New York City doesn't scrimp when it comes to creating awesome family events and institutions, from the many children's museums and zoos and gardens to only-here street and art fests. But as a mom of two children younger than 5, I'm always looking for fun activities that appeal to the city's youngest children. It's such a special window of time, and I want to create lasting memories—within budgetary reason, and manageable enough for kids who sometimes still need a nap and a sippy cup of milk.
So, inspired by our roundup of 100 things to do with kids in NYC before they grow up, we came up with a list of 25 things to do with toddlers and preschoolers around the city before they turn 5 and head to kindergarten. A few of our selections are well-known favorites with specific under-the-radar attractions for preschoolers, while others are more off the beaten path, but all are things we've enjoyed doing or aspire to try soon!
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1. Climb inside vintage subway cars and buses at the New York Transit Museum.
2. Feed the goats, chickens, and other critters during a festival at NYC's only historic working farm, the Queens County Farm Museum or care for a part-time pet at The Art Farm in the City.
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Heimbold Family Children's Playing and Learning Center offers colorful, creative play. Photo courtesy of Scandinavia House.
3. Drop into Scandinavia House's fantastical Heimbold Family Children’s Playing and Learning Center to play with Legos and Brio trains.
4. See the full-scale dinosaurs at the American Museum of Natural History.
5. Crying because he can't touch the dinosaurs? Hit the secret Discovery Room for enriching hands-on activities, storytime, or a break from sensory overload.
6. Romp on the playgrounds at Governors Island, swish down the epic slides on The Hills, swing in a hammock, or try a round of mini golf at the course designed and hosted by the annual Figment interactive arts fest. Don't worry if your tot can't play, it's the only FREE course in NYC and few players really follow the rules.
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Take in a puppet show at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre. Photo courtesy the theater.
7. Introduce your tots to the wonders of live theater at an eye-popping puppet show at Central Park's Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, Park Slope's Puppetworks, or Union Square's Very Hungry Caterpillar.
8. Wear something colorful to the Bronx Zoo's Butterfly Garden in hopes one will mistake you for a flower and land on you.
9. Stop to smell the roses (and cherry blossoms, daffodils, and all the flowers) at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Queens Botanical Garden, and the Narrows Botanical Gardens.
10. Rent bikes (or a bike seat) to peddle through Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park's waterfront or out to Coney Island for an ice cream.
11. What tot doesn't love bubbles? See some of the biggest and best in the world at the Gazillion Bubble Show!
12. Skip the fast-paced Central Park Carousel in favor of a mellow merry-go-round like Chelsea's Pier 62 Carousel, Brooklyn Bridge Park's Jane's Carousel, or the mesmerizing SeaGlass Carousel. All boast amazing waterfront views.
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Victorian Gardens in Central Park is a perfect first-time amusement park for preschoolers. Photo courtesy of the amusement park.
13. Do a full day of rides at Fantasy Forest in Queens or Victorian Gardens in Central Park, two little-kid amusement parks featuring only tame rides.
14. Learn about nature at the Prospect Park Audubon Center, which hosts FREE hands-on activities every week, including live animal encounters.
15. Rainy day? Take in a storytime at a local museum, library, or bookstore all across the city. They're often FREE.
16. Visit the perfectly toddler-sized Central Park Zoo to take in a sea lion feeding and get up close with the frisky penguins. Stop for a cute photo-op in the Tisch Children's Zoo.
17. While the rest of the New York Hall of Science may be over your tot's head, its Preschool Place multi-sensory play area is a perfect introduction to this science spot. Save time for a quick visit to the bubble wall and table in the Central Pavilion. My kids have almost as much fun there as I do.
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Float a toy sailboat across Conservatory Water in Central Park. Photo by Mark Peters via Flickr.
18. Too young to row their own boats? Sail a toy one across the Conservatory Water in Central Park.
19. Ride the train out to the New York Aquarium to gawk at all manner of marine life, or just cross the boardwalk to come face to face with the Atlantic Ocean.
20. Plan a preschool-appropriate (in both sights and length) day trip. you can hit uptown, downtown, parts of Brooklyn, and more.
21. Wear your water shoes and bathing suit and get soaked at one of these NYC water playgrounds. It's a summer rite of passage for local toddlers.
22. Take a spin in the twirling studio and make messy art at the Children's Museum of the Arts, which caters to the 5-and-younger set in its Wee Arts room.
The Totally Tots section of the Brooklyn Children's Museum is just for kids under 5 and includes water and sand play. Photo courtesy of the museum.
23. Explore all kinds of hands-on creative stations at the Brooklyn Children's Museum's Totally Tots play zone just for those under age 5. Want more museum-sanctioned fun? Check out its SPARK play space in Dumbo.
24. Hit the Eloise boutique at the Plaza to try on pretty pink frocks or book a tea to play one of NYC's original spoiled princesses.
25. Around the holidays, head to the NYBG train show. It won't disappoint, especially with this year's cool new additions.
Top photo: Preschoolers will delight in the sensory experience at the Gazillion Bubble Show. Photo courtesy of the production.
This article was first published in May 2014, but it has since been updated.