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Taking the Kids

Exploring the Urban Jungle

August 06, 1995|EILEEN OGINTZ

"The Statue of Loony," 4-year-old Melanie declared happily, pointing to the Statue of Liberty, as the ferry skimmed across New York harbor.

Melanie didn't care about the landmark's significance to generations of immigrants. She just thought the 225-ton lady holding a torch was neat. Her 9-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother also loved it and despite the long line and the heat, Matt and Reggie opted to climb the 354 steps to the crown so they could peer out of a tiny, dirty window toward the tip of Manhattan. "We want to say we did it," Matt explained, as we waited in line. Melanie, meanwhile, was content to take the elevator to the pedestal and then play outside, proudly showing off her own green Liberty crown. For once, everyone had a good time at the same place.

That's city sightseeing with kids: unpredictable and always requiring a go-with-the-flow approach that, with luck, will keep everyone relaxed and happy . . . most of the time, anyway.

"You spend a lot of time in places you didn't expect and you never see everything you want to see, but you get a whole different perspective on the city--more playful and less serious," said Kate Day, a landscape architect from Seattle who, with her husband Chris Farnsworth, led their 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son on a five-week urban odyssey last summer.

The Day-Farnsworth crew toured Minneapolis, Cleveland, Baltimore, New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., among other places, exploring old cemeteries and battlefields, as well as museums, parks and ethnic restaurants along the way. "Sure we would have seen more art galleries without the kids, but I got so much enjoyment watching them discover new cities," Day said. Her tip: With the kids, read up on the city or state on the way into town. The more weird and funny the facts, the better.

Vicki Rygiel, a St. Paul, Minn., graphic designer and mother of three, says she goes a step further, calling or writing local chambers of commerce before a trip, asking about special fairs, exhibits or places that might interest children. "The key is, if it's not working out, re-evaluate and try something else," she said.

In summer when it's hot, alternate low-key outdoor activities with time indoors. Visit a sculpture garden outside a museum, for example. Have a picnic in the park rather than heading to a restaurant for lunch. Cut the historic tour short and head to the pool. Relax and accept that the family simply may not make all the places on the "must-see" list.

"We all know it can't be done but we still overdo it. You want to see so much," said Don Wertlieb, a child psychologist and chairman of Tuft University's child studies department.

Keep the kids' perspectives in mind. They'll focus on different things, from an odd-shaped staircase to whether they can jump through the nearest fountain. That's why, even when touring historic buildings or museums, "look for places where the kids can be active," Wertlieb said. He remembers the wonderful day he climbed the bell tower of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris with his wife and children. Kate Day's children loved New York's Guggenheim Museum, where they walked the spiral ramp from top to bottom, looking at art along the way.

If the children are young, don't leave home without a good collapsible stroller. Many parents also swear by a sturdy backpack for toddlers. If you can swing it, consider taking along a favorite sitter.

Teens can't wait to get away from the family and a little planning may enable them to do just that on an urban trip. "Take along a friend and let the teens take a city tour, explore an aquarium or go to a play. Drop them off and pick them up. They'll be safe but think it's all much cooler on their own," said Diane Lyons, a former teacher who has weathered many such trips with her own sons and now runs Accent on Arrangements, a New Orleans-based company that provides city-oriented activities for children whose parents are attending conventions.

Remember, too, that kids will soak up a lot about different places simply by riding the subways and buses. But be careful not to use up all their energy just getting to a location. It will help if the kids have got something special to look forward to each day, whether it's a particular playground, video arcade or movie.

And be sure to listen when they say they're ready to quit for the day. Kids, no matter what their ages, need lots of down time.

"They can't be on the go all the time the way an adult would," said UCLA child psychologist Jill Waterman, who recently returned to Los Angeles from a sightseeing trip to the East Coast with her 11-year-old twins. She recommends keeping sightseeing excursions short to avoid a family mutiny.

Taking the Kids appears weekly.

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