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Top 10 winter break adventures for Pittsburgh families

Krystia Nora
December09/ 2014

“Mom, it’s snowing!” My six year old’s face is wrapped in a smile as he presses his nose against the window pane. His brother, four, and sister, two, run to join him.

“Is it vacation yet?” he asks me eagerly, ready to jump headfirst into the falling snow and the freedom of his soon-to-be winter break.

This year, many Pittsburgh children will enjoy a school vacation from Dec. 24-Jan. 4. Many will relish their time outside–building snow men, sledding or even trying winter sports like skiing or ice-skating. Others will stay warm and toasty inside–playing with their Christmas presents or venturing to the city’s museums, libraries and indoor play spaces. I suspect my family will do a little bit of both. And I can’t wait!

To get your own school vacation planning started, here’s our Top 10 winter break adventures for Pittsburgh families.

Learning about Nature at Phipps Family Fun Days

Phipps Conservatory will once again offer its ever-popular winter break Family Fun Days. Held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Dec. 26-30, Family Fun Days feature interactive activities designed to teach your kids about nature in the comfort of temperate greenhouse conditions. Various stations will be scattered throughout the Conservatory and children can work with volunteer educators to explore this year’s theme–habitats and the unique plants that grow in them. Kids will have the chance to make a tillandsia ornament and a pinecone bird feeder, play theme-related games, pot-a-plant and more. All activities are included in the price of admission.

Also, don’t miss the chance to wander through the gorgeous Winter Wonderland-themed Winter Flower Show running until Jan. 11. If you stay past 5 p.m., you can also experience a Candlelight Evening and visit the outdoor Winter Light Garden.

Toy train layout at the Western Pennsylvania Railroad Museum. Photo by Krystia Nora
Toy train layout at the Western Pennsylvania Railroad Museum. Photo by Krystia Nora

Visiting Regional Model Train Displays

Many families enjoy visiting model train displays during the winter break. The good news? There are plenty of choices in the Pittsburgh region.

Families can head Downtown to the Wintergarden at PPG Place to check out the model trains circling the 32-foot decorated Christmas tree and weaving through 400+ gingerbread houses. Or they can venture across the river to the North Side’s Carnegie Science Center where the Miniature Village & Railroad sits in all its glory–complete with a brand-new replica Buhl Planetarium and Observatory. Also, Phipps Conservatory in Oakland has its own California Gold Rush-themed Garden Railroad with interactive buttons and miniature living plants.

Heading north of the city, the Holiday Train Display at the Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum continues through Jan. 11. Families can purchase admission at its crafted Gibsonia station booth, eat snacks at the blue passenger car café and shop at the red caboose store. The youngest children can play at wooden train tables while older kids delight in the large toy train display–complete with Superman, a Steelers train and a rocket. Upstairs, visitors can take a historical journey from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Maryland along the tracks of the 4000-square foot model train layout set in the 1950s.

Living Candyland at the Carnegie Library in Oakland

Looking for a fun and free adventure for your family during winter break? Head to the Carnegie Library in Oakland for its annual life-sized game of Candyland on Dec. 29. This Come to Candyland event was created by a librarian at the Knoxville Carnegie Library 12 years ago and has since become a multi-generational family favorite. “Kids themselves are the markers and we use cards from the actual game,” explains Kathy Maron-Wood, the senior children’s librarian at the Carnegie Library in Oakland. All kids get a prize when the first player enters the walk-through Candy Castle. Advance online registration is required and all ages are welcome.

Looking for other winter break activities at local libraries? Check out the Carnegie Library’s Kid’s Events searchable website and the Allegheny County Library Association’s online calendar.

Art camps at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Photo courtesy of Pgh Center for the Arts
Art camps at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Center for the Arts

Developing as Artists at Winter Break Camps before Christmas

Pittsburgh Center for the Arts offers several two-day Winter Break Camps from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on the Monday and Tuesday before Christmas. Playing with Patterns (ages 5-7) has children experimenting with patterns in painting, drawing, movement and sound. In the Andy Warhol-inspired Pop Art camp (ages 8-10), children dabble in silk-screening, printmaking, comic strip making and multimedia compositions. At the Legomation workshop (ages 8-10), children can create stop motion movies using Legos and other media. Jayla Patton, Legomation instructor, insists that the kids dread snack time during her winter break camp. “Can’t we keep animating?” they ask.

Experimenting, Exploring and Playing in Winter Break Camps after Christmas

During the week after Christmas, Carnegie Science Center offers both full-day and half-day Holiday Camps for children ages 4-10. Topics range from robotics to railroading to rainbows and more. Ideal for the working parent, Carnegie Science Center’s holiday camps offer both before and after-care.

Another popular option is the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium’s Winter Mini-Camp on Dec. 29-31 for children ages 5-9. Kids can experience up-close animal encounters, explore the zoo and even get crafty.

Finally, the National Aviary offers its annual Holiday Penguin Camps. Families can participate together in the Aviary’s Penguins! Family Camp on Saturday, Dec. 27 or children can attend the Kids Holiday Penguin Camp on Dec. 29 (ages 6-8) or 30 (ages 9-12). All camps include penguin meal preparation, educational activities and the chance to take home a masterpiece created by a penguin just for you.

Ice skating at North Park, Photo courtesy of Allegheny County Parks Department
Ice skating at North Park, Photo courtesy of Allegheny County Parks Department

Taking a Whirl at Outdoor Ice Skating

Whether gliding around the quiet ice rink in wooded Schenley Park or skating under the majestic Christmas tree at the center of Downtown’s MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink, Pittsburgh has several beautiful options for novice through veteran ice skaters.

Schenley Park’s family-friendly outdoor ice rink is a low-key spot to introduce your children to the sport. The rink offers extended hours throughout winter break and even has plastic walkers and orange cones to assist the newest of skaters. Plus, it’s very affordable with admission fees of only $4 for adults, $3 for children and $2.50 for skate rentals.

The MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink at the Plaza at PPG Place is the only outdoor ice rink offering skating lessons during the break. Private 20-minute lessons for one person are $15 and for three people are $40. Call ahead to schedule lesson times. General admission to the rink is $8 for adults and $7 for children. Skate rental is $3.

North Park and South Park Ice Rinks are also open during the holiday break. While no lessons or aids are offered during this time, Family Skate is held on Wednesday from 4:30 to 7 p.m. at a cost of only $10 for resident families of six or less.

Slip Sliding, Snowtubing and Sledding Away

Thanks to the variety of parks in this city of slopes, a good place to sled is not hard to find. Now let’s keep our fingers crossed that we get enough snow!

One family favorite is Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park in Oakland. With its long loping incline, it’s a perfect hill for sledding with young kids.

Frick Park’s Blue Slide Playground in Squirrel Hill is another favorite–not only for its famous Blue Slide where kids can “sled” on cardboard all year long–but also for a couple of nearby hillsides ripe for snowy runs.

For a little extra adventure, South Park has three famous hills that all land in the same valley. Dubbed the Sunny Slopes, this location even has its own Facebook page and fans.

Interested in snowtubing with your family? Head to Boyce Park where slopes are well-maintained and prices are affordable with two-hour sessions at only $13-$17 for residents.

Little skier at Boyce Park, photo courtesy of Allegheny County Parks Department
Little skier at Boyce Park, Photo courtesy of Allegheny County Parks Department

Hitting the slopes at Boyce Park

The rolling hills of Boyce Park near Monroeville have eased many a Pittsburgh child into a lifelong love of skiing and snowboarding. And parents like it, too. After all, it’s cheap. It’s close. It’s small. And for the less adventurous caregiver, it even has a Four Seasons Lodge with a mug of hot chocolate and a roaring fire calling your name.

Boyce Park is open for skiing and snowboarding throughout winter break. Lessons and rentals are available and slope fees start at under $10. Also, new this year, season passes can be purchased online.

The Boyce Park ski area is holding its annual Kid’s Weekend on Jan. 3-4 with face-painting, balloon artists, magicians and a limited free helmet distribution to children 17 and under. Kid’s Weekend also features the annual mini-Junior Olympics in skiing and snowboarding for children ages five to 12 on Saturday.

For many more slopes at a bit more expense, two fabulous ski resorts are within an hour driving distance of Pittsburgh–Hidden Valley and Seven Springs.

First Night FedEx Ground Parade, Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust
First Night FedEx Ground Parade, Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

Celebrating New Year’s Eve with Kid-Friendly Countdowns

Pittsburgh offers so many kid-friendly options for New Year’s Eve this year, it’s going to be hard to choose. And you don’t have to keep your brood up until midnight to partake in the fun.

Several local hotspots are holding countdowns to noon for families with small children. The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium’s 15th annual Noon Years Eve starts at 11 a.m. with Times Square-like live outdoor entertainment, a noon ball drop and the signing of a ReZoolution banner. Across town in Oakland, add 40 minutes of storytelling to 15 minutes of noise maker creation. Mix in a boisterous countdown to noon and you get a great (free) time in the Carnegie Main Library children’s section.

Larry Berger from the Saturday Light Brigade and Tim Hartman are masters of ceremonies at the Children’s Museum New Year’s celebration. Held in the Garage exhibit, this event commences with the firing of a confetti cannon at noon followed by musical performances and storytelling.

The Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library (PTLL) is having its first New Year’s Eve pajama party for families with children ages six and younger. With its extensive collection of toys, art room and free admission for first-timers, New Year’s Eve may just be the perfect day to explore this volunteer-run indoor play space in Shadyside.

Finally, Macaroni Kid will be holding another countdown to noon at Jammie Jam 2015, held at Latitude 360 in Robinson. Families can come in their pj’s and enjoy bowling, arcade games, face-painting, Meet and Greets with Anna, Elsa and the Teenage Mutant Ninjas plus much more.

Starting at 6 p.m., Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens offers an evening countdown alternative, free with admission. Kelliann Walsh says, “Dancing to steel drum music and the anticipation of the countdown [conducted at 8:45 p.m.] continue to be favorite highlights.”

Finally, our city’s biggest New Year’s Eve celebration is Highmark First Night 2015 in Downtown Pittsburgh with comedy, dance, magic and theater performances throughout the evening. Plus, a parade with larger-than-life puppets, tons of kid-friendly programming in the First National Bank Family Tent and double displays of fireworks at 6pm and midnight. Cost is $8 in advance, $10 at the door and kids five and under are free. For more information on kid-friendly activities at First Night, please check out our recent article.

Relishing Ooey Gooey Fun at Mess Fest at the Carnegie Science Center

Besides reveling in the exhibits (trains, robots, water tables, space ships and more), don’t miss Carnegie Science Center’s all-day Jan. 1 annual Mess Fest full of oobleck, slime, finger painting, pie eating contests and more. Celebrate all things yucky in this New Year’s Day extravaganza. Go ahead. Get a hand in there.

Finally, if you’re looking to savor the last bits of seasonal cheer in Pittsburgh, check out our Top 10 holiday hotspots for Pittsburgh families. Several of the destinations mentioned in that article will remain open during winter break including the Cathedral of Learning’s Nationality Rooms, Overly’s Country Christmas and Oglebay’s Winter Festival of Lights.

Let’s raise a glass to family adventures all through the winter break in Pittsburgh and have a Happy New Year, one and all!

Featured photo: Countdown to Noon at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Photo courtesy of Children’s Museum

Krystia Nora