Vacationing with small children can sometimes seem like an endless tug of war. You want to explore the avenues and pause for leisurely browsing in the local shops -- they want to run off into the crowds, get lost amid the clothing racks, or terrorize the sales clerks. You want to visit famous museums, attend the theater, see the sights -- they counter with whining tantrums of boredom and disinterest.
This can be especially frustrating in a city like New York which, with its endless array of cultural events, art galleries, and Broadway shows, seems geared to the mature, sophisticated visitor. Once you've waved to the folks from atop the Statue of Liberty, seen the heights of a skyscraper, and ridden in a horse-drawn buggy around Central Park, what is there left to occupy a youngster in this adult metropolis? The answer is -- plenty.
New York is loaded with activities aimed specifically at young children. For the most part, they are inexpensive, entertaining, and every bit as cultural and uniquely New York as their adult counterparts.
For example, would you like to meet some of the child stars of TV, films, and Broadway? Then come to Something Different, a charming little nightclub which, on weekends, gears itself up for the younger set. The menu includes ice-cream sundaes and eclairs, among other desserts. And as the lights dim, the ''Youngstars'' showcase takes the spotlight.
One by one, dressed in bright red sweat shirts and blue jeans, young performers ages five to 17 hop upon the stage in quick succession, belting out tunes old and new. They are charmers and professional performers in every sense of the word. The afternoon we were there, more than a dozen performed, including a red-head who does a commercial with Peggy Fleming, a youngster who was in the movie version of ''Annie,'' and a 14-year-old drummer said to be the youngest member of the Musicians' Union. The whole place jumps to the rhythm of their songs -- even the balloon-covered ceiling seems to jiggle in multicolored delight. And perhaps you will sit next to some of the stage mothers, who may have tales of screen tests and Broadway schedules.
During the week adult performers cater to an adult audience. The club owner, Patricia Young (herself the mother of two), started the ''Youngstars'' showcase about a year ago, hoping to provide a somewhat ''showbizzy'' atmosphere for children as well. The 7 p.m. show is about the hottest thing in town for youngsters on a Saturday night. Shows on Sundays are at 3 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. The charge is $4 minimum, $2 cover. Call at least a week in advance for reservations (212) 570-6666, or write to Something Different, 1488 First Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.
If you'd like to part with your kids while doing some big-city shopping, try the Magic Towne House on Third Avenue and 60th Street -- just across from Bloomingdale's and Alexander's department stores. As its name implies, this is a real New York town house converted into a Houdini mansion. Deep red carpeting, mirrored stairways, and assorted magician's gear create a mood suggestive of ghosts and goblins. But these are definitely spirits of the fun-loving variety.
The children's show lasts about an hour and, according to proprietress Dorothy Dietcher, you may leave your youngsters on their own to enjoy the disappearing rabbits, magic birds, and tantalizing tricks, ''just as long as they're not going to cry for Mommy throughout the show.'' Performances for children under 8 are Saturdays and Sundays at 1, 2:30, and 4 p.m.. Tickets are $ 4. For adults and older children, there are evening performances that include a buffet dinner at $17.50 to $20 per person.
If you plan to tour the west side of Manhattan, you may want to stop at the First All Children's Theater on West 65th Street, just down the block from Lincoln Center. This is theater performed by children, for children, and is said to be the only professional all-children's repertory company in the United States. The company uses material written especially for the young actors and actresses by well-known Broadway writers. They have performed plays by Elizabeth Swados (who wrote ''Runaways'' for Broadway), and musicals by Richard Peaslee (who did ''Marat/Sade''). Starting in mid-March, they will be performing ''The Nightingale,'' an opera by Charles Strouse (of ''Annie,'' ''Bye Bye Birdie,'' and ''Applause'' fame) which is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale ''The Emperor and the Nightingale.''
The theater seats about 200 in an intimate semicircle surrounding the stage. Everyone involved, from ticket-takers to producers and performers, takes special interest in the audience -- smiling, joking, making sure everyone feels at home. And the performances themselves are a delightful potpourri of colorful costumes, whimsical songs, and fantasy-filled characters.
This children's troupe has performed on TV and at the New York Shakespeare Festival -- which is indicative of the quality demanded of the participants. They put in four hours of rehearsing a day four days a week, plus four performances each weekend. For more information on schedules, write to the First All Children's Theater Inc., 37 West 65th Street, New York, N.Y. 10023.
If museums interest you, New York has a plethora of special places for youngsters. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (which you are sure to want to visit yourself) maintains the Junior Museum on the first floor, where youngsters can get special attention from museum staff and learn a bit about what art is and how it is created. The Museum of the City of New York has a historical exhibit on dolls that would steal any young girl's heart away.
But there are two museums that are designed just for children, and these deserve special mention. Both are participatory museums; that is, youngsters are encouraged to touch, feel, get involved.
The first is the Manhattan Laboratory Museum at 54th Street and Eight Avenue, just walking distance from most midtown hotels. Here a child can learn about New York in a special way. He may pin colored threads on a map of Manhattan to ''show how far you've come today.'' Or he may be helped to draw his own map of the city in a special area devoted to ''mapscapes.'' He can learn about the city's natural environment by feeding the fresh-water fish and spider crabs from Long Island Sound, petting the lizards, turtles, and toads that stock the miniature model of Central Park Lake, or study the exhibit of insects caught in and around the city.
There are numerous rotating exhibits here, and if you arrive at the right time your children may be able to help build a model of New York, creating his or her own skyscrapers and bridges. Or the children may get involved in making their own movie on location in the Big Apple. Permanent exhibits include a voice-activated laser with a beam that dances to the sound of your voice, all kinds of mirrors and lights with which to experiment with color and shadow, a make-up and dress-up area in which children and their parents let their imaginations and dramatic skills run wild.
The museum staff will be happy to give you and your children some insight into the changing faces of New York and their part in it. The Manhattan Laboratory Museum hours are Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, 1-5 p.m.; Saturday 11-5 p.m. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children.
Another engrossing museum for youngsters is the Brooklyn Children's Museum, extablished in 1899 as the world's first children's museum. Located at 145 Brooklyn Avenue in an ethnically diverse section of the borough, this museum is a bit out of the way and probably easiest to reach by car. If you call, however, members of the staff can give you directions for using the subway. If you're up for exploring another area of the city, it's well worth the trip.
The museum was originally housed in two Victorian mansions. They were torn down and recently replaced by an innovative ''learning environment'' unlike any I've ever experienced. As you approach the corner where the museum is supposed to be, you see nothing but a large weed-covered hill with a few outcroppings looking like water towers and electric coils. As you round the corner, you find doors which open up into this mound. Enter, and you are instantly engulfed in a multimedia tunnel that draws you into a world of flashing, splashing, moving exhibits.
One of the ''most favoritist'' of all areas (according to five-year-old Timothy who told me he comes here all the time) is the ''Curved Space'' -- a maze of plastic cubes that run all around the museum, from floor to ceiling. Children (with rubber-soled shoes only please!) climb in at one end and maneuver themselves all through the maze, peering down at the exhibits from various angles. The Brooklyn Children's Museum is closed on Tuesdays. All other weekdays it is open 1-5 p.m., weekends, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free. One word of caution - there are no places to eat nearby so either bring sandwiches or plan to eat before coming.
Not all your child's New York experience has to be indoors. From the spring through the fall there is a Storytelling Hour in Central Park at 11 a.m. every Saturday. The location is near the Hans Christian Andersen statue (off 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue). In this peaceful setting, with the skyline of Manhattan visible behind the trees and a pond for model boat enthusiasts nearby, you and your children can relax and enter the land of make-believe. At the end of the hour, you may want to wander back through the Children's Zoo -- a tiny enclave (for tiny tots only) in which animals are kept in their storybook settings (three little pigs near a make-believe walk-through pig's house, chickens scurrying around a climbing model of the old woman who lived in a shoe, fish in a pond that surrounds Jonah and the whale).
There is just not enough room in one article to list all the children's activities in a city as large as New York. There are bookstores and libraries that offer their own story hours, numerous puppet groups and theatrical companies, endless special events. And, of course, you wouldn't want to miss the well-known attractions like the Bronx Zoo and the multimedia New York Experience. Check New York magazine and the Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure Section for regular listings of children's entertainment.