9 Things I Learned While Visiting the New York State Museum with a Three-Year-Old


What has luminescent rocks, woolly mammoths and a Native American longhouse? Unless you’re from upstate New York, you probably didn’t answer “The New York State Museum.” But if you did, congrats! This long-standing institution was one of my favorite places as a deeply-nerdy child. We brought Sprout there when he was a mere year and a half old, but he had very limited comprehension of the whole thing. This Christmas vacation, I thought I would give it another try.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Your kid will not be excited about the same things that you were.
This is one of those things every parent knows mentally, but it’s still disappointing when it happens. When I was little, I spent hours roaming the museum’s mess of halls, reading every sign, and learning new factoids. I have fond memories of playing a ridiculous fish-themed computer game on black-and-green screens in the kids’ room. But Sprout? Less of a fan. In particular, he exhibited zero interest in the rocks and minerals section that my dad and I always bonded over. He seemed to like the rest of the museum, but didn’t exhibit my unbridled passion.

2. Trucks that are almost identical to the ones we have at home are more exciting than furs, bones, and other exhibits they have only at the museum.
We entered the children’s area with me ready to share the joys of learning about wildlife and fossils. Instead, Sprout made a beeline for a wooden truck extremely similar to the piles of Melissa and Doug toys he has at home. He then spent the next 10 minutes zooming it back and forth on the floor.

3. Wooly mammoths are still awesome.
The taxidermied animals were not a big draw, but the wooly mammoths did maintain their cool factor. “They’re like furry elephants!” we exclaimed. Sprout seemed to buy into that. “Why aren’t they around anymore?” he asked. I explained that the weather changed so much that it was too hot for them anymore. But considering he asked the exact same question about dinosaurs last week, I suspect we may have a number of discussions about extinction in the coming months and years.

4. New York City subway cars are also awesome, even if you have ridden the subway in your home city a zillion times.
Considering his love of trains, I knew Sprout would love the old-fashioned NYC subway car parked in the museum. For one, we allowed him to sprint back and forth through it, something he’s definitely not allowed to do on the Metro. His calls of “Step back, doors closing!” rang throughout the museum.

Photo: The Egg (a large, egg-shaped building) in Albany, NY

The Egg, no corners for you

5. Even three year olds can appreciate funky architecture.
Admittedly, this isn’t in the museum itself. But the Empire State Plaza is also home to one of the weirdest buildings possibly ever built – The Egg. Unlike the brutalist monstrocities of Washington D.C., the Egg’s giant concrete presence is oddly charming. They Might Be Giants even wrote a song about it! So of course, I had to point it out to Sprout. He kept looking up, pointing, and exclaiming, “It’s the Egg!” as we walked by. We even discussed what would hatch from it if it was a real egg. Sprout said a dinosaur; I said a dragon.

6. Pop culture can be a useful tool for connecting kids with history.
While I’ve used familiar concepts to explain science and frequently refer to Daniel Tiger in terms of social situations, I’ve never really connected pop culture and history. But that connection came in handy when we visited the Museum’s Native American longhouse. Sprout saw Moana recently and we’ve had the soundtrack on repeat ever since. In the longhouse, they have a scene of a grandmother telling stories to children that almost matched the movie’s opening scene. He wasn’t exactly impressed with the longhouse originally, but definitely perked up at the mention of Moana.

7. I’m not ready to have some really hard conversations yet.
The Museum has a gallery devoted to September 11 that’s impossible to avoid if you want to see their extensive fire truck display. (Which, of course, we did.) A key part of the September 11 gallery is a fire truck where the front half is normal but the back is completely crushed.  Sprout asked, “What happened to the truck?” Chris responded, “Something really heavy fell on it.” Which was technically true, albeit not really a complete answer. We haven’t discussed death with him yet, so I can’t imagine explaining how or why someone would want to cause mass murder.

8. The museum hasn’t updated much in the past 20 years.
There are a handful a new things, such as the 9/11 gallery. But for the most part, the exhibits have changed very little since I was a kid. On one hand, that provided me with some fun “blast from the past” nostalgia. On the other, a lot of the exhibits are badly dated. Whether incorrect or just boring, it doesn’t make for the most engaging experience.

9. On a slow day, they’ll turn on the carousel just for you.
Because the carousel on the top floor is ancient, they treat it like any other artifact – carefully. Usually, the staff only runs it on the half-hour. But if they don’t have many people coming through, they’ll turn it on just for you. Riding next to Sprout as our horses rose and fell was one of my favorite memories of the day.

For updates, articles, and photos, be sure to like my page on Facebook. For other adventures in upstate New York, check out my post on the Schenectady Museum of Innovation and Science (MSci) and the Saratoga Children’s Museum

3 thoughts on “9 Things I Learned While Visiting the New York State Museum with a Three-Year-Old

  1. A couple of weeks ago, I fell into a cyclical “Buy why?” trap that eventually led me to tell my five-year-old about 9/11. I feel like it was a lot more traumatic for me than for him. He really latched on to the United 93 part of the story, and became intensely interested in the possibility that the passengers might used their seats as improvised weapons (I don’t even know where that came from). There’s been lots of things where he’s pushed me in a dirction where I’ve had to either explain something I don’t think he’s ready for, or outright lie to him, and so far, nothing’s ever traumatized him the way I thought it would. The only thing that really had a serious effect on him was something I felt like it absolutely was the right time to get into: the fact that in the event of a fire, he couldn’t stop to retrieve his favorite toys.

    • Very interesting. Sometimes I think kids can handle a lot more than we tend to give them credit for!

      We’re going to have to talk about the death thing soon, if only so the death of my great-grandmother isn’t the first time we talk about it. (She’s pretty ill.) We watched Frozen over Christmas break and when the parents died, we just said, “Ummm, so they aren’t coming back.”

  2. Pingback: A Preschoolers’ Guide to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History | We'll Eat You Up – We Love You So

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