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9 free (and almost-free) cold weather activities for kids and families

Little House Big Art
Kate Pendlebury
November23/ 2015

Parenting is hard on the budget, and winter on the spirit. Playgrounds are a great summer resource – and best of all, they’re free – but it may be difficult for even the most imaginative parents to come up with cold weather equivalents that burn energy without burning a hole in our wallets.

So, in defense against winter captivity, we’ve compiled a list of nine family and kid-friendly activities to keep Kidsburgh readers going through Pittsburgh’s coldest and most miserable months. Listed under the categories Move, Play and Make, the following events and activities are either free or cost less than $5 per person, and are conveniently located within the City of Pittsburgh.

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Jamming in the basement of the Children’s Museum with DJ KellyMom. Courtesy Larry Rippel.

Move

Go Dancing

Started in 2013 by DJ KellyMom, Kelly Day, Kid City Rockers is a children’s dance party suitable for young toddlers through 10 year-olds that has been hosted by the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and, in recent months, by the Andy Warhol Museum.

Kid City dance parties at the Children’s Museum are housed in the basement theater, and guests do not have to pay museum entrance to attend, although admission is required to visit the museum’s exhibitions before or after the dance party. But even though the party is free, Day doesn’t scrimp on the trimmings: her events feature party lights, a disco ball and an impressive music collection (much of it pleasingly familiar to the current generation of parents) mixed by an experienced DJ.

Kid City returns to the Children’s Museum, where it will celebrate the holiday season and New Year respectively. Day plans to keep things low key at the December 13 event, but on January 3 kids can celebrate the start of 2016 with a countdown, ball drop and juice toast. Dates have not yet been set for later 2016 parties, but Day promises events through the spring, including a St Patrick’s Day party and an Easter Egg Hunt party.

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Alloy School students get active at Kelly Strayhorn. Courtesy Kelly Strayhorn Theater.

Move and learn at Kelly Strayhorn

East Liberty’s Kelly Strayhorn Theater (KST) will also present a winter-themed family dance party on December 19, the culmination of and showcase for KST’s Alloy School workshops. Like many KST events, the cost of admission to the Let’s Move! Family Dance Party is whatever makes you happy, and can be paid in advance or at the door. KST hosts a family event each season, and guests at their dance parties can expect energetic dancing, goodie bags and fun activities.

The Alloy School is a seasonal workshop series that offers a morning of dance, movement and acting classes for only $5 each every Saturday through December 19. Conducted at Alloy Studios, just down the road from the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, Alloy classes aim to encourage 3 to 12 year-olds and their parents to get active in a friendly, non-competitive environment. Classes, which are taught by KST’s experienced instructors, include pre-ballet and creative movement for 3-5 year-olds, introductory ballet and contemporary movement for 5-7 year-olds, hip-hop and acting for 8-12 year-olds and family yoga for all. Coffee is provided for parents, who are welcome to participate in warm-ups and stick around to watch classes. Healthy snacks are provided for kids.

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Brave hiking enthusiasts of Hike it Baby Pittsburgh. Courtesy Caitlin Venczel.

Hike it, Baby

To the enthusiastic parents and babes who participate year-round in Hike it Baby Pittsburgh, being cold doesn’t mean remaining housebound. Hike it Baby is an international group founded in 2013 to help young families remain active, rain or shine (or even snow). The Pittsburgh branch, started almost a year ago by local mom Caitlin Venczel, hosts 6 to 15 hikes a week in the city, the burbs and as far afield as Morgantown, WV.

Distances range from well under a mile – including toddler-led, stroller-friendly urban walks followed by playdates and hot chocolate – to several miles through difficult terrain for serious athletes and owners of sophisticated baby-wearing machinery. While taking a young child out in the dead of winter may not sound like a great idea, Venczel promises that with the right clothing it’s completely achievable – and fun!

Anyone can participate in the hikes, which are easily searchable on the Hike it Baby website – and all participants are invited to submit and lead their own walks. Most importantly, all Hike it Baby hikes are free, and even the Hike it Baby 30 membership-based challenge – in which participants walk 30 miles in 30 days or for 30 minutes, 3 days a week – allows walkers to pay what they  want.

Hike it Baby Pittsburgh will celebrate the anniversary of their first hike by covering the same route, on November 28 at 1 p.m. in Schenley Park.

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Inside the Oliver Bath House. Courtesy City of Pittsburgh website.

Go Swimming

Even when the rivers are frozen, you can go swimming in Pittsburgh. Originally constructed with the sanitation of dirty steel mill workers in mind, Oliver Bath House is the oldest public bath still functioning in Pittsburgh. Open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, the 40 by 80-foot pool is maintained at a comfortable 82-84 degrees.

Daily admission is $5 for adults and $3 for 3-15 year-olds, but with a Citiparks tag ($30 for adults and $15 for children) guests receive unlimited year-round access. Open and Family Swim times vary from day to day, so be sure to check the Bath House schedule – or visit between 2:30 and 5:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, after 2 p.m. Saturday, or after 1 p.m. Sunday. The Bath House also offers eminently affordable swim classes on Saturday mornings, at $10 for five infant or preschooler lessons and $20 for ten older children’s classes.

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Hard at play in the PTLL. Courtesy Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library.

Play

Play Indoors

The Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library (PTLL) is an institution among parents of young children, providing an opportunity for toddlers to discharge energy and for parents to breathe and socialize. Housed in the basement of the First Methodist Church of Pittsburgh, the Toy Library includes a fenced-off infant area; a separate art room; eating area with toddler-size tables and chairs, and two high chairs; and a generous play area. Here, under-7s can enjoy two trampolines, three sets of climbing equipment, several push-bikes, a kitchen, dolls and dress-up area, two train set tables, several sets of building equipment, and numerous other bits and pieces.

Best of all, the PTLL is an entirely volunteer-run organization, operating with great success on a shoe-string budget. In other words, everyone who mans the desk or checks out a loan item is also the parent of a small child (one who can probably be found immersed in some corner of the room). And all visitors to the Toy Library are invited to join as volunteers, offering four plus hours of easy labor per month and $30 per year in exchange for unlimited access and lending privileges.

Members can also take home any of over 400 hundred toys, for a loan period up to three weeks. But non-members benefit too, as they can visit the PTLL for $5 per child and no more than $10 per family. The Toy Library is open weekday and Saturday mornings, and Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m.

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Children’s free activities at the Carnegie Library.  Photo courtesy of Carnegie Library.

Read & Play at the Library

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) offers an ample selection of free indoor kids’ programming for children of all ages. Infants, toddlers and preschoolers can enjoy stories, songs and rhymes at Storytime – some branches even offer a 6 p.m. “Sleepytime Special” for working parents and their offspring. Even the youngest babies and their carers can enjoy morning Baby and Me Storytimes: infants get to develop their social and sensory capacities while new parents have a chance to get out of the house and forge connections.

For 6-12 year-olds, the CLP’s after school Kids’ Club and Kids Create offer opportunities for children to socialize and try out new crafts. STEM workshops, meanwhile, introduce scientific ideas to elementary and middle-schoolers through hands-on activities. The library also offers a selection of holiday family activities through December and January, including “Game-O-Rama” game days, family films, parties and more. To find events at your local branch of the CLP, search the library’s kids’ events page, sorting by location and age group.

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Enjoying glass art at the Pittsburgh Glass Center. Courtesy Nathan J Shaulis/Porter Loves Photography.

Explore Glass

While the thought of setting their youngsters loose in a building with “glass” in its name probably makes many parents nervous, the Pittsburgh Glass Center (PGC) makes for an edifying – and fun – family excursion. PGC is a non-profit glass studio that members of the public are welcome to explore for a suggested $5 donation.

Located near the corner of Penn Avenue and South Fairmount Street in Garfield, PGC is open daily from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 4 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Their four studios are closed for cleaning on Mondays, but the rest of the week visitors can enjoy a bustle of hot molten activity. Adults and kids are welcome both to explore the Hodge Gallery and watch master glassblowers at work.

The first Friday of the month, the public are invited to free live hot glass demonstrations, with snacks and drinks (including the parent variety) at PGC’s Hot Jam sessions. And for those with heavier pocketbooks, PGC offers a selection of classes, tours, and workshops for children and adults.

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Hard at work during a Saturday Crafternoon at Assemble. Courtesy Assemble.

 Make

Invent & Craft

For folk who prefer participation to spectatorship, just west of PGC, also on Penn Avenue, is Garfield’s Assemble: a maker space that offers free classes, workshops and learning parties. Every Saturday afternoon from 1 to 3 p.m., Assemble hosts a craft party for 5 to 10 year-olds where a different artist, scientist or maker showcases her work and guides young creatives through a new project. These STEAM workshops encourage collaborative invention and help to build connections between local youth and makers of different stripes. Healthy snacks are provided free of charge.

Saturday Crafternoons are a drop-off program, as are Assemble’s free afterschool programs and Maker Nights for older kids. But the organization also offers monthly learning parties where kids and parents together explore 21st-century careers. On the second Wednesday of the month, from 4 to 6 p.m., families with children between 6 and 15 can learn about different topics from experts in the field. At a recent session, for instance, staff from the Carnegie Science Center and the Digital Corps, and scientists from Carnegie Mellon University taught guests about the science of forensics. On December 9, kids and parents can learn about, share about, and celebrate the City of Pittsburgh.

Make Big Art (see main image) 

Little House Big Art is one of those Pittsburgh secrets (or at least it was to me). Contained in a little house on a big hill on Pittsburgh’s North Side, with a tremendous view of the city, Elisabeth Bashur’s tiny studio contains a happy clutter of kid- and adult-friendly art materials and equipment. She offers open studio sittings where artists of all ages can partake of the great variety of art paraphernalia and Bashur’s gentle yet expert advice, with no sitting fee.

While patrons cover the cost of materials, Bashur is determined to keep prices low, offering several projects at $5 or less, among them: threading a plastic beaded necklace, weaving five friendship bracelets, painting and firing a small ceramic ornament, imprinting five custom buttons and, coolest of all, making whatever you can with a pound of clay. Bashur is particularly interested in making modeling with clay – typically, a high cost, daunting, messy activity – accessible. So, although she can’t eliminate the mess, she charges as little as possible for the material, including all of the costs of firing and painting in a single $5.

Little House Big Art offers open studio hours at least five days a week – and guests are welcome to schedule hours at their convenience. And for those with more than $5 to spare, Bashur also provides classes (and will design classes upon request) and hosts parties. The space, which is precariously small in corners, can best accommodate people over 5, but Bashur is also delighted to host artists as small and distractible as my toddler.

Got other suggestions for free or almost free cold weather activities? Please add in the comments below!

Featured image courtesy Little House Big Art. 

Kate Pendlebury

A logophile and joker, Kate Pendlebury has a PhD in Children's Literature. She would like to climb trees, but her energetic and gregarious toddler requires that she keep both feet on the ground.