Philadelphia with Children
John Theibault, December 2005
The AHA meeting is in Philly; it's time to bring the kids to see Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the National Constitution Center. But what else is there to do that will keep both parents and children smiling?
Many of Philly's top attractions are within walking distance of the meeting and each other. If the weather's nice, you will want to walk and enjoy the gardens and green spaces. After visiting the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, stroll around the Independence National Historic Site, Washington Square, and the historic Society Hill neighborhood. A stroll through the neighborhood and south down 2nd Street to Head House Square is atmospheric and not too long for youngsters. Toddlers and elementary school age kids can be rewarded with a stop at the Three Bears playground on Delancey Street between 3rd and 4th Streets (baby swings only on the swing set). Tweens and teens can be spurred on with the promise of shopping or just gawking on South Street, Philadelphia's counter-cultural haven for decades, which boasts some interesting mirrored-mosaic facades on several buildings.
Philadelphia's other downtown open green space is Rittenhouse Square, also a manageable walk from the hotels. Kids can run around on the grass and will get a kick out of some of the sculptures in the park, especially Billy, the goat in the southwest corner. You're not really supposed to climb on it, but the well-worn bronze on the back indicates that many do.
Philadelphia's City Hall is very close to the meeting location. In clear weather, it's worth taking a trip up the tower of the building for one of the few good panoramic views of the city. Free tickets for the tower are available in Room 121, located in the courtyard of the sprawling building, Monday–Friday; best elevator access is from the northeast corner. And don't neglect the sterile-looking plazas surrounding City Hall. They have some kid-friendly sculptures, such as Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin (15th and Market St.), a random assortment of dominoes, Monopoly pieces, and checkers called Your Move (JFK Blvd. between 15th and Broad St.), and, Benjamin Franklin, Craftsman, a statue of Franklin as a young man working at a printing press (Broad St. and JFK Blvd.). The Franklin statue can be the starting point for a "how many Ben Franklin sculptures can you find?" treasure hunt during your stay. Love Park, with the Robert Indiana Love sculpture, was once one of the city's greatest skateboarding platforms, but was shut down a couple of years ago by mayoral decree (15th St. and JFK Blvd.). A new skateboarding course is in development close to the Schuylkill, but will not be open by January.
Philadelphia's great Fairmount Park, somewhat further afield, includes miles of walking or bicycle trails, boathouses along the Schuylkill, some stately old mansions, a Japanese Tea Garden, playgrounds and picnic tables, a wooded gorge, and the Philadelphia Art Museum, with its famous "Rocky" steps. Near Fairmount Park, but tucked away in its own corner between freeways, train tracks, and city avenues is the Philadelphia Zoo (215-243-5272). America's oldest zoo, it features an old-style walk-through aviary and a new enclosed primate reserve, along with the usual zoo suspects. Younger children can go to the children's zoo and an indoor play area called the Treehouse.
But let's face it, if the weather's lousy, spending more than a couple of minutes outdoors is not going to be much fun. Whatever will you do? Fortunately, three of the biggest indoor draws for kids are adjacent to one another near the base of the Ben Franklin Parkway, close to the meeting hotels.
The Please Touch Museum (210 N 21st St., 215-963-0667) is the prime stop for the youngest tourists. It has exhibits and activities for children up to the age of seven. Everything is hands on. It can get noisy when crowded, as it is likely to be on a blustery January day.
Across 21st Street is the Franklin Institute (222 N 20th St., 215-448-1200), one of the premier science centers in the US. It has a planetarium and IMAX theater to complement hands-on activities and historic displays. There is a separate kids' section with simpler activities. Highlights from the main museum are helping to "drive" a Baldwin locomotive and walking through the giant fiberglass heart, a local landmark for 50 years recently refurbished. The heart has kept some toddlers occupied for up to an hour, though with some wear and tear on the parent. The cafeteria off the main entrance to the institute is the best option for lunch at the three museums. You can bring your own sandwiches or buy hot food there.
Near the Franklin Institute on Logan Circle is the Academy of Natural Sciences (1900 Ben Franklin Pkwy., 215-299-1000). The main attraction here is dinosaurs, including the first major dinosaur discovery in the US, Hadrosaurus. Dinosaurophiles will enjoy digging for dinosaurs in a mock fossil bed and standing with dinosaurs in a prehistoric video scene.
In New Jersey, easily accessible from the PATCO (red) line and the Riverlink train, is the newly refurbished Adventure Aquarium in Camden (1 Riverview Dr.; 800-922-6572). In addition to intriguing fish, sea mammals, and penguins, the aquarium has an African river display that includes hippopotamuses and free-flying birds. There is also a nice view of the Philadelphia skyline across the river from the aquarium. The battleship New Jersey is docked near the aquarium and open for touring. It is a stark reminder of Philadelphia's vanished importance as a naval shipyard.
Philadelphia abounds in museums both big and small, as well as several historic houses. Choosing a favorite for kids depends on their tastes. The Betsy Ross House in Old City (239 Arch St., 215-686-1252) has perhaps the best name recognition with kids. The Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia (15 S 7th St., 215-685-4830) offers "Seek and Find" handouts to help children explore their collection. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is probably the most kid-friendly of the area art museums (Ben Franklin Pkwy. and 26th St., 215-363-8100). The main hall has a large stairway and balconies that will be interesting to young ones. The Asian wing and the arms and armor collections probably provide the greatest opportunities for kids to roam without constant parental nagging not to touch.
You can visit www.gophila.com/family/ for a general overview of kid-friendly Philadelphia.
All of the major tourist attractions are well appointed with bathrooms with one notable exception: there is no bathroom once you enter the Liberty Bell pavilion through the tour of Independence Hall. Make sure kids have gone before going through security. Public toilets are also scarce if you are just walking through neighborhoods like Society Hill or Rittenhouse Square.
Food and Treats
You could probably satisfy both kids' and parents' dining needs without ever leaving the Reading Terminal Market, adjacent to the convention center. It is the place to experience Philadelphia at its most characteristic. If your kids require brand names for their meals, there are regular food courts in the Gallery, next to the convention center; Liberty Place, close to Rittenhouse Square; and the Bourse, near Independence Hall. Downtown Philly is well stocked with coffee places that serve cookies and pastries, along with some specialty patisseries. There are also dozens of street carts selling snacks and sandwiches. The local culinary specialty is cheesesteaks. Foodie kids will certainly enjoy a trip to the corner in South Philly where two of the best known cheesesteak specialists, Pat's King of Steaks (9th St. at Wharton and Passyunk) and Geno's Steaks (1219 S 9th St.), square off across the intersection. It pays to read up on Philly cheesesteak lingo before you go. The other local Philly specialty likely to intrigue kids is a large warm pretzel with mustard, available from street vendors. You'll probably only want to broach the subject of Scrapple with those kids predisposed to go for that kind of thing.
Philly is not exactly overrun with little tourist shops selling replica liberty bells and the like. Nor does Philly have many cute independent toy stores for that special treat. Museum shops are probably your best bet for toys and souvenirs. One pleasant destination near Rittenhouse Square is Chris's Corner, a children's bookstore at 1940 Pine Street.
In addition to the Three Bears playground in Society Hill, there is a modest playground with swings in Franklin Square, which is slightly off the main tourist circuit, but easily manageable after a visit to the African American museum, Betsy Ross House, or the US Mint. The nearest playground to Rittenhouse Square is a bit of a trek toward the Schuylkill River Park at Pine and 26th Street. For indoor entertainment, the Arden Theater Company (40 N 2nd St., 215-922-1122) in Old City traditionally has a children's show around the holiday season. This year they will be performing The Dinosaur Musical.
—John Theibault is education manager at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia. He draws on the expertise of his two well-traveled children, aged 13 and 10, in offering these recommendations.