History Field Trips in New York City – Or how to lose a student in an interesting way

1461115532_730c78e1d6As a teacher, the best way to drive me crazy is to plan a field trip.

Field trips are frightening things, even for veterans.  If your class manages to behave somewhat in the building, imagine how your darlings will react exposed to the outside world.  Also note the myriad logistics involved: the planning with the site, the permission from the administration, the buses (or lack of buses), the permission slips, the money collection, the cajoling of parents to come along, the forcing of parents of problem children to come, etc.  All of this, and things still go wrong.  The buses come late, the museum/zoo/farm loses our confirmation, no lunches, children hurt themselves, and teachers and parents lose their minds.

In the realm of history, there are many opportunities for field trips.  The problem is that in most places, the teachers enjoy it more than the students.  Kids just can’t get into huge paintings of massed troops and funny uniforms–not when they can make huge bubbles and work a robot at the science museum.  Let’s face it, there is a real dearth of “hands-on” sites about history.  What fun it would be to sample real smallpox blankets, or to bury a tomahawk in your classmate’s skull.  Even in places that have more interaction, like Colonial Williamsburg, for example, the connection is more passive: you’re watching people in funny clothes churning butter rather than really churning it yourself. 

This becomes even more of a problem in New York City, where I work.  In a capitalist paradise, nothing “old” is ever around for long.  With constant building and demolition, most of our city’s past is the stuff of museums–museums housed in buildings that barely survived the wrecking ball themselves.  In such an environment, it can be difficult finding places to visit that both teach and entertain students.  Not everything can be “ol’ reliable”, my pet names for both the Bronx Zoo and the American Museum of Natural History, both gigantic places that offer lots of opportunities for kids to learn and enjoy.  Yet for once, maybe your class can try a place where you learn a little something different–and a place where Johnny won’t get lost so easily.

To that end, I’ve compiled a list of places in New York City worth a visit.  They are small enough to do as a class, have knowledgeable staff to assist, and are incredibly accomodating to students–big requirements for Mr. D.  As usual, the list isn’t exhaustive, so any suggestions from the Neighborhood are more than welcome. 

NOTE: Unfortunately, because of administrative restrictions, I can only provide sites in the New York City area.  It would be unfair of me to comment on places I have not visited or cannot visit with my class.  Those in the Neighborhood from other areas are free to comment with good sites from your locales.  It’d be much appreciated.


Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10029
(212) 534-1672

If there was a history museum in New York that was the most kid-friendly, this would be my pick.  Their programs are created in conjunction with teachers to provide the most relevant and stimulating experiences possible.  Unlike its more noted neighbor across the Park, the NY Historical Society, MCNY is solely focused on New York City’s history, culture and people.  For a kick, definitely take the kids to see the toy collection…they’ll love it, but they may drive you nuts trying to get on the bus home.


New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400

Yes, it has a hyphen–New York used to be spelled like that!  This is, hands down, my favorite museum in New York.  That does NOT mean it’s always the best place for students.  N-YHS has an extensive offering of programs for students of all grade levels, and each new exhibition also comes with a teaching program.  I strongly advise teachers to NOT go to N-YHS without registering for one of their programs.  It is not a place conducive to wandering.  One really fun place–the Luce Center of American Culture, an attic for the Society’s permanent collections.  Real fun place for random stuff, like chairs, toys, buttons and weapons…even death masks.  Plus, you can register for a program right from their website using Ed-Net.


Lower East Side Tenement Museum
108 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 982-8420

If you teach English language learners, or simply have lots of immigrant children (or kids of immigrants) this place is great.  Although tours start at 108 Orchard, the real gem is 97 Orchard, a tenement built in 1863 and now restored to show life among immigrant New Yorkers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Programs at the Museum also make connections to today’s immigrants, especially since most kids couldn’t conceive of a coal stove or waiting in line to use the one toilet on the floor.  You can also reserve spots here online, a nice touch.


Van Cortlandt House Museum
Broadway & West 246th Street
Bronx, NY 10471
(718) 543-3344

This is NOT Van Cortlandt Manor in Westchester, but the house of Frederick Van Cortlandt, built in the Georgian style in 1748.  It is the oldest building in the Bronx, and like its newer cousin, Bartow-Pell, underwent renovations of both the house and its programming.  Bronx classrooms would get a kick out of Revolutionary War reenactments here, especially since Washington, Lafayette and Rochambeau all used the house during the war.  Website is moving, so be patient.


Bartow-Pell Mansion
895 Shore Road
Pelham Bay Park
The Bronx, NY 10464
(718) 885-1461

The Pells were among the original landowners of colonial New York–as well as among its largest slaveholders.  This mansion underwent a huge renovation, and is now open for school programs about life in New York in the 19th Century.  Try to go on a nice day, the grounds are absolutely beautiful.  Just make sure to bring lunches as there isn’t much around the area, unless you want to schlep the kids to City Island (please don’t do that).


Brooklyn Historical Society
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 222-4111

How could I forget the borough of my birth?  Most people forget that before 1898, Brooklyn was its own city, at one point the fourth largest in all the United States.  Thanks to a revival of the borough starting in the late 1990s, the Historical Society has also beefed up its collections, while not only adding programs for students, but also materials on its website that help teacher align their standards to Brooklyn themes.  Go Dodgers! (Not the LA kind, either).


South Street Seaport Museum
12 Fulton Street
New York, NY 10038
(212) 748-8786

Exhibitions and artifacts are one thing–and this museum has a lot of them, for sure.  In fact, the museum is dedicated to the preservation of the historic harbor district.  But what really sets this place apart are its ships:  the 1911 barQue Peking and the 1885 schooner Pioneer.  The museum offers programs that integrate marine themes and science into history.  I highly suggest a cruise aboard the Pioneer: you’ll see New York harbor the same way Henry Hudson saw it in 1609.  Simply breathtaking.

Not much time on the calendar to plan, but definitely take the time to go on at least on trip.  At the very least, it’ll get the kids banned from yet another public building.

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