You Never Outgrow the Children’s Museum (of Pittsburgh)

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Small Trolley in the Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood travelling exhibit, Children's Museum of Pittsburgh
One might say my nine-year-old is too big for this trolley in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, but one would be wrong.

A few years ago, when I was a mere reader of GeekMom, an out-of-town GeekMom stopped at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh during a road trip and wrote the trip up in a review that has since been lost to the ravages of server-moves  (wait, here it is! Look at that, still on WIRED, even). It was fun to see an outsider’s take on this museum that had been, to me, practically home. I had worked at the Children’s Museum as a Museum Educator Floor Staffer for, off and on (even as a public school librarian, I still went back to the museum over the summers), seven years, and as a contracted-from-home writer for seven years more. I was there when the Museum expanded from the Old Allegheny Post Office (where, incidentally, one of my ancestors had even worked as a postmaster) into the old Buhl Science Center next door; you can even find my name on a plastic thank-you-staff plaque in the lobby. I left the Museum a month before the birth of my eldest*, only because making the half-hour (without traffic) commute for a near-minimum wage job would be just a little unfeasible with a newborn.

I stayed on not only as a contracted employee (who just had to come in for a couple of meetings a year) but now as a parent. We took full advantage of membership (“pays for itself in just three visits!”) and used it as a place to meet up with grandparents and friends. But once the kids both started school full-time, it was harder to make the trip into the city. Membership isn’t a deal anymore when you only make it in once a year at most.

But the kids were determined to get in there at least once this summer before school started, and so, on the last free weekday of summer vacation, we finally did.

I’d developed a pretty good sense of how to direct kids of different ages at the Museum, and knew school-aged kids could spend hours in the creative spaces: the Studio and the now-MAKESHOP (there’d been a simpler “Workshop” craft area in my day), but my kids decided to bypass the Studio—nothing going on there today they hadn’t done before—and they hadn’t been in the MAKESHOP five minutes before the oldest said, “I’m bored, can we go to a different room, now?”

MakeShop sewing at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh
The Museum is great about presenting sewing as Not Just a Girl Thing, but still, only my daughter was interested.

“What? Don’t you want to build? Play with the marble run wall? Sew something here?” (The youngest was a BIT more occupied with the Stuffed Animal Hospital set up there, and started to sew a pillow).

“Not really,” he said, stacking a few blocks non-committedly. I started to worry a little. Had we actually hit it? Had he actually outgrown the Children’s Museum? It’s one thing when all this stuff is new, but to a kid who’d spent so much of his early childhood (not to mention his pre-natal months) here, maybe the novelty was gone. Maybe a kid COULD get tired of this place! 

There’s always something new in the “Traveling Exhibits” room at the end of the hall, but, currently, that exhibit is based on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which is, let’s face it, a toddler show. I wondered if we’d end up leaving early out of their unexpected boredom.

Thank you Tree, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood exhibit, Children's Museum of Pittsburgh
Searching for a free space to hang her notepaper thank-you leaf.

Luckily, I had underestimated the fun of the Children’s Museum. My kids hadn’t outgrown the Museum at all—not even Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has a long history of collaboration with the Fred Rogers Company; it not only is home to displays of Mister Rogers’ cardigan and tennis shoes, and original Neighborhood of Make-Believe puppets, but they’ve built many exhibits and outreach programs together** based on a shared philosophy of child development through play. This exhibit is designed to encourage family interaction, full of open-ended thinking questions and spots to sit and reflect together. There’s an area where visitors can share strategies for dealing with the difficulties of everyday life. There’s a music shop with unusual instruments I wanted to play with even more than the kids. Yes, the box-vehicles and playhouses are toddler-sized, but even big kids can’t resist a post office with letters and mailboxes for sorting and delivery bikes. And I fell in love with the “Thank You Tree.” Visitors write a thank-you note on a paper leaf and twist-tie it to a tree-shaped frame. There were some example thank-you leaves there from various Daniel Tiger characters, so the Museum wouldn’t have an empty tree, but there wasn’t any fear of that. The tree was thick with thank-yous, and at the moment there weren’t even any more blank leaves. Which didn’t stop my daughter from writing a thank-you on a piece of notebook paper and hanging it anyway.

It was there in the new exhibit it occurred to me that I should write up this visit for GeekMom. My kids might be a little old for Daniel Tiger, but yours might not be. And if you don’t live anywhere near Pittsburgh? Never fear! The Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood exhibit is a “traveling exhibit” for a reason; other children’s museums around the country will be able to rent it after its run here ends in January 2017. The Museum has created many exhibits that are now on tour—last year’s lovely Very Eric Carle exhibit will be in Portland this fall. Keep an eye out!

But if you do find yourself anywhere near Pittsburgh and you haven’t visited the Children’s Museum in awhile, it’s worth spending the day, no matter what the age of your kids (and who even needs kids? If you don’t feel comfortable visiting sans kids during regular hours, check out one of the 21+ MAKEnight events!). There are always new pieces of “Tough Art” popping up in every corner to discover, like this illusion I took video of just so I could make it spin indefinitely:

And old pieces, too—I was happy to see one of my favorites, the mesmerizing Magma Chambers by Ned Kahn, back in the hallway:

It’s just sand and light and the air that’s trapped inside!

And old exhibits are constantly being refreshed. In MY day, the state-of-the-art-Carnegie-Mellon-created Virpets (virtual puppets) in the Attic required joysticks and buttons–now they’re motion-capture. The Mini Cooper in the Garage (which turned out to be the room the nine-year-old had wanted to visit most all along—he focused on launching paper rockets there) was eventually upgraded to a Smart Car. I can’t even begin to describe the transformation Waterplay has gone through over the years, though, rest assured, you will still get wet.

The Attic, Children's Museum of Pittsburgh
You just dance in the designated spots and make the puppets dance! The Attic, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh
Rocket launchers, Garage, Children's Museum of Pittsburgh
Launching paper rockets in the Garage.

So my momentary worries of my kids getting too old were all unfounded. Me of ten years ago, who used to play there as much as work, would wonder what I was thinking. You never outgrow the Children’s Museum. You just have to squeeze a little in the climber.

…okay, maybe you’d better pass on the climber, grownups. Just in case.


 

*We can’t go to the Museum without this coming up in conversation at least once. “What’s your problem?” someone always teases him in the Gravity Room, “you used to do this all the time in utero!”

Gravity Room, Childrens Museum of Pittsburgh
Not as EASY when youre not a fetus, IS it?!

(Which always shocked adults when they encountered me there at the time. “They make YOU work up HERE?” they’d gasp, agog at my belly. Actually, I requested it. After years of working there, the tilted room illusion no longer made me dizzy, and the angle of the floor did wonders for my strained back.

By the way, nine years later, I can still do the Gravity Room without flinching.)

**Which gives me the claim to fame of having gotten to meet Mr. McFeely more than once during charity kick-offs and other Museum events. Once we had this most fascinating interaction: I was pushing a wheeled tub for a visiting school group’s coats, and he said, “Is that for the sweaters [that people were donating]?” and I said, “No,” it was SO COOL.