How to raise a Renaissance child in Pittsburgh

As parents, we don’t exactly know what our children will turn out to be. But we wonder. A free spirited artist? An analytical scientist? A passionate environmentalist? Although we can’t dictate their paths for them, we can expose them to as many fields of study as possible to help them find their niches and become well-rounded people.

Historically, the term “Renaissance man” has been used to describe individuals like Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo Galilei and Catherine de’ Medici–great thinkers who seamlessly navigated between both the humanities and the sciences. With Pittsburgh’s strong commitment to the education of its kids, and its innovative collaborations in the intersection of science and art, parents have struck gold. We can work with our city’s leading cultural institutions to raise the next generation of Renaissance men and women. In this article, we present you with some unique ways to get this education underway.

We start with the arts. And since many of the famed Renaissance men of history were great connoisseurs of music, we begin there.

Fiddlesticks Family Concert Series, Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra
Fiddlesticks Family Concert Series, Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Fiddlesticks by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Started in the 1990s, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Fiddlesticks Family Concert Series is a great way to acquaint your child with the beauty of classical music. During these 45-minute concerts, offered three times per year, the full orchestra plays short classical pieces that fit the show’s theme. Interspersed with the music are the entertaining stage antics of Fiddlesticks, the PSO’s resident, larger-than-life furry friend.

Although the concerts are fantastic, the best part of the Fiddlesticks series is the special pre-concert “Discovery Time Adventures” for kids. During this hour, families can meet the Orchestra’s musicians, watch instrument demos, sing and even practice their dance moves.

Other kid-friendly ways to enjoy classical music in Pittsburgh include the Bach, Beethoven and Brunch Classical Concert Series in the summer and Peanut Butter and Jam Sessions by Chatham Baroque.

Interested in bridging the gap between appreciating music and becoming a musician? The Center for Young Musicians, the City Music Center and the Pittsburgh Music Academy offer music classes for children starting at very young ages.

Pittsburgh International Children's Theater, Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater, Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

Next, we move on to live theater. As the birthplace of Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson, our city has played an important role in this artistic genre. We think a Pittsburgh Renaissance child should appreciate Wilson’s works and, more broadly, live theater in general.

Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater presented by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

A visit to the Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater is a great way to introduce your child to live theater. Started by a small group of South Hills parents in the 1960s, the Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater has grown into one of the city’s most valuable cultural assets for families. The Theater’s vision has always been rooted in accessibility. Tickets are quite affordable. Also, the Theater has a unique “traveling” model. Each production begins at the Byham Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh. The troupe then spends the next week traveling in all directions into the suburbs for the remaining productions.

The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust “presents” the Pittsburgh International Children’s Theater. In other words, it doesn’t actually produce the plays, but instead brings in stage troupes from all over the world. In this way, our children experience the best in global children’s theater right here at home. The PICT also runs the well-loved Pittsburgh International Children’s Festival in the Spring.

Interested in acting classes for your kids? Check out the Gemini Children’s Theater, the Pittsburgh CLO and the Center for Theater Arts.

Penny Arcade, Photo by Michael Rubino
Penny Arcade, Photo by Michael Rubino

With the opening of the Arcade Comedy Theater and the recent launch of the annual Pittsburgh Comedy Festival, Pittsburgh is fast becoming known for its comedy scene. If you are interested in exposing your children to this art, Pittsburgh has the resources for you.

Penny Arcade by the Arcade Comedy Theater

Located in Downtown Pittsburgh, the Arcade Comedy Theater is a homebase for comedy lovers in our city. The theater’s programming includes sketch comedy and both long form and short form improvisational comedy shows. They also offer an Arcade Academy where adults (and kids too!) can learn the art.

The Arcade Comedy Theater’s monthly Penny Arcade improv show is specifically geared toward families. Started by producer and performer, Tessa Karel, the Penny Arcade makes the comedic arts accessible to children. Each Penny Arcade show begins with pre-show “collaboration stations,” where kids generate ideas that will later be used in the live show. As Karel says, “Kids are naturally playful with big, fun ideas and we get to use these ideas as starting points as we create unique and entertaining scenes on stage.”

The Penny Arcade has been carefully conceived to not only introduce children to the field of improv, but also teach general life skills. As Karel says, “Improv challenges you to be eternally optimistic about your ideas and the ideas of others. Somehow, some way, you can make an idea work on the stage.”

Mini-Factory at the Mattress Factory, Photo by Ben Filio
Mini-Factory at the Mattress Factory, Photo by Ben Filio

Next, we move on to the visual arts–another field where Pittsburgh has both a rich past and also a dynamic present.

Mini-Factory at the Mattress Factory

Since its creation in the 1970s, the Mattress Factory of Contemporary Art has become a pioneer in the field of installation art and a driving force in the revitalization of the city’s North Side neighborhood. In 2013, the Mattress Factory turned its attention to the younger subset of our population, starting educational programs to teach children about installation art or the creation of three-dimensional works designed to transform a person’s perception of a space.

Started early last year, the free Mini-Factory program exposes kids to important concepts in the field. The one-hour workshops focus on themes like space, light, pattern and sound. During each session, children visit installations at the museum, participate in hands-on activities and listen to theme-related stories. Also, since installation art involves the creation of large, three-dimensional pieces of art, children work together to create different setups for the museum’s, “Mini-Factory,” a mobile, adaptable, pop-up installation designed just for them.

Installation art often involves teamwork and Felice Cleveland, director of education at the Mattress Factory, thinks that it’s an important skill that kids can hone. “Mini-Factory does not include your typical “make and take” projects,” says Cleveland. “Instead, children work together to create ‘make and share’ projects. They get to see what it’s like to create something collaboratively that can then be enjoyed by others even after they leave.”

The Mattress Factory also offers programs for older children, including its bimonthly Art Lab, an after school program and summer camps.

Children's activities at Assemble, Photo courtesy of Assemble
Children’s activities at Assemble, Photo courtesy of Assemble

We end our section on arts education with a short blurb about an off-the-beaten-path adventure for Pittsburgh families.

Unblurred Gallery Crawl on Penn Avenue

On the first Friday of each month, the Penn Avenue Arts District opens its doors to the Pittsburgh public. Known as Unblurred, this free, family-friendly gallery crawl is a unique opportunity for Pittsburgh children of all ages to experience the creative energy residing in the galleries peppering the Garfield portion of Penn Avenue.

Assemble, a community space along this stretch of Penn Avenue, always offers kid-friendly hands-on activities during the monthly gallery crawl. Assemble’s focus on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) learning epitomizes the concept of raising a Renaissance child. Through integration of both the sciences and the arts into hands-on projects, Assemble helps children comfortably apply principles across disciplines. Assemble also offers kid-friendly refreshments (for a donation) during Unblurred.

Other spots to check out during Unblurred include the Pittsburgh Glass Center, the Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, the Garfield Night Market and the new Los Sabrosos dance studio. The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust also offers another family-friendly gallery crawl in Downtown Pittsburgh.

Interested in signing up your kids for art classes? Check out the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Andy Warhol Museum, the Trust Arts Education Center and Sweetwater Center for the Arts.

Little learner at the Carnegie Science Center, Photo courtesy of Carnegie Science Center
Little learner at the Carnegie Science Center, Photo courtesy of Carnegie Science Center

Now we turn our focus away from the arts and toward the sciences, which hold an equally important place in the education of a Renaissance child. We think the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh are a great place to start.

Munckin Mondays at the Carnegie Science Center

The Carnegie Science Center reaches more than 700,000 people annually–introducing even our city’s youngest residents to many fields of scientific inquiry including robotics, transportation, astronomy and magnetism. Through its exhibits and extensive educational offerings, the Science Center makes science both relevant and fun for children.

During the months of January, February, September and October, the Carnegie Science Center welcomes the littlest learners to the museum for Munchkin Mondays. Held from 10-2 p.m., Munchkin Mondays engage toddlers/preschoolers in age-appropriate scientific activities, including a story time, a make-and-take project, shows in the Omnimax Theater, demonstration theater and planetarium and a variety of other activities. According to Apryl Peroney, the education coordinator at the Carnegie Science Center, “Our early learners like a lot of tactile learning, so we try to design activities that are very hands-on and inquiry-based. We also ask a lot of open-ended questions and let kids figure out the answer.”

One goal is to offer activities that can translate easily from the Science Center to home. “In that way, children can begin their learning with us and then parents can continue that fun experience at home,” she says.

Munchkin Mondays are free with admission. Upcoming topics include optical illusions, winter weather, X-rays, plants and recycling. The Science Center also offers a variety of other educational programs including Almost Overnighters, Science Sleepovers and Science Workshops. Also, their Chevron Center for STEM Education and Career Development is simply fantastic.

Interested in other STEAM-based learning opportunities in the city? Check out Assemble, Snapology and Bricks 4 Kids.

Super Science Series at CMNH, Photo courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Natural History
Super Science Series at CMNH, Photo courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Super Science Series at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) is one of the largest natural history museums in North America. As Pittsburgh families, we’ve explored its exhibits and been wowed by its collection of dinosaur fossils, mummies and other artifacts. But, as Leigh Kish, interim director of marketing at the CMNH, says, “There is a wealth of things happening at our museum that people don’t generally get to see. For example, of the 22,000 specimens in our collection, only 10,000 are viewed on the museum floor.”

Started last summer, the museum’s Super Science Series gives children a peek into this world. “Our Super Science Series allows children to see some of these specimens, meet our scientists, learn basic research techniques, find out what it’s like to go on a field study and more,” says Kish. The monthly Super Science Series is free with admission.

Little Sprouts at Phipps, Photo by Cory Doman
Little Sprouts at Phipps, Photo by Cory Doman

As the birthplace of Rachel Carson, Pittsburgh has a proud tradition of environmentalism and conservation. In recent years, Pittsburgh has embraced this identity, receiving frequent praise for its green infrastructure investment. As Carson knew, the best way to inspire future environmentalists is to teach children about the wonder and the beauty of the living world. With its wide variety of plant species and inestimable beauty, we think Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens is an excellent place to begin.

Little Sprouts at Phipps Conservatory

Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens offers a range of programming for Pittsburgh children. From story times to summer camps to Evening Ed-ventures, Phipps takes its commitment to educating children seriously. For 2-3 year olds, Phipps offers a special program called Little Sprouts. As Melissa Harding, science educator at Phipps says, “With our Little Sprouts program, we are trying to connect the youngest children and their caregivers to the natural world through different sensory adventures and exploration of the Conservatory.”

Little Sprouts is offered in two forms. “Single Servings” take place throughout the school year. Offered one morning per month, this program explores a different theme each session. Each Single Serving class includes sensory bin exploration, singing, a story time, an art project, a snack and the opportunity to “meet a plant” in the Conservatory. The sessions end with the distribution of supplemental materials to caregivers so “they can can take the things we learn at Little Sprouts and take them into nature,” says Harding. Phipps also offers 4-day versions of its Little Sprouts program during the summer.

Interested in other nature-based educational programs in the city? Check out the Frick Environmental Center, the Outdoor Classroom, Fern Hollow Nature Center, Beechwood Farms and Nature Reserve and Latodami Nature Center.

Archaeological excavation at Hop Into History, Photo courtesy of Heinz History Center
Archaeological excavation at Hop Into History, Photo courtesy of Heinz History Center

Finally, we include two disciplines that bridge the gap between the arts and the sciences. We begin with history.

Hop Into History at the Heinz History Center

Mariruth Leftwich joined the Heinz History Center as its new Education Manager last year. Since then, Leftwich has expanded the History Center’s focus to the city’s youngest citizens. Her Hop Into History  program helps young children explore current exhibits at the Museum and begin their study of history. As Leftwich says, “Parents don’t always consider a history museum as a place to bring young kids. We started Hop Into History so both caregivers and children can feel comfortable learning about Pittsburgh’s past together.”

Hop Into History is held on the second Wednesday of each month. Each themed session includes age-appropriate hands-on activities complementing current exhibits, a music and movement segment with Kindermusik teacher, Lynda Wingerd, arts and crafts time and museum exploration. Hop into History is free with admission to the museum.

Making sauerkraut at Youth Cook, Photo by Kimberly Bracken
Making sauerkraut at Youth Cook, Photo courtesy of Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

We end with the culinary arts, my personal favorite topic. With the growing prevalence of obesity, the ability to cook healthy meals is an increasingly important skill for our kids.

Youth Cook at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

This month the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh will launch a new program called Youth Cook for children ages 10 and up. During Youth Cook, children will work with local chefs, food educators and growers to cook seasonal dishes. They will learn the entire process of creating wholesome meals–from finding the right ingredients (they will be using homegrown ingredients from the Museum’s gardens and local farm markets) to making ingredients from scratch to learning basic kitchen skills (that’s right–they will be chopping their own vegetables) to enjoying a meal together as a group.

Participants will also be writing down their recipes and submitting them to the Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance’s CSA blog. “By submitting their recipes to the blog, we hope that the kids and also their parents will begin checking this site regularly to find healthy meal options,” says Kimberly Bracken, community programs manager at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. “We also hope it will help families feel less intimidated by the process of cooking together.”

The “Youth Cook” program begins with a Pizza Party on January 30.

As Forbes Magazine said last fall, Pittsburgh’s Rustbelt past has given way to a new Renaissance. We’re leading the way in green technology. We welcome start-ups. We’re smart. We’re livable. Now it’s time to raise the next generation of inspired thinkers. I have every confidence that our children will inherit this beautiful city and make it even better!

Featured photo: Little learner at the Carnegie Science Center, Photo courtesy of Carnegie Science Center