two.
RELATED: NYC's Most Amazing Destination Toy Stores
Spend time gardening and learning about plants. Photo by Janet Bloom
Like Basecamp, there are some cool interactive elements at Cooking Camp, which tells city kids the story of food production, beginning in the Grow Farm, continuing down the highway (hello big-rig ready for kids to take for a spin), and to the grocery store, where my girls spent most of their play time on our most recent visit. A gourmet-looking kitchen isn't functional, but includes plenty of knobs to turn, plus a kid-sized play kitchen where my 5-year-old whipped up a pasta salad while I waited.
Gone is the sequin wallpapered room, replaced instead by a walk in freezer with glittery white walls and a thermostat that adjusts the music rather than the temperature. A pay phone was a novelty made even more fun by the fact that pressing the right sequence of numbers changed the soundtrack storewide.
This gas pump pumps bubbles!
The slide returns, too, and there's also a silo that doubles as a two-person trampoline, plus a game of plinko, where giant foam fruits bounce through the dowels and are returned via a hand-cranked conveyor belt. Another big hit: The gas tank that pumps the area full of bubbles. Beware, though, if your kid chowed down on Lick-A-Bubble at Basecamp, these aren't edible!
It's hard to escape without buying a trinket or two.
While the space itself is tons of fun, and interactive in so many ways, the staff also makes the experience memorable. Touching and playing with toys is still encouraged. No one batted an eye when the perfectly stocked grocery store shelves were ransacked for faux shopping trip. The Campitheater is a holdover from Basecamp, but has been enclosed and serves as the classroom area for the store, which has launched a new membership program along with Cooking Camp. For $50/month for the first child ($20 for each additional child with discounts for longer-range memberships), you'll have access to members-only hours daily, plus up to two activities each day, a date-night dropoff program, and a free cup of coffee or tea daily from the MilkBar, plus more surprises.
CAMP is a unique experience in the city.
I was really struck by the customer service the counselors provided, as well as all the elements they brought to make the experience so special for my kids. I was told that the co-owners, Nikki and Ben Kaufman, looked for counselors who were not only great with kids, but had talents that could be showcased in programming for the space.
Lest you think CAMP is some one-trick pony, here's the other remarkable thing: Each theme is temporary. Every 8-12 weeks, CAMP will pack up its installation and start from scratch with a new batch of surprises to play with and to purchase. While New York has had its share of Instagram-worthy, interactive popups lately, from Candytopia to Mickey: The True Original Exhibition, CAMP is here to stay; save a few days of downtime each time it reimagines its space.
Leave with a dose of Awesome Sauce.
I visited with a trio of kids ranging in age from 5 to 10, and they all had a blast and found different draws; that said, kids as young as 3 would definitely find something fun to do here.
Buyers beware, CAMP is a cash-less retailer.
Unless noted, photos by the author