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Vacation

5 Free Activities to Keep NYC Families Busy All Summer Long

cheap NYC staycation

As the mother of children who hate summer camp and one half of a couple who gave up our corporate jobs (and the generous paychecks that came with them) to spend more time with our kids, every vacation is a staycation at our house.

I am also very cheap. But we live in New York City, home of the world’s most expensive ice cream sundae and other nauseatingly overpriced things. This could be a conflict.

Could be.

But doesn’t have to be.

Because, after three kids (the oldest just turned 16) and umpteenth NYC summer staycations, I know all the tricks to keeping them entertained—without breaking the bank.

And if you read the five ideas below, so will you.

READ: It’s Summer Vacation and There’s Something Missing

1. Libraries

We all understand that libraries are awesome places to get free books (and, frankly, I can’t think of a better way to spend the summer than with my nose buried in a novel or some riveting non-fiction 24/7). But, as I’ve written before, I want my kids to read less and do more.

So when we go to an NYC public library, we don’t just load up on books (my rule is you can only check out as many as you can carry), we also watch plays, listen to storytellers, take in a puppet show, create art projects, run a science experiment, silkscreen, and even learn to code or knit (my 11-year-old son is a fan of both). Heck, we even went to Winnie the Pooh’s 90th birthday party at the library! With cake and everything! You can too, by visiting the NY Public Library’s main site and searching for the class, event, date, and/or location of your choice.

2. Literary Walking Tours 

And if you’re looking to turn all those books you ended up schlepping home from the library into a more boots on the ground/butts off the couch activity, consider an only-in-New-York literary walking tour. Got a little girl who loves Eloise? Take her to the real Plaza Hotel, which comes with an Eloise-themed store where you can ask for a free gift (but beware the Eloise-themed tea, that will cost you a bundle).

You can also retrace Stuart Little’s steps from one side of the city to the other, experience “Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing” first-hand, and walk in the footsteps of the entire “All of a Kind Family.” Click here for even more ideas.

READ: Vacationing with Kids

3. Pools

Summer in the city is hot. It not only makes the back of my neck dirty and gritty, as per The Lovin’ Spoonful, but red and blistery, as well. I try to avoid going outside as much as possible but, when I do, it’s with the express goal of cooling off. Luckily, NYC has dozens of free public pools in each borough. You can even enter a lottery for free swim lessons for kids.

Do be advised that you can’t bring food to the pool area with you, and make sure you have some sort of security device, as you’ll be asked to change and lock up your clothes, shoes, purses, etc. before being allowed in. Also, while you can leave your stroller outside, you’re taking your chances, as it won’t be watched.

4. Movies

Sure, the multiplex is air-conditioned (over air-conditioned, in my opinion; who wants to bring a sweater to put on in the middle of summer?), but the price of movie tickets just keeps going up and up and up. Consider the bargain option at one of NYC’s multiple, free evening movie screenings. Bryant Park is one of the best known, with kid-friendly flicks like “Ghostbusters,” “Footloose,” and “Back to the Future” on the schedule for 2015 (along with “Marathon Man,” if you want to give your children a very peculiar lesson in Nazis… and dentistry).

There are also regular screenings in Central Park, Washington Square Park, Riverside Park, Prospect Park, Coney Island, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Hudson River and more. Last summer, my teen even saw “The Hunt for Red October” on board the Intrepid with his grandmother, and translated as much of Sean Connery’s Scottish-accented Russian as he could make out.

5. Stores With More 

Why pay for an indoor playspace when you can take your child to a store with it’s own amusement area? For Free! For my kids, Toys R Us in midtown Manhattan is always a favorite destination. They can hang around the giant dinosaur, build with LEGOs, explore all of Barbie’s many, many, many outfits, and check out the new toy demos staffers are perennially demonstrating throughout the day.

READ: So You Want to Go On Vacation With Five Kids?

When it comes to the dreaded “buy me this, buy me that, I want this, I want that,” I make it clear to my kids that we are here as if visiting a toy museum. It’s for looking, not for taking home. However, if you are looking to get some shopping done while they play, be advised that IKEA has its own kiddie area, as does the Disney Store, the LEGO store, and even a Whole Foods! Check out other possibilities here.

Of course, it goes without saying that, wherever we go, we bring our own food along, so as not to pay ridiculously high concession prices (or stand in line, for that matter).

Now, ready, set, stay… cation!

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