Young and Free NYC
by Alyssa Grossman, 10/09/2012 [Updated 12/21/2015]
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It's no secret that New York City is a great place for families. But all that exploring can cost you a pretty penny—unless you know where to look. You won't have to wander far to find free-admission days at museums, gratis concerts and films, complimentary story sessions and exciting events that let you leave your wallet tucked happily away. Forget staying at home to save money. We've rounded up the best free ways for young locals and visitors to get out on the town.
Zoos and Gardens
For culturally curious kids and their moms and dads on a budget, these family-friendly institutions—all of which offer specific days or hours of free entrance—provide inspiring educational outings.
Brooklyn Children's Museum
Free Thursdays, 2–6pm.
Spend a few hours at this Crown Heights institution, home to around 30,000 artifacts and objects (plus a few live creatures) with an emphasis on hands-on learning. There's even a special section, Totally Tots, for children 5 and under—a testament to the museum's education-for-all-ages mentality.
Children's Museum of Manhattan
Free every first Friday of the month, 5–8pm.
Little museumgoers dance, run, solve problems, design and make music at this Upper West Side spot. Exhibitions focus on health, diversity and just plain fun things like cartoons, while workshops and special events serve to captivate visitors whenever they choose to visit.
Museum of the Moving Image
Free for kids under 3 and free Fridays, 4–8pm.
Budding cinephiles can head to Astoria for the country's biggest collection of moving-image artifacts. This interactive institution pays tribute to all aspects of movies, television shows and digital media, from technology to social impact.
New York Hall of Science
Free Fridays, 2–5pm, and Sundays, 10–11am.
Kids get hands-on with science and technology at this Queens institution that features more than 450 exhibitions. There are a few worthwhile things to spend money on during your visit: a round of Rocket Park Mini Golf, a turn in the 60,000-square-foot Science Playground and a screening inside the 3-D theater.
New York Transit Museum Galley Annex & Store
Located on the main concourse in Grand Central Terminal, this offshoot of downtown Brooklyn’s Transit Museum presents rotating exhibitions, including a holiday train show (which stays up well after the holidays have passed!).
Queens County Farm Museum
Grounds free daily (check to see if a ticketed public event is occurring).
Take the kids to this working farm and check out goats, hens and pigs; the orchard (from which you can purchase apples on October weekends); and old farm buildings.
Waterfront Museum and Showboat Barge
Free Thursdays, 4–8pm, and Saturdays, 1–5pm.
Come tour this history wooden barge that is moored down on Brooklyn's Red Hook, not far from the Fairway Market. Check to see if a performance is taking place—perhaps a magic-, music- or history-related event that may cost money.
Zoos and Gardens
Explore NYC's animal kingdom and plant habitats without spending a dime. Many of the City's nature spots offer free or pay-what-you-wish admission. Get close to the creatures at the Staten Island Zoo, gaze at fish at the New York Aquarium or wander through Wave Hill's colorful grounds.
Suggested donation on Wednesdays.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Free weekdays November 1–February 28; free Tuesdays all day and Saturdays, 10am–noon, March 1–October 31.
New York Botanical Garden
Grounds only: Free Wednesdays, 10am–6pm, and Saturdays, 9–10am. Note that you'll still need to pay admission to access the areas that generally appeal most to families, including the children's garden and the conservatory.
Queens Botanical Garden
Free November 1–March 30; free Wednesdays, 3–6pm, and Sundays, 4–6pm, April 1–October 31.
Staten Island Zoo
Free Wednesdays, 2–4:45pm.
Always free for kids under 6. Free Saturdays, 9am–noon; free Tuesdays, 9am–noon.
Movies are pricey (and that's before you start counting in the tubs of popcorn and buckets of soda); concerts even moreso. These options avoid the cost but not the fun. Settle in for a screening or catch a stage show at a family-friendly venue or event.
This old coffee barge docked on the Brooklyn side of the East River has been converted into a classical music venue. On weekends throughout the year you can pay to see performances in its confines; on Saturdays at 4pm, however, there’s a free one-hour recital that’s geared toward drawing in kids.
Meet the Artist at David Rubenstein Atrium
First Saturdays, 11am.
Looking for a way to get the kids excited about music, without a pricey class? Bring them here, where they can engage with the performer and get introduced to all kinds of genres.
Public Libraries (citywide)
Free screenings, author talks, concerts, theater and more, most days.
Books aren't the only free things at the City's public libraries. You'll also find endless entertainment at every branch, like KidsLIVE and TeenLIVE culture and arts programs at the New York Public Library and screenings of top films at the Brooklyn Public Library. At the Queens Public Library, there are game days, science experiments, spelling bees and Lego clubs. Check your local branch for a full list of offerings.
Queens County Farm Museum
Screenings in the barn on select monthly Wednesdays.
Family-friendly movies, usually featuring some sort of animal or others, are shown free of charge in this series.
Sony Wonder Technology Lab
Screenings, which take place Saturdays and on occasional other days, always free.
Moviegoers of all ages should find something worth watching at this high-tech Madison Avenue center. The youngest viewers can settle in for episodes of Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer and Elmo's World, but there's also a calendar packed with G- and PG-rated old favorites, plus newer releases. Just remember to reserve tickets beginning two weeks prior to each screening. Any remaining tickets will be available half an hour before the starting time.
Theater at the Museum of Modern Art
Free film tickets Fridays, 4–8pm; screenings always free for kids under 16.
It pays to be a kid at MoMA. Check moma.org for a schedule of screenings, taking place throughout the week, to see which family-friendly films are on tap.
Free summer theater.
When the weather warms up, the stage shows become free. This nonprofit theater believes everyone should have access to the arts—so from mid-July to mid-August, you can line up one hour before each performance for the chance to see a gratis show. Performances take place at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. For up-to-date production information, visit theatreworksusa.org.
Nooks, Kindles and iPads have their place, but nothing compares with hearing a story told live—sometimes straight from its author's mouth. Young bookworms can drop into readings featuring beloved children's book authors, score signed copies of the latest books and hear expert storytellers share unforgettable tales all around New York City. Here are but a handful of spots that hold regular events; note too that many of the City's public libraries are reliable venues for readings.
Story times Thursdays, 11am. For more information, visit astoriabookshop.com.
Story times on Saturdays, 11am and 3pm, Tuesdays at 4pm and Wednesdays at 3pm (Columbus Avenue location). Story times on Saturdays at 3:30pm (Broadway location). For more information, visit bookculture.com.
Karma Kids Yoga
Story time Wednesdays, 11:30am. This one's a little different from the rest, as the instructor combines storytelling with yoga poses to engage kids of all ages. For more info, visit karmakidsyoga.com.
Story time (with art activities) Saturdays, 11:30am, and for babies, Fridays, 4pm. For more information, visit mcnallyjackson.com.
Mini Max Toys & Cuts
Story time in English, Wednesdays, 10am, and in French, select Fridays, 10am. For more information, visit minimaxnyc.com.
Powerhouse on 8th
Story time Sundays, 11:30am. For more information, visit powerhouseon8th.com.
Story time Sundays, 11am, sometimes with milk and cookies from next door’s Brunswick Café.
Free seasonal events geared toward kids crop up all the time across the City. Good places to look for them are in the many public parks; you’ll find free events like bird-watching, stargazing and plenty else. The nycgovparks.org site is a good place to start.
Free Art Island Outpost Program on Governors Island
Saturdays and Sundays, late May through August.
The Children’s Museum of the Arts sponsors this summerlong program on Governors Island; kids can immerse themselves in themed workshops, in which teaching artists will instruct on painting, collage making, theater activities and the like. For more information, visit cmany.org.
Kids Events at the High Line
Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, July and August.
Art projects, music performances and nature explorations are among the activities to lure families to this elevated park during summer. For more information, visit highline.org.