February can be a tough month for New York City kids. Sure, there are heart-shaped lollipops to look forward to on Valentine's Day, and public-schoolers get a weeklong break. But the rest of the month? Bleh. The only glitz left over from the holidays is that stray strand of tinsel clinging to the back of your sofa, and the first signs of spring—like the return of Mister Softee and Little League—are still a couple of looong, chilly months away. You could sit around in your overheated apartment waiting for the ground to thaw, or you could try one of these activities guaranteed to add a blast of sunshine to even the most brutal winter day.
1. Splash around in an indoor pool
Dig out that Tinker Bell suit—there are plenty of heated pools around the city where little ones can swim like it's the middle of July. Check out your local Y: If you don't want to spring for an annual fee, you can ask about a one-week trial membership, or find a friend who'll sign your crew in as her guests. Another option is to buy a pass to the city's public pools ($150 per year for adults, free for kids under the age of 18), and take your pick from a bunch of indoor oases (go to nycgovparks.org/facilities/pools for information). For a fancier splurge, buy a one-day pass to Asphalt Green, which has family swim hours on the weekends (adults $35, kids $10).
2. See a Broadway show—cheap!
For music-loving families (ahem, those of us who swoon over television shows like American Idol and Glee), there is no sound more thrilling than an orchestra tuning up before the curtain rises. With tourist season behind us, it's easier than ever to score inexpensive seats for some of the biggest hits on the Great White Way. Don't hold your breath for The Lion King or Wicked, but other kid faves—think Mary Poppins, Mamma Mia! and In the Heights—frequently show up on the half-price TKTS board, plus there are a bunch of websites that offer discounted tickets.
3. Smell the flowers
The trees around town may be naked for the next few months, but there's plenty of lush flora (and fauna) sprouting inside city greenhouses. The fairy-tale-like Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden (Kazimiroff Blvd at Bedford Park Blvd, Bronx; 718-817-8700) has an extensive collection of palm trees, cacti and aquatic plants. Or go a little farther off the beaten path to the Rusk Institute's Glass Garden (34th St between First Ave and the East River, 212-263-6058). The indoor paradise has tropical plants, trees and vines, plus frogs, turtles, fish, a bunny and a friendly parrot, which is rumored to dance a little jig when it hears the "Happy Birthday" song.
4. Have a traveling shindig
Remember back in college, when a keg party would move from dorm room to dorm room? Simply substitute juice boxes for beer, and you've got a cheerful way to spend the day without ever putting on gloves and hats. Get in touch with other families in your building to plan the celebration: The kids can start out eating pancakes in 9M, move to 12K for an arts-and-crafts project, watch DVDs in 3L and have a board-game tournament in 7G. (Plastic cups full of beer or wine for parents are optional.)
5. Play games at a carnival
The Coney Island boardwalk may be desolate at this time of year, but luckily, there's a toasty indoor version at Bowlmor Lanes' Carnival on Saturdays starting at 1pm (110 University Pl between 12th and 13th Sts, 212-255-8188). The recent addition has classic games such as "toss the Ping-Pong ball in the fishbowl" (win a real goldfish!) and "pop the balloon by squirting water in the clown's mouth." Cotton candy, hot dogs and popcorn are available for kids, and family-friendly content plays continuously on TV screens during the day. Just keep in mind that the space turns into an R-rated nightclub after dark.
6. Pretend you're a celeb
Movie stars (even fake ones) generate lots of heat, so dress your little starlet in her fanciest threads and hang out in a hotel lounge sipping Shirley Temples and pretending to duck the paparazzi. Taylor Swift wanna-bes can visit the Marriott Marquis (1535 Broadway at 46th St, 212-704-8900); the touristy-glitzy Broadway Lounge overlooks the crowds in Times Square. Mini-fashionistas should head to the lounge at the SoHo Grand (310 West Broadway between Canal and Grand Sts, 212-965-3000). Bring the camera: Brangelina and J. Lo have been spotted there.
7. Visit a crafting mecca
It's pretty hard to spark art- project inspiration if all you have is a couple of cotton balls and half a box of Crayolas. Our advice: Take a family trip to the new Michaels megastore on the Upper West Side (808 Columbus Ave between 97th and 100th Sts, 212-865-0813) or Lee's Art Shop in midtown (220 W 57th St between Broadway and Seventh Ave, 212-247-0110). At both, you can spend hours rummaging aisles of colored paper, pipe cleaners, yarn, clay, stencils, candle-making kits and beads. If you're not sure what to do with all that raw material, don't fret. The stores also have craft kits and how-to books to get you going.
8. Grab a slice
Several of our favorite pizza joints have prominent pie-making counters where children can watch the big guys work the dough, sprinkle on toppings and shovel the pan into a raging fire. Thin-crust pizzas crafted at a central station are the highlight of trendy Lucali (575 Henry St between Carroll St and 1st Pl, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn; 718-858-4086). Kids can quiz the masters on what makes a pizza authentically Neapolitan at Keste (271 Bleecker St at Morton St, 212-243-1500). At Park Slope's Two Boots (514 Second St between Seventh and Eighth Aves, Brooklyn; 718-499-3253), the pizza guys will give youngsters their own ball of dough if they ask. And on Monday and Tuesday nights at Jimmy Max on Staten Island (280 Watchogue Rd between Livermore and Dickie Aves, 718-983-6715), little ones are invited to make their own pizzas for free with the purchase of an adult pie.
9. Go mall-walking
Sure, we city folks may sometimes mock the burbs and their sterile mall culture, but those indoor wonderlands—complete with shopping, food and merry-go-rounds—can be a godsend in the bitter weather. For the true experience, head to the Queens Center Mall (90-15 Queens Blvd between 90th St and 59th Ave, Elmhurst; shopqueenscenter.com). In addition to the staples (Applebee's, Gap), the complex boasts an indoor playground with climbing structures shaped like musical instruments.
10. Celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Febrero
With their brightly colored decorations and bowls of chips and salsa, Mexican cocinas are some of the happiest places in town. For pure kitsch, try Tortilla Flats (767 Washington St at 12th St, 212-243-1053). Its recession-friendly children's menu features the Dino-platter—a taco, enchilada or burrito plus rice and beans, for $3. Just be sure to go early to avoid the tequila-shooting crowds. If you're looking for something a bit quieter, visit La Palapa (77 St. Marks Pl between First and Second Aves, 212-777-2537). Parents love the blood-orange margaritas, and kids clamor for the limeade aguas frescas and sweet plantains with cream.
11. Make balloon animals
You don't have to be a Silly Billy to twist balloons into funny shapes. In fact, kids can easily make dogs, swans, swords and bunnies. Purchase long, thin balloons and a pump from any party goods store, and then pick up a how-to book (we're fans of Balloon Twisting by Klutz). Your tykes won't even realize they're stuck indoors once they get going. And if they can't get the hang of it, screw it: Just blow up all the balloons, fill your living room with them, and let the kids go crazy playing and popping.
12. Batter up!
Whether your little baseball fans are coming off the delirium of the Yankees' season or recovering from the depression of the Mets', they've still got a few months to go before Opening Day (and no, watching Olympic curling is not an acceptable substitute). To get a preseason fix, slug some slow-pitch softballs in the batting cages at Chelsea Piers (Eleventh Ave at 23rd St, 212-336-6500). You can also rent a batting cage at the Upper West Side's Baseball Center (202 W 74 St at Amsterdam Ave, 212-362-0344). It costs $50 for a half hour, so you might want to enlist a couple of teammates and split the cost.
13. Spoil the entire family
We bet you didn't know there's a magical castle at the end of the 7 line. Nestled inside what looks like a gigantic, gaudy catering hall, Spa Castle (131-10 11th Ave at 131st St, College Point, Queens; 718-939-6300) has 100,000 square feet of swimming and wading pools, hot tubs, saunas and massage rooms—not to mention a sushi bar, Korean restaurant, juice bar and pizza place. After a long swim, pampered princes and princesses of any age can hang out in the "relaxing room"—where TVs are attached to the lounge chairs!—and get a foot massage, manicure or teen facial. Fancy juices and Korean sweets are available to snack on. As for that long subway ride home? They'll be snoozing with smiles on their faces.
14. Rent a dance studio
After they've been holed up in the apartment for days on end, don't be surprised if your children start doing backflips off the ottoman. Why not let them burn off all that energy in a professional dance space? Gather up half a dozen kids, bring some tunes, and let them dance as wildly as they want without your having to worry about your grouchy downstairs neighbors. (Perhaps you'll even be inspired to show off your Macarena....) Two places that will gladly rent to the junior-tutu set: 440 Studios (440 Lafayette St between Astor Pl and E 4th St, 212-529-0259; $20 to $45 per hour) and Champions Studios (257 W 39th St between Seventh and Eighth Aves, 212-307-7707; $16 to $35 per hour).
15. Plan your next getaway
Gray puddles of slush swamping every street corner? Power up the Wi-Fi and in minutes you could be arranging a horseback ride through the Grand Canyon or a snorkeling session in St. Bart's. Even if the most elaborate vacation you've scheduled for 2010 is crashing on the floor of Grandma's condo in Boca, you can spend an exciting couple of hours with your kids looking up sites and activities online, drawing up packing lists and checking out guidebooks from the library.
16. Watch the butterflies
The best way to add a dash of spring to your winter doldrums: Let a butterfly land on your hand. Colorful creatures galore can be found in the American Museum of Natural History's Butterfly Conservatory (Central Park West at 79th St, 212-769-5100). Lines are long on the weekends, so go early and buy a timed ticket. Or you can hatch your own beauties at home by ordering caterpillars and a habitat from InsectLore.com ($20), then observe as they spin their chrysalides and emerge as glorious Painted Ladies. One caveat: Since it will be too cold outside to release your insects into the wild, your kids will get a lesson about life and death (a butterfly's life span is only about two weeks).
17. Get lost in a painting
Whether your kids prefer the whimsical color combos of the moderns or the hazy light of the Impressionists, spending an afternoon gazing at favorite paintings can make anyone forget about the arctic breezes outside. At MoMA (11 W 53rd St between Fifth and Sixth Aves, 212-708-9400), check out the sunny climes behind Gauguin's Tahitian paintings, Cezanne's Bather and Rousseau's dreamy Sleeping Gypsy. There's also a new exhibit of musical instruments from the Pacific Islands at the Met (1000 Fifth Ave at 82nd St, 212-535-7710): Picturing how to play those nose flutes is always good for a giggle. Check out a list of museums that offer drop-in art workshops for kids.
18. Explore one of the city's great food halls
In the Old World--meets--hipster Essex Street Market (120 Essex St at Delancey St), kids can alternately gape at the piles of actual pigs' feet in the old-fashioned meat stands and salivate over the pomegranate-infused chocolate truffles at the trendy dessert shops. Eat lunch at Shopsin's—a true New York experience—where the hundreds of menu items include 50 soups, such as Peruvian avocado shrimp and Senegalese chicken. On your way home, stop at Economy Candy (108 Rivington St at Essex St, 800-352-4544) for giant Elvis Pez dispensers, cheap bags of sweets, Pop Rocks, and every kind of gum, chocolate and hard candy you can imagine.
19. Become a YouTube star
To convert a do-nothing day into an explosion of creative energy, all you have to do is hand your children a digital video camera. Challenge them to perform a scene from Twilight, choreograph a dance to their favorite Miley Cyrus song or show off their hottest guitar licks—then post the results on YouTube and see how many hits you get. If you don't want strangers watching their performance, post it on your Facebook page or e-mail it to Grandma.
20. Have a ball at Ikea
Yes, it's crazy crowded and you'll come home absolutely exhausted, but consider what an entire day in the megachain's Brooklyn store (1 Beard St at Otsego St, Red Hook; 718-246-4532) gets you and your kids: cinnamon buns. Swedish meatballs. A Water Taxi ride past the Statue of Liberty (free on weekends; $5 per adult on weekdays, or free with any $10 Ikea purchase). A playroom with a ball pit. Handsome wooden toys that are so inexpensive you won't mind giving in and buying a few. And if you happen to purchase a cute slip-covered chair or a $1 spatula while you're there, even better.
21. Give the toys a bath
Toddlers and preschoolers will have a blast throwing all their dolls, dinosaurs, tea sets and Legos in the tub and giving them a good old scrub-a-dub. First, go around the apartment collecting toys made of plastic or other washable materials, then fill the tub halfway with soapy water and spread a towel on the floor for drying. You'll have to supervise, of course, but it's one of the best ways to spend a lazy afternoon—and next time your toddler sticks that stegosaurus figurine in her mouth, you won't have to worry (as much) about all those icky germs.
22. Make a gooey summertime treat
Who says s'mores have to be eaten by a campfire? Set up a tent in the living room—if you don't have a real one, a bedsheet over the dining room table always works. Place a marshmallow on a graham cracker and microwave for about ten seconds; put a square of Hershey's chocolate on top, cover with another graham cracker, and smush the whole thing together. Then crawl into the tent, tell ghost stories, and pass out in a deliriously joyful chocolate coma.
23. Have lunch at Bloomingdale's
There's something charmingly nostalgic about sitting at a lunch counter with your mom after a shopping spree. The modern decor at 40 Carrots in the famous department store (Lexington Ave at 59th St, 212-705-2000) gives that retro activity a 21st-century vibe. For $7, kids get an entre (the tuna salad on pretzel bread is a favorite), a drink and a big bowl of Bloomies' famous frozen yogurt. If you say yes to Gummi bears on their desserts, they might even let you stop by the shoe department for a few minutes.
24. Get your giggles with Archie
Before all those love triangles in High School Musical and Gossip Girl, there was Archie, Betty and Veronica. Warm up for a half hour at the tiny Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in Soho (594 Broadway between Houston and Prince Sts, suite 401; 212-254-3511), where "The Art of Archie Comics" is on display through the end of February. Original art, dolls, lunchboxes and videos show how the still-teenage redhead and his pals have evolved over the years, from jalopy-driving, all-American teens to pop stars to newlyweds (in a dream sequence, of course).
25. Hang ten at the Hall of Science
Since the closest most tykes get to outdoor athletics this month is the sprint from the subway to the front door, they'll love the Sports Challenge exhibit at the New York Hall of Science (47-01 111th St at 47th Ave, Flushing Meadows--Corona Park, Queens; 718-699-0005). They can ride a surfboard, hit tennis balls, pitch baseballs, climb an eight-foot-tall rock wall or see how fast they can put the pedal to the metal in a drag race. Kids will have a ball while sopping up tons of information about balance, motion and physics.