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Play's the Thing

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Our indispensable guide for kids with time on their hands proves there's much more to summer in the city than sprinklers in the park (not that there's anything wrong with that).

In and around town . . .

  • Send your tween and teen foodies to cooking camp at the Institute for Culinary Education. The same folks who teach at the professional arm of the school will show campers how to prepare Italian, Japanese, Tex-Mex, and Thai meals. Sessions are three or four hours per day; cost is $300 to $350, depending on the session, but it's cheaper than hiring a live-in chef. (For ages 11 to 18; 50 W. 23rd St.; 212-847-0770.)

  • Get doused by a dolphin at the New York Aquarium on Coney Island. Brave youngsters will get a kick out of the up-close-and-personal view of the sharks. Those who prefer the warm-blooded and fuzzy can catch a sloppy, fishy kiss at the sea-lion show. The sun can be brutal out here, so bring your suits and hit the beach afterward. (Surf Ave. and W. 8th St.; 718-265-fish; admission is $11, $7 for kids.)

  • Tennis, anyone? Golf and tennis lessons are offered free to kids all summer long through the City Parks Foundation in parks throughout the five boroughs. The teachers are college players, top-flight amateurs, and semi-pros. Equipment is provided. There are plenty of slots for tennis, but golf is limited to 25 kids per session, with the Staten Island location filling up fastest. (To register, call 718-699-4200.)

  • Six Flags Great Adventure boasts more rides than any other amusement park in the world, so this year, instead of adding yet another heartstopper, the folks at GA added more little-kid-friendly attractions. The park now features a buffet breakfast with the characters from "Looney Tunes," a dolphin-and-sea-lion show, a musical revue for kids, and an acrobatic circus. Also this year, admission to the 350-acre drive-through safari is free. (Rte. 537, Jackson, N.J.; 732-928-1821 or sixflags.com)

  • Dance to the beat of a different drum at Barefoot Dancing, the world-music series held every Wednesday night at Wave Hill, overlooking the Hudson in Riverdale. Basic instruction is given in dance styles from around the world, followed by an open dancing session, all from 7 to 8:30 p.m. The series includes Bukharan Jewish music (June 19); Puerto Rican and Cuban percussion (June 26); palo drums of the Dominican Republic (July 3); Japanese music (July 10); Korean music (July 17); Colombian music (July 24); and vodou dancing from Haiti (July 31). (Independence Ave. and W. 249 St., the Bronx; 718-549-3200; admission is $4, kids under 7 free.)

  • Central Park's indoor rock climbing at the North Meadow Recreation Center should keep the kids from driving you up a wall for at least a couple of afternoons. The Central Park Conservancy's four-session course teaches all the fundamentals. Classes are on Saturdays in July from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Preregistration at the center is required. Already know the ropes? There's an open climb every Sunday in July from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. (Mid-park at 97th St.; 212-348-4867.)

  • At 10:30 a.m. every Tuesday throughout the summer, you can catch free puppet shows and musical theater in Madison Square Park. Thursday is storytelling day. And every weekday from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 4 p.m., there's an arts and crafts program at the newly renovated playground. (23rd St. between Madison and Fifth Aves.; 212-360-8170. If it rains, shows are held indoors at the Toy Building, 200 Fifth Ave.)

  • Send your kids to jail at the New York City Police Museum. Gumshoes-in-training can check out exhibitions of the Jail Cell, which re-creates the conditions in a city lockup; learn the history of the department's uniform and equipment in the Look of the Law; and take a part in the Crime Scene, an interactive exhibit that lets you play detective and solve a mysterious burglary. (100 Old Slip, near Water St.; 212-480-3100.)

  • Sure, the New York Hall of Science has fine educational exhibits, but it's the playground that really thrills. There's a giant, climbable spider web, tubular slides, a water trough for learning stuff while splashing everyone around you, and sound equipment that lets kids talk to each other from opposite ends of the playground. (Flushing Meadows Corona Park, 47-01 111th St., Queens; 718-699-0005; museum admission is $7.50, $2.50 for kids 2 to 4; $5 for older kids, plus $3 extra for the playground.)

  • Rockefeller Park -- the north end of Battery Park City, off Chambers Street -- offers something free almost every weekday afternoon through October. Look for staff members wearing light-blue bpcp T-shirts who organize the activities. No reservations necessary, and all ages are invited. Monday at 3:30 p.m. is basketball; Tuesday is soccer (times vary depending on the child's age); Wednesday is for group games and gardening; Thursday is arts and crafts at 3:30 p.m. (212-267-9700; bpcparks.org.)

  • You'll be as impressed as the Dalai Lama was by the quality of the collection at the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art on Staten Island. But your little man will love the 2 p.m. Mongolian-wrestling performance (followed by lessons) on July 21. (338 Lighthouse Ave.; 718-987-3500.)

  • Take a hike through the Alley Pond Environmental Center -- and a page from Ranger Rick. Drop by the animal room for a view of hopping rabbits, crawling turtles, doves, snakes, and guinea pigs. The park, in Douglaston, is about 600 acres, but the longest trail is a mere one-mile loop, doable even for tykes. (228-06 Northern Blvd., Queens; 718-229-4000; admission is free.)

  • At the annual Fishing Contest in Prospect Park, Macy's provides both equipment and instruction. Last year's winner was a 9-year-old boy from Crown Heights. The catch? A thirteen-inch bass. Contest dates are July 13 and July 16 through 20, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Call 718-965-6975; free to kids 15 and younger.)

  • The Queens County Farm in Floral Park is a working farm with cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens; an herb garden; fields of corn, tomato, eggplant, and lettuce (all for sale); a greenhouse; and a 1772 farmhouse. The Strawberry Fest on June 22 and 23 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. includes country music, hayrides, a collectibles exhibit, and lotsa berries. (73-50 Little Neck Pkwy., Queens; 718-347-FARM or queensfarm.org.)

  • There are plenty of places where kids can paint premade ceramic pieces, but at La Mano Pottery, they can actually start with a hunk of clay and build it, mold it, paint it, and glaze it all by themselves. The summer series, for 6-to-11-year-olds, is on Thursdays from 3:30 to 5 p.m. for eight weeks, running June 20 through August 22, with no classes on July 4 and August 8. Cost is $240. (237 W. 18th St.; 212-627-9450.)

  • Teach 'em where babies come from at the Bronx Zoo's Oh Baby!, a zoo-wide exhibit on wildlife breeding. The zoo acts as matchmaker, architect of romantic animal settings, ultrasound-offering obstetrician, and, ultimately, midwife. To keep the births under control, zookeepers place animals in same-sex groups and even give them contraceptives so they can court without consequence. Babies of the Congo are highlighted on July 20 and 21. (Bronx River Pkwy. and Fordham Rd.; 718-367-1010 or wcs.org; admission is $11, $6 for kids.)

  • Take a load off at Sammie & Tudie's Storytime. Held at Ziggie's Cafe on alternate Wednesdays, this program entertains kids with stories and sing-alongs -- while parents take a well-deserved coffee (or quiche) break. Shows are currently slated for June 26 and July 10 and 24 from 11 a.m. to noon. (1817 Second Ave., at 94th St.; 212-289-0824.)

  • At the Queens Zoo, in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, kids will encounter the big guys: bison, mountain lions, bears, and sea lions. They can go hands-on with the farm animals in the domestic side of the zoo. Summertime mini-camps are available for kids 4 to 13. Older kids will prepare the animals' meals and study animal behavior. Little ones will learn the basics of animal lifestyle and habitat. (53-51 111th St.; 718-271-1500; admission is $2.50 for adults, 50 cents for kids 3 to 12.)

When it's time to get out of town . . .
  • Stop watching sixties reruns and head upstate to a drive-in movie theater. The closest ones to the city are in the Hudson Valley. Try Fair Oaks in Middletown (845-361-5774), Hyde Park Drive-in in Hyde Park (845-229-4738), and Warwick Drive-in in Warwick (845-986-4440).

  • A spray of whitewater can do wonders for your disposition on a muggy summer day. Kittatinny Canoes (800-FLOAT-KC) offers daylong outings on the Delaware River. The three- and four-hour trips along the New York and Pennsylvania sides of the river don't require an ounce of experience. Cost is $29 to $32 per person. Participants must weigh at least 40 pounds and be able to swim (and that goes for grown-ups, too!).

  • Get into the swim at the Splish Splash Waterpark in Riverhead, on Long Island. Standouts include the new Hollywood Stunt Rider, an in-the-dark raft ride. Bonus: It's only a short hop from the Hamptons. (L.I.E. exit 72W; 631-727-3600; $26.99 general admission; $19.99 for kids under four feet.)

And don't forget . . .
  • Your own idea of summer fun probably doesn't include Britney Spears at Nassau Coliseum on July 9, or Lil' Bow Wow at Madison Square Garden on August 7. But you said you'd do anything for your kids. Well, didn't you?


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