On the one hand, figuring out ways to occupy your children on the weekend is a never-ending struggle. On the other, there’s no greater excuse to indulge in a city’s G-rated pleasures—and Boston, with its intellectual, architectural, and artistic legacies, is the ideal urban landscape upon which to set them free. From revered museums to revamped parks to renowned attractions, the city overflows with urbane children’s offerings that also have lots of to appeal to the parental set as well. It turns out that the best things to do with kids in Boston are some of the best things to do in Boston, period.
Things to do with kids in Boston
Founded in 1913 by a well-meaning group of local science teachers, the Children's Museum in Boston was just another collection of things to look at until director Michael Spock arrived in 1961. The son of the late American paediatrician and childcare guru Benjamin Spock, he took out the glass cases of rocks and dusty taxidermy and turned the museum into a joyously interactive hands-on experience even before the space’s move to the then-unsung Fort Point neighborhood. A $47 million restoration project completed in 2007 transformed the cramped, confusing layout into a series of light spacious open areas, with plenty of room for energetic kids. The centerpiece of the museum is the New Balance Foundation Climb, a twisty, turning three-story climbing structure made of serpentine wires and curved plywood sails. On the ground floor, the Kid Power exhibit—complete with climbing wall, bikes and an interactive light-up dance floor to stomp on—explores health and fitness. It's also home to the ever-popular John Hancock Science Playground, where young researchers can sit under a glass-bottomed turtle tank, create walls of bubbles or make a maze for rolling golf balls down the wall. Young pilots may prefer climbing into the model cockpit in the Arthur's World exhibit, hosted by television's most charismatic aardvark, before a story in the reading corner. Creative kids can make a mess at the Art Studio or visit the Construction Zone to mimic all the development happening outside the museum.
The breathtaking centerpiece of this excellent aquarium is the colossal 200,000-gallon salt-water replica of a Caribbean coral reef. The cylindrical tank, 40 feet in diameter and three stories tall, is alive with moray eels, stingrays, gigantic sea turtles and menacing sharks. On a smaller scale, a touch tank exhibit lets children stick their hands into the cold water of a tidal basin and get up close and personal with starfish, sea urchins and hermit crabs. The huge indoor penguin exhibit (constructed so almost all of the balconies overlook it) is one of the city’s most enduring nature attractions. If the lines are too long, peek at the playful inhabitants of the outdoor seal enclosure instead. The IMAX theatre offers state-of-the-art 3D glasses to put viewers in the middle of the action.
The Mapparium—the world's largest walk-in globe—is among the city's quirkiest landmarks and catnip to any budding historian or geologist. It’s a three-story model of the globe built to scale, running 30 feet in diameter and traversed by way of the glass bridge that bisects its interior. So why would this appeal to the pre-tween set? For one thing, there are the weird acoustics. Sound bounces off the globe room's non-porous glass walls, amplifying it tenfold—your child can whisper his sweet lunch needs on one end and you’ll hear him clear as day on the other. Another idiosyncratic feature is the map itself. Instead of depicting the world's current geography, the 608 stained-glass panels recreate the planet as it was in the mid-1930s, when the project was completed. It is, as the piped-in voice overhead reminds us, "a world that no longer exists"—which means your little fact-checker can have a blast pointing out all the outdated borders and country names.
South Boston lays claim to one of the city's most appealing shoreline parks: the 22-acre Castle Island, where children can run through a grassy knoll, hit the playground for a bit, then dig holes on the beach for a while before demanding hot dogs and ice cream at Sullivan’s, the on-site food shack. It is, in other words, a one-stop spot for a sunny summer afternoon. It's also among the oldest fortified military sites in North America, centerpieced by Fort Independence, a pentagonal granite structure that was finished in the 1850s—and which can be toured with kids for a nominal fee.
In a beautiful, 265-acre park setting, this living museum is administered by Harvard University. Open to the public, it provides the opportunity to see more than 7,000 specimens of trees and plants from around the world—but don’t bother telling that to the kids, because they’ll be too busy riding their bikes and razor scooters up and down the well-paved paths. In May, Lilac Sunday is one of the must-dos for families, a daylong celebration of the fragrant, flowering shrub that usually coincides with Mother’s Day.
This glassed-in walkway high atop “the Pru” offers a 360-degree perspective from a height of 750 feet; on a clear day, you can see as far as 80 miles in any direction. While kids will initially marvel over the height and views, it’s hard not to get sucked into the history laid out before them, at least a little. (Audio tours that pick out the Hub's many historical sites are available.)
Kids can walk right up to the glass enclosures and make faces at young gorillas or peek at stalking lions, and actually pet the sheep and goats at the Contact Corral. Brilliantly colored birds dart through the Tropical Forest over the heads of pygmy hippos and capybaras (and visitors), and butterflies flutter onto outstretched hands at the seasonal Butterfly Landing. Some kids will happily ignore the animals altogether and tackle the zoo-themed playground equipment instead. For the very little ones, there is a separate Children’s Zoo, which includes a grass maze and some up-close-and-personal time with prairie dogs and red pandas.
What child could resist sitting in a swan? A part of Boston tourist history, these odd watercrafts were created by designer Robert Paget in 1877, when the swan-drawn boat in the opera Lohengrin was a tad more familiar. Other kids are more likely to know about Robert McCloskey's classic book Make Way for Ducklings, in which the Mallard family decides to move to Boston Pond, lured by the peanuts tossed by swan boat riders. (The Mallards also feature in an annual Duckling Day parade in mid May.) You'll spend 15 minutes cruising around the small lagoon, amid the ducks and willows, as your children play at being either swashbuckling pirates or quiet nature observers.
This well-known and extremely child-friendly museum is committed to providing an interactive and educational experience, making science accessible through a wealth of hands-on activities and engaging exhibits. Highlights include the Thomson Theater of Electricity, which houses a giant Van de Graaff generator, providing a safe way to experience a dramatic lightning storm at close range; the domed Mugar Omni Theater for IMAX movies; and the Butterfly Garden conservatory. At the multimedia Charles Hayden Planetarium, the Zeiss Star Projector reproduces a realistic night sky. For parents of the under-8 set, there’s no greater reprieve than the Discovery Center, which lets kids engage in hands-on learning activities while their adult counterparts take a little breather. There's also an enormous gift shop, a surprisingly decent café courtesy of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, and a spectacular view of the river to admire from the vast windows in the back of the museum. And for those born-and-bred Bostonians who themselves grew up visiting the museum, rest assured that both the T-Rex and the space shuttle are still present here.
The BPL is actually two libraries. The original structure, designed by Charles McKim and completed in 1895, is now the research library, which might hold some appeal to sophisticated tots who enjoy a good Sargent painting. But it’s the modern wing of the library—which recently underwent a multi-year, multi-million-dollar renovation—that will appeal to future literati. The new Children’s Library is twice as large as its predecessor, brightly decorated and packed to the gills not just with books, but also computers, early literacy stations, reading list suggestions and comfy seating. Come summer, the BPL offers all sorts of special children’s programming, both within and beyond its walls.