3 Winter Outings
My first criterion for a good preschooler activity is that it must tire the kid out. Because if you’ve got a 2-, 3- or 4-year-old at home with you, an active morning often leads to a decent afternoon nap—and a quiet break for you.
So when I began spending two days a week at home with my then-2-year-old and then-4-year-old sons, I looked for places close to our East Side home that, even in winter, would allow them to run around a bit and take the edge off. Since I tend to be spontaneous, I picked destinations that suited my fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants style.
Now that Finn, my 6-year-old, is in kindergarten, weekday outings need to entertain and exhaust only one active little kid, but the same three places still suit Niall and me. It’s a personally and geographically biased list. I hope, however, that it will introduce or reintroduce you to some spots in Syracuse that you might not have considered.
1. Erie Canal Museum
I can’t remember when it first occurred to me to go into the building on Erie Boulevard that we passed almost daily on our drives to downtown Syracuse. We could see the life-size boat—I always referred to the museum as “The Building With The Boat In It”—but for some reason we never actually stopped, parked and went inside.
Once I made the decision to bring my sons there, the museum soon became one of our regular outings. The replica line boat—the one visible through the museum’s picture windows—is a natural draw for young kids. And never once has a museum staffer scolded my children for running or being loud (and, yes, they have both run and been excessively loud).
That’s deliberate, says Diana Goodsight, executive director of the museum. “The museum is here for kids to learn and play. If (visitors) have a positive experience the first time they go to a museum, we hope they’ll be museum goers forever.”
So—as long as children are accompanied by parents or caregivers and don’t do anything that will get them or someone else hurt—they have free rein.
My 3-year-old usually heads first to the bow of the line boat (so called because it’s a boat owned by a shipping line), where he takes the tiller to steer. The boat doesn’t actually move, since it’s sitting on a bed of gravel, but if you’re waiting your turn at the tiller, you can watch the rudder move.
After a little time on deck, we head inside to the boat’s galley, where pots and pans can be used to prepare a meal. We spend a little time playing kitchen and then check out the bunks in the stern, where a child can pretend to take a little nap.
Everything on the boat is pretty sturdy and can be touched, or even picked up and moved about. (You do have to watch young children carefully, because new walkers could stumble on the gangplanks that lead to the boat or cut themselves on the metal edges of some of the pots.)
After leaving the boat, we often head to the museum’s interior, where we look at the miniature—though still large—model boats on the ground floor. An interactive touch screen display, “Work the Weighlock,” enables you to experience the decision-making involved in taking tolls, including calculating whether a boat is so heavily loaded it might break the scale.
To get to the second floor, where additional exhibits and the restrooms are, you can ride the elevator, painted to look like the deck of a canal boat, and listen to a recording of sounds that give you a taste of life on the water. Also on the second floor, you can go to the Children’s Nook, a cozy area with a puppet theater, 19th-century-style toys, a dress-up corner with hats, and a library filled with children’s books about Erie Canal life.
Although the museum appreciates a donation, visitors are never asked to make one. “Admission is free,” Goodsight says. “This is a community treasure. We want you to come here.”
When I ask Goodsight what she wishes more people in the community knew about the museum, she says, “How important the Erie Canal was for the growth of the United States.” Syracuse itself, including its magnificent bank buildings surrounding Clinton Square, owes its existence to the commerce the canal brought to an area that was, as Goodsight puts it, “a little swampy town full of mosquitoes.”
The weighlock building, which houses the Erie Canal Museum, was built in 1850 when the original structure was destroyed in a fire. It is the last weighlock building in the United States.
I am always amazed to be reminded that Erie Boulevard used to be a waterway and not a road at all. It seems obvious, and yet, in my rush to get from one point to another in my car, I tend to forget.
At the museum, for a few minutes, as my son scrambles about, I can go back in time and get a sense of 19th-century canal boat life. It’s pretty cool.
2. Shoppingtown Mall
Both Shoppingtown, on Erie Boulevard in DeWitt, and Great Northern Mall, on Route 31 in Clay, have indoor play areas located in their food courts. Enclosed by a circular wall of benches, both areas are very little-kid friendly.
We have been to Great Northern Mall’s play center, which is dominated by a magical-looking tree with a tunnel under the truck. But Shoppingtown is less than 10 minutes’ drive from our house, so that’s the one we head to on a blustery winter day.
When we go to Shoppingtown, the first stop is usually what we call “the play space.” Located in the food court on the second floor of the mall, you can take the stairs, elevator or escalator to get there—and we like them all.
The space is filled with plastic-covered soft structures made to look like small, climbable buildings, a giant stack of books, a street lamp, and other structures, all on a safe, springy floor. There are short, toddler- and preschooler-friendly slides and tunnels. The space is surrounded by comfortable seats where parents can watch their children burn off a little energy.
Shoppingtown’s play area is located near public restrooms, and it’s got gallery-style skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the parking lot, so you can get a bit of an outdoor experience indoors. Another amenity is the hand-sanitizer dispenser, which my son likes just a little too much.
Security officers patrol the food court regularly, and the play area is cleaned thoroughly once a day and often a few times more.
Posted rules include a maximum kid height of 42 inches (at age 5 my older son reached the limit, and when I was with both children I started steering our activities away from the play space); a ban on bringing food or beverages into the space; and a requirement that shoes be removed.
The rules make good sense to me. But you and your child will encounter parents and kids who don’t share that view. If you want to hang out at the play area, be prepared to accept a range of behavior, including children a few inches above the height limit and adults wearing shoes and bringing coffee into the space.
You’re welcome to report infractions to guest services. My own policy: If I’m not happy with my fellow parents’ behavior or that of their children, I leave. And if there are gangs of under-supervised big kids tearing around the play area (which can happen on winter weekend afternoons), I would advise staying away. My own favorite times are first thing on weekday mornings, when there is rarely a crowd.
Besides the play space, our usual Shoppingtown outing includes a jaunt to the Sears wing of the mall, where there’s a cluster of coin-operated vehicles (as there is by the Regal Cinemas wing, near the elevators). For 75 cents, your child can enjoy a brief thrill that gives your hike a destination and another reason to get some exercise. Also in that wing, there’s a family room with a changing area, one-stall bathroom and some kid-furniture.
We typically stop by the DeWitt Community Library before leaving. The library has a comprehensive children’s section stocked with books for kids, desktop computers loaded with educational games, toys, and a recently acquired Thomas the Tank Engine train table. The train table has a train shed, turntable, elevated tracks, a crossing and a lot of other appealing accessories and trains.
Other Shoppingtown attractions include a pet store, a barbershop and hair salon. You can eat a snack with your child on a bench in the hall while he stares at people getting their hair cut. (Not that my son would ever do such a thing.)
3. Rosamond Gifford Zoo
Let me just say that winter at the zoo totally rocks. The crowds are nonexistent, the parking is plentiful and there are many indoor and outdoor animal exhibits.
“So many people think we’re closed,” says Lorrell Walter, the zoo’s director of public relations. In fact, many of the zoo’s animals have been chosen for their adaptability to Syracuse’s climate, even its frigid winter weather. And plenty of them not only are suited to winter—they relish it.
The Amur tiger triplets, Kuza, Yuri and Misha, born in May and now nearly 9 months old, have had a blast checking out the changes winter has brought to their exhibit. “That’s been sort of fun—to watch them playing in the snow, rolling in snow, sliding on the hill,” Walter says.
The seven elephants in the Asian elephant herd go out on winter days as well. On an early-January visit, we saw them in their barn, part of the expanded habitat called the Asian Elephant Preserve. Usually the elephants spend part of every day in the outdoor yard as well, Walter says.
The Humboldt penguins, native to the coasts of Chili and Peru, are used to variable temperatures but not necessarily the degree of cold we get in Central New York. When it’s too frigid for their preferences—even with their pool heated to a year-round temperature in the 50s or 60s—they can be seen indoors in the building next door.
Tropical birds, like the macaw, are housed in the jungle-like environment of the aviary. Visitors, and the birds, can look out on the courtyard and appreciate the indoor paradise.
Overall, the zoo is a pretty safe place to bring even an untamed young person. The one time I lost a child, I asked a zoo employee for help while I stayed put, and my son was quickly returned to me.
“We’re really good at finding lost kids,” says Walter. All zoo employees are notified when a child goes missing, and “everybody stops what they’re doing and canvasses for the child. You’ll find a kid in five minutes.”
Niall and I have a lot of animals we check out on almost every visit. Among our favorites (in addition to the elephants, tigers and penguins) are: otters, lions, poison dart frogs, giant river turtles, pythons, sand cats, meerkats, naked mole rats, reindeer, and spectacled bears. And, even in winter, you can see them all on a typical day at the zoo.
One animal I enjoy spotting (as it were) is the snow leopard, which often likes to snooze against the glass of its exhibit, so close to visitors they could touch it if the barrier weren’t there. The lions, too, often get right next to the glass of their enclosure, making for a realistic bit of perspective on their size and power compared to a young—or old—human’s.
Because everyone in my family of four visits several times a year, an annual membership is a fine value. For $68, you get admission for two adults and their children or grandchildren, ages 3 to 18, for one year.
That’s it. I wish there were more. But just the other day I ventured to the downtown Galleries of Syracuse, on South Salina Street, where I hadn’t been in a long time. I admired the gray winter light coming through the skylights and pictured Niall climbing the stairs—and getting tired—checking out the downtown branch library. This might be joining our list in the near future.
Erie Canal Museum, 318 Erie Blvd. E., Syracuse. Hours: Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free (but a donation of $5 is most welcome). Parking is on city streets in designated areas in the blocks around the downtown museum; look for parking kiosks marked with blue and white signs; the machines accept credit cards and coins for a maximum of two hours ($2.50) at a time. 471-0593. www.eriecanalmuseum.org.
Shoppingtown Mall, 3649 Erie Blvd. E., DeWitt. Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free
admission and parking. For emergency assistance, call 446-9159. www.shoppingtownmall.com.
Great Northern Mall, 4155 Route 31, Clay. Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Free admission and parking. For emergency assistance, call 6 22-3011. www.greatnorthernmall.com.
Rosamond Gifford Zoo, 1 Conservation Park (entrance off South Wilbur Avenue), Syracuse. Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Leopard Days admission in January and February: free, age 2 and under; $2, ages 3 to 18; $4, adults; $2.50, senior citizens (over 62). Parking is free. 435-8511.
Reid Sullivan is editor in chief of Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York, a national award-winning monthly parenting magazine. She lives in the Westcott area of Syracuse with her husband and two sons.
Pictures Above: Michael Davis Photos