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10 places that make Pittsburgh history fun for kids

Rege Behe
July05/ 2018

Above photo courtesy of Fort Ligonier.

Learning about history doesn’t always make the Top 10 to-do list for kids. But trips to museums, battlefields or forts can be anything but boring. Because of Western Pennsylvania’s importance in American history, history is always hiding in plain sight.

These 10 regional history centers and historic sites have found lots of cool ways to make history fun for kids.

fun history
The Mister Rogers exhibit at the Senator John Heinz History Center includes items from the TV set of the Neighborhood of Make Believe.

Senator John Heinz History Center

“There are unsuspecting ways you can learn history,” says Mariruth Leftwich, director of education at the Senator John Heinz History Center ,

who admits kids sometimes “check out of learning mode,” during the summer.

The solution?

Let them discover history on their own. The History Center’s sites – including the Fort Pitt Museum and the Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Learning Center – offer activities that engage kids without worrying about taking tests or writing research papers.

“It’s an opportunity to think about the experiences you can have with history that aren’t tied to curriculum,” Leftwich says, “or tied to things they’re learning in school. I think that’s when kids get hooked, when they find a story that they find fascinating.”

The summer is a great time to take advantage of the cool programming for kids.

Little ones from age 2-5 will have fun at the “Hop into History” preschool programs on July 11 and Aug. 8. These hands-on sessions explore history through music, dance, and games.

Ages 8-11 can participate in the History at Play Youth Workshop Summer Series on Thursday mornings.

Pop culture history includes the Special Collection 50th anniversary Mister Rogers exhibit, where kids can view TV set pieces among the many items on display. The world of Heinz products will be on display at “Taming the Tomato: The Innovations of H.J. Heinz,” on Aug. 2. Kids will learn to be food scientists and marketers as they make their own ketchup and design a label.

More traditional history is covered in “Corps of Discovery: A Journey from Pittsburgh” (Aug. 8), which explores the Lewis & Clark Expedition. The Pittsburgh launch is recreated by building a boat and choosing supplies. In “Dressing the Part: Clothing and Costumes” (Sept. 12), kids design and weave clothing from the past, with lessons on textiles and how fashion changes.

French and Indian War re-enactors fire a cannon outside of Fort Pitt Museum.

Fort Pitt Museum

The original Fort Pitt was built in 1754 by the British at what is now Point State Park. Fort Pitt replaced the French-built Fort Duquesne, which French soldiers destroyed when they fled the area. Today, Fort Pitt Museum features artifacts from the 18th century and recreations of frontier life.

Some of the kid-friendly events at the Fort Pitt Museum this summer include a celebration of Independence Day on July 4, featuring the raising of a 36-foot garrison flag with the help of Colonial re-enactors and military music from the 18th century.

During the Fort Pitt Garrison Drills on July 14 and Aug. 18, visitors can watch military drills and an exciting firing of the museum’s reproduction cannon by garrison members. More detailed 18th-century artillery is explored during Artillery and Artificers on Aug. 4 and 5.

fun history
A blacksmith demonstrates the 19th-century craft at Meadowcroft’s Historic Village.

Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village

The Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village is the site of the oldest human habitation in North America. Meadowcroft’s history dates back a whopping 16,000 years. In addition to the archeological dig, the site features artifacts and a recreation of a village from the more recent mid-19th century.

Kids will enjoy the Independence Day Celebration on July 4 with demonstrations, displays and period games as part of the scheduled activities.

Sports fans will get a kick out of the Vintage Baseball Game (Aug. 18). It is baseball played the way Abner Doubleday envisioned it, with throwback uniforms – 19th-century style! – and other features from the sport’s origin.

fun history
Fort Ligonier is a 9-acre playground of local history.

Fort Ligonier

Playing dodge ball with cannonballs should spur the interest of kids of any age. OK, they’re not real cannonballs, but smaller (and softer) replicas are used for the game during Fort Ligonier’s summer day camps.

“Our approach is history should be fun,” says Mary Manges, director of education. “If kids are having fun, they’ll be learning in the process.”

Summer camps – the next session starts July 16 – feature activities including military drills, team exercises, interactive battlefield simulations, and marches.

On July 13, Fort Ligonier will host an overnight sleepover featuring a twist on escape rooms. Kids (and adults) will be asked to break into the fort via a series of clues and riddles.

For those who want to make a day trip to the fort, there’s plenty to do at the fort, which Manges describes as a 9-acre playground that feeds into kids’ imaginations.

fun history
Colonial troops, commanded by 22-year- old Colonel George Washington, were defeated in this small stockade in the opening battle of the French and Indian War.

National Parks Service

Area National Parks Service sites provide history from Pennsylvania’s earliest years (Fort Necessity National Battlefield) to the most recent national tragedy (Flight 93 National Memorial). In between, there’s the Johnstown Flood National Memorial, the Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site and Friendship Hill National Historic Site.

Each location offers Junior Ranger programs for kids this summer. Kids are given booklets and watch films, then answer questions to earn their wooden Junior Ranger badges.

There are history lessons that can be applied to real life, too. When the French sent surrender documents to George Washington at Fort Necessity in 1754 after the Battle of the Great Meadows, he didn’t know how to read French. But he signed anyway. Kids are asked to sign a similar document. Spoiler alert: Unless they parlez-vous Francais, they won’t know they’ve just agreed to wash dishes for a year.

The atmosphere at the parks, especially Fort Necessity, makes learning about history more fun, says Park Ranger Jane Clark, an education specialist at Fort Necessity. . Staff and volunteers dress up in vintage costumes and uniforms, and muskets are fired three times daily through the summer. And the interpretive playground features a kid-sized fort and Conestoga wagon for younger kids.

fun history
Kids dig into history at an archaeology site at Fort Bedford.

Fort Bedford Museum

At Fort Bedford Museum, kids can unearth history through a five-day archaeology program.

A little background: Fort Bedford was built by the British in 1758 during the French and Indian War to accommodate 6,000 troops with supplies for three months. But nearby, along Forbes Road, there were four additional forts where British brigadier generals had their own stockades. Kids will help to unearth remnants from those forts.

“We will be doing metal detecting and shovel testing, phase one archaeology,” says Sue Trussell, an independent archaeologist hired by Fort Bedford. “We’ll be trying to identify spots on the ground, trying to get a boundary, at least, of those four forts.”

She stresses this is real archaeology, with nothing salted or staged.

“We might not find anything, that’s how real it is,” she says, noting that parents are encouraged to participate with their kids. “And because of the type of camp it is, it attracts kids who are interested (in archaeology). I’ve been really impressed with the kids who have come through camp and how much they knew and how much they’ve learned.”

Throughout the summer, Fort Bedford offers family-themed activities on Fort Night, planned for the second and fourth Thursday of each month.

Rege Behe

Rege Behe writes about books and authors, music and musicians, in Pittsburgh and beyond.

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