NEW YORK — We were in the city for a day and this was our challenge: Entertain our shy and reserved son, 4; his excitable and loud sister, 6; our bright and mature niece, 7; and her hard-to-please, sports-obsessed brother, 12. Four kids, an age range of eight years, and an entire morning to kill.
We found our nirvana in an unlikely, out-of-the way location that used to be a loading dock. The Children’s Museum of the Arts provided an impressive fill of fun. And there were no tears, no whines, nobody got bored, and everybody thought it was the coolest place ever.
The better known, and better situated, Children’s Museum of Manhattan on 83d Street on the Upper West Side is notorious for its shortcomings. It’s small, cramped, and it’s hard to spend more than an hour or two there. The Children’s Museum of the Arts, which moved from SoHo in 2011, has 10,000 square feet of space on Charlton Street in the West Village. It has a wide-open feel, with bright light, big windows, and high ceilings throughout.
One of its most striking features is what’s hanging on the walls. The CMA collects children’s artwork and has been hanging their pieces since its early days. It has more than 2,000 items.
But the museum’s real draw is that this is where wannabe artists come to play.
Our first activity was a sign we’d come to the right place. At a table right up the first steps a young woman invited everyone to sit and she proceeded to help the children with a small but challenging knitting project. It forced everyone to concentrate, working with thread and needle, and while Ben, the 4-year-old, got a little frustrated, cousins Julia and Danielle dived right in. Even the oldest, Andrew, experimented and helped the others with threading needles. The idea of making their own project proved appealing.
Almost 30 minutes later it was on to the centerpiece attraction, the clay bar. At a long charcoal gray bar, the children took seats on stools and flipped through picture books until they found the animal, creature, or object they wanted to build. A few friendly helpers behind the bar steered them based on level of difficulty and then pulled out lumps of colored clay. The employees quickly whipped up examples of what the children wanted to make, showing them how rolling the clay made a fast torso, poking a pencil into it made perfect eyes, and squeezing a tip flattened out a hand and the pencil could then notch fingers or toes.
The bar was crowded with kids, each making a different animal. The biggest challenge for parents was not interfering. We were asked to stay back and let the kids do it themselves.
Our group chose a green alligator, a gray hippopotamus, a gray cat, and a light gray dog. Each child stared intently at the model the employee made and worked feverishly at shaping his or her own, right down to the eyeballs, the pink tongues, the long mouths, and the floppy ears. When they were done, there were four distinct creatures and four wide smiles.
Then the new-age fun began. Next to the Clay Bar is the Media Room, where the bright white walls are lined with computers. Children can place their creations on a landscape made of foam and plastic and make a movie featuring their pieces.
The gang wasted no time. A frozen Styrofoam pond with tiny pine trees was all set up and they were shown how to place their animals inside the walls, point the video camera at the pond, and take quick pictures, moving their animals an inch at a time so that in the movie they appeared to be moving. The four of them took turns moving the animals and taking the pictures.
They could have stayed there all day, but after an hour or so of moviemaking, they were shown what they had filmed and handed a card with a web address where they could watch their work later at home. The museum uploads the movies at the end of each day.
After so much sitting, the kids were ready to bounce off the walls, and CMA had just the place for them to cut loose. Its upstairs Ball Pond is a shoe-free room with hundreds of big rubber balls where jumping, falling, flailing, screaming, and bouncing are encouraged.
Afterward, with energy on the wane, it was time for a late lunch.
With New York being one of the world’s biggest playgrounds, why would you ever want to go indoors? We just found a new reason.
CHILDREN’S MUSEUM OF THE ARTS Ages 1-65 $11, under 1 and over 65 free, 103 Charlton St., New York, 212-274-0986, www.cmany.org