7 Spots to Explore the Immigrant Experience with City Kids

NYC Diversity: Ellis Island, MOCA, MCNA, New-York Historical Society, LES Tenement Museum, Museum at Eldridge Street, More

No matter your political leanings, immigration is a hot topic of conversation these days, and New York has a rich and ongoing history as a gateway to our country. We've combed through our city's top museums and cultural institutions to pinpoint some of the most kid-friendly destinations for those curious about the immigrant experience, or looking to teach children about diversity and tolerance for others.

Of course NYC often plays host to rotating art exhibits related to this theme, which you can always find in our event calendar. One upcoming highlight is the annual outdoor Photoville exhibition in Dumbo, where families will find both American and global diversity and immigration stories on display, from Syrian refugee tales to a Newark campus to Detroit.

Now, here are seven NYC spots where history leaps off the pages for interactive exploration.

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The historic Registry Room on Ellis Island where millions of immigrants entered the country for the first time impresses all ages. Photo by Jody Mercier

Ellis Island – Lower Manhattan
Whether you can trace your family's roots to Ellis Island or not, there's something awe-inspiring about a visit to this isle, which served as the nation's most active immigration station from 1892–1924. You'll walk in the footsteps of the 12 million immigrants whose first steps in America came when they deboarded ships to endure processing before they could head into the city and their new lives. The museum here is huge, covering a trio of floors in the expansive, historic building. When I visited with my school-age children last summer, I was struck by the grandeur of the Registry Room, a large, beautiful soaring space, which, in its heyday, hosted legal and medical examinations—making it a terrifying place for most immigrants. There's tons of reading (and explaining) necessary to take in the whole experience, but each gallery also has telephones kids can pick up to hear a bit about the room's theme. We have tons of tips for visiting both, but a word to the wise: Don't wait until day's end to catch the ferry (the only way to access it) to Ellis. There is truly tons to see there; we've visited twice and wished we had more time each day.


Celebrate Latin and Caribbean culture at El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem.

El Museo del Barrio – East Harlem
Those looking to learn about the Caribbean and Latin American experience in the Americas should head to this uptown museum. Though heavily focused on art, culture is always on full display, too, and the museum has really become a hub for the community. Its popular Super Sabado series of free family programming draws crowds each month. September's program coincides with its current (and timely) exhibition, Dreaming Up North: Children on the Move Across the Americas, and will be held on Saturday, September 16.


Peek into the cramped quarters of Lower East Side immigrants at the Tenement Museum, profiling families from 1863 through post-WWII.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum – Lower East Side
Walk in the shoes of early immigrants at this spot, which offers three ways to explore one of the city's most immigrant-history rich neighborhoods. For the most traditional museum experience, head to the building at 97 Orchard Street, where you can book a variety of tours, from stepping inside the ground-level stores to seeing how sweatshop workers lived and worked to exploring apartments of immigrants from Jewish and Irish backgrounds, from 1863 through 1935. Kids may gain more appreciation through the museum's Meet the Residents program, where they can interview costumed characters playing the part of former residents or tenement inspectors. A new exhibit will explore the lives of the neighborhood's post-WWII immigrants at the 103 Orchard location. Those wanting to learn more about the neighborhood's history might prefer a museum-hosted Walk the Neighborhood tour, presented in various themes focused on the area's architecture, food, and shop life and how each shaped the experience of its residents. A word to the wise: Many of the tours here admit only children over the age of 8 (or 12), so heed the age advisories when you book your tickets.

Museum at Eldridge Street – Lower East Side
Another LES institution, the Museum at Eldridge Street is housed in the historic Eldridge Street Synagogue, which first opened its doors in 1887, serving the neighborhood's predominantly immigrant Jewish population. Its From Ellis to Eldridge collection of artifacts tells the story of the congregation's early days, as Jewish immigrants attempted to marry old-world traditions with Americanized ideals. An overflowing events calendar offers more ways to explore Jewish heritage, too, including interactive storytime-turned-walking-tours, which tell the story of early 20th century children in the neighborhood, showing where they played, shopped, and lived. For more spots to learn about Jewish heritage, be sure to read our full roundup on the topic.


Enjoy festivals, storytimes, and drop-in art at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas.

Museum of Chinese in the Americas – Chinatown
MOCA was founded in 1980 in a community-based effort to document the history of the neighborhood's rich cultures, which organizers feared would disappear with its older generations if not properly preserved. It has since evolved into a strong, trusted community organization where families can connect over shared history, celebrate traditional holidays, and learn about the immigrants who built not only Chinatown, but the transcontinental railroad, and so much more in American history. In addition to its popular family festivals, MOCA offers drop-in art and storytime to engage young visitors. Its core exhibit, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, is a can't-miss, detailed history of Chinese immigration.

Museum of the City of New York – East Harlem
At the upper end of NYC's Museum Mile, the Museum of the City of New York is a bit of an off-the-beaten-path but a gem. While there's plenty to see here that chronicles the rise of New York, the New York at Its Core exhibition that opened last year is a thorough look into NYC's development from a small port city to the bustling metropolis of today. Divided into a trio of chronological galleries, Port City gives a glimpse into New York as a destination for immigrants, goods, and more. The "then-and-now" landscape photos dominate one wall, giving a fascinating glimpse into how Lower Manhattan has and has not changed since that time ,and interactive kiosks allow kids to meet New Yorkers who lived during this time period. Artifacts dot the perimeter, telling the story of the important people and imports who arrived in the port. Another kid-friendly favorite is the theater on the lower level where you can take in Timescapes, a compact 28-minute video chronicling the city's history.

RELATED: Free Times to Visit NYC Museums, Gardens, and the Zoos


At the New-York Historical Society, kids can dig into the backgrounds of some of the city's top immigrants like Alexander Hamilton.

New-York Historical Society – Upper West Side
While the grown-up exhibits at the New-York Historical Society offer a rich museum experience, if you've got little kids, the downstairs DiMenna Children's History Museum is a can't miss. Though small in size, encompassing just one large gallery, the material therein is rich, engaging, and age appropriate for young visitors. A series of kiosks introduce children to characters from the city's past, from Alexander Hamilton (a West Indies immigrant!) to Esteban Bellan (the first Latino to play pro baseball in the U.S.), and the children who headed west on orphan trains or took up work as newsies. When you're done downstairs, check out the exhibitions upstairs, too.

Top photo: Lower East Side Tenement Museum's Meet the Residents program. Unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy of the museums

location: 
Ellis Island Ferry Terminal
Battery Park
10004 New York , NY 40° 42' 11.8008" N, 74° 1' 1.3008" W
New York
El Museo del Barrio
1230 Fifth Avenue
10029 New York , NY 40° 47' 35.2248" N, 73° 57' 5.0616" W
New York
Lower East Side Tenement Museum
97 Orchard Street
10002 New York , NY 40° 43' 6.7296" N, 73° 59' 24.9792" W
New York
Museum at Eldridge Street
12 Eldridge Street
10002 New York , NY 40° 42' 53.0352" N, 73° 59' 36.4488" W
New York
Museum of Chinese in the Americas
215 Centre Street
10013 New York , NY 40° 43' 9.7968" N, 73° 59' 56.7168" W
New York
Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
10029 New York , NY 40° 47' 33.1836" N, 73° 57' 7.2252" W
New York
New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
10024 New York , NY 40° 46' 45.4224" N, 73° 58' 27.372" W
New York