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Cool Things for Kids to do in Pittsburgh

Saturday mornings at the home of any parent:  "What are we going to DO today?"  What if you could answer that plaintive wail with an absolutely dazzling idea, something your kids have never even dreamed of?  Get ready to be rock star for a day with these uniquely Pittsburgh suggestions.

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History offers a behind-the-scenes mollusk tour on Saturday afternoons from 1-3 p.m.  Expecting a bunch of absent-minded professors talking shop?  Not!  Tim Pearce, Asst. Curator and Head of the Section of Mollusks, is the genial fellow who answers questions from any and all comers and, more often than not, it's kids who do the bidding. 

On our visit, it was my nine-year-old son and his hockey mate, Sam Sweet, who quickly insinuated themselves into Tim's inner sanctum and before long, we were all observing snails under a microscope.  Most of the snails we see are no bigger than a dime and inch forward via "waves of progression."  Next, Tim reaches for a bag of Potter County soil and invites the boys to shake it through nested sieves in search of snails.  On finding an unknown species, I suggest we name it "Genus Samuelus Sweetus" and Tim agrees! 

The ensuing walk among stacks of drawers filled with well-preserved shells calls to mind Ben Stiller's race through the Smithsonian basement in "Night at the Museum" and brings us face-to-face with the remains of killer snails (seriously) as well as "Conus Alphabetus," a gorgeous shell that looks as if it's written in Hebrew.

After dark, the Carnegie Science Center hosts regular sleepovers and if your kids have ever dreamed of getting locked into this gigantic playpen, now is their chance.  I take my son and a friend to the Light Up Night sleepover so they can witness the outdoor fireworks display but there's plenty of explosive action beforehand.  We carry our sleeping bags to a predetermined location on one of the museum's four floors and, after a brief orientation, nearly three hundred kids are let loose inside the museum. 

Surprisingly (or not), it's the girls who are cackling the loudest and my two charges busy themselves with experiments in a glow-in-the-dark room followed by a sprint between floors to have a turn at every possible exhibit (the "be-a-weatherman" video spot easily gets the most traction).  They cap the action with a fireworks demo in the Works Theater led by a bespectacled lady in a red lab coat.  After a group snack, it's a movie in the Omnimax and lights out at midnight.  Waking up the next morning (7 a.m. wake-up call, ouch!), we're treated to a light breakfast and invited to spend the day at the Science Center and the new Sportsworks next door.  Heading to the latter, the boys spend a couple of hours flying (roller coaster ride), jumping (two bungee contraptions) and running (from one exhibit to the next).  Parents, prepare for an endurance event that your kids won't soon forget.

Attack Theatre is Pittsburgh's most inventive dance troupe and often stages performances geared toward kids, whether in the schools or in its Strip District space.  Typical of the work is "Holiday Unwrapped," which has been performed for nearly 8,000 teachers and students over the past two years.  In a 30-minute scamp, four dancers are holiday shoppers rushing into a store and tripping over each other and then engaging in a slow-motion race for the door. 

Next up is "Game Day Plus," where parents and kids are invited to partake of old-fashioned, schoolyard fun and games including Four-Square, backgammon and (now 3D) tic-tac-toe between seven-minute performances.  As with everything the company does, the choreography is dazzling, the joy infectious and kids will get it.

You'll find the Toonseum in the heart of the Cultural District and that's exactly where this gem belongs.  While many of the museum's offerings slant toward adults, programming for kids includes puppetry workshops and occasional screenings of old favorites on a drop-down screen.  The just-concluded "Charlie the Tuna" exhibit featured cartoons on a loop interspersed with Charlie commercials and amid the many sketches and cels were a Charlie telephone and Charlie alarm clock that totally captivated my son.  Brace yourself for "Superheroes, Icons and Origins" come late Spring, when Wonder Woman, Spiderman and the gang will be celebrated via screenings of Superhero films and a Superhero Block Party masterminded by Bricolage.

At the Phipps Conservatory, discovery stations are set up throughout the facility on weekends to engage young minds.  On a recent visit, I begin by arming my son and a classmate, Caroline, with cameras so they will linger longer in each room.  Today, the various stations invite you to create a funny face on a candy cane in the Fruit and Spice Room while hearing about the uses and benefits of peppermint; craft a small boat at an origami table staffed by volunteers from the Origami Club of Pittsburgh; and ice and sprinkle sugar cookies at a Cookie Decorating Station in the Gallery.  "The cookie room was my favorite!" squeals Caroline on the way out and, yes, the Phipps knows how to work with kids.

Back outside and close by is the disc golf course in Schenley Park, Pittsburgh's first disc golf course and featuring panoramic views of downtown.  For the uninitiated, the sport involves throwing a frisbee-type disc over eighteen golf-style holes and putting into a basket at the end of each hole.  While the game is popular with teens and college students, it's also great fun for young ones and their parents since accuracy, not strength, is the great equalizer.  Equally enjoyable for families and taking full advantage of the great outdoors are geocaches sprinkled throughout North Park and South Park.  Check in at geocaching.com for pointers and remember, it's the journey, not the destination.

New Girl In Town Elaine Labalme believes every mom is Wonder Woman.

For more feature stories on all things kids, check out Kidsburgh here.

Captions, from the top:  Carnegie Museum of Natural History; Carnegie Science Center; Attack Theatre; Toonseum; Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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