It’s 9:45 a.m. on a Saturday, and we are first in line at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
Stella, my almost 2-year-old, knows something’s up. It’s not every day that Mom and Dad park the car beneath three giant fish on tall metal poles.
But I’m even more excited. I’ve been looking forward to this trip as if it were Disneyland; actually more than if it were Disneyland, because I need a break from overly commercialized characters. Elmo, Pooh, Dora, Barney, Blue — Stella loves them all. We hear their names every day, see their images on her shoes, books and bath toys. I need one day’s break from the pressure to buy their products, one day’s retreat from all things that require batteries and screens.
The museum’s guiding principle is that children ought to “Play with Real Stuff.” It has elevated things that a kid can do with her own two hands: painting, molding, tinkering, climbing. Things that don’t drive parents crazy with noise.
Since the dramatic expansion that quadrupled its size in November 2004, the museum has been hailed by child-development experts, architects and even environmental activists, who like its solar panels, water-conservation toilets and commitment to renewable energy sources. Recently, the buzz has filtered down to local parents’ listservs and the network of moms I consult about everything from playgrounds to pediatricians. Everyone gives it straight A’s.
Before we enter the museum, I’m already impressed, struck really, by the melding of traditional and modern. Above the veranda and its porch swing, the main building’s faÃƒÂ§ade, a “lantern” made of inches-long translucent panels doubles as a wind sculpture.
A few minutes to 10, the waiting parents move inside and start trading intel.
“We brought an extra set of clothes,” one parent says. “They get soaked in the Waterplay area.”
I decide Waterplay will be our last stop.
Our first is Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, modeled after the television program right down to the closet where you can try on a cardigan. There’s something both uplifting and sad about sitting on the only trolley from my childhood with my own daughter — it’s great that it makes her smile too, but it reminds me that a mainstay of my youth is now in a museum. Thankfully, I get over it while dressing up like royalty in King Friday’s Castle.
We move on to the Attic, where older kids are catching their shadows in one room and looking at a ghost (through an optical illusion) in another. Stella is content to sit on the floor and look for the surprises behind rows of little shutters. A few balls, some rubber duckies, a mirror. It’s all so exciting.
Because her dad is more curious about the laughter coming from a higher floor, he takes Stella up to the Gravity Room, where a disorienting checkerboard floor tilts at a 25-degree angle. The experience is a little much for her though, and I hear her crying on their way down the slide out of the room.
She brightens up as soon as we enter the Garage, which feels like being inside a Rube Goldberg device. Future engineers look up into the sky of this old planetarium and behold the network of shoots, hoops and pulleys. As balls roll over our heads, Stella sends toy cars down hilly tracks, turns levers and climbs behind the wheel of a MINI Cooper. But being almost 2 means that some of the exhibits are off-limits, including a rope net connected to a giant climbing apparatus. Still, like dogs, ice cream and bubbles, it calls to her. We have to pull her off several times before she finally gives up and lets us take her back to the first floor Studio.
Light pours into this busy space where kids can work with clay and paint and learn silk-screening, printing and papermaking. Stella puts her hands on the papermaking table and hoists herself up on her tippy-toes.
“She’s too little for this, right?” I ask the worker.
“Not at all,” she says, placing a small square wooden strainer in front of us, while I slide a plastic stool under Stella’s feet. Together, we ladle a pulp of cotton, leaves and green glitter into the square. When it’s full, the worker has Stella stand on a taller stool and help close the paper press. When she’s done, Stella has made her very first square of sparkly green paper, and she’s beaming.
At the easels, we drape a smock on her tiny frame and she goes to work, a paintbrush in each hand. Stella favors dark colors, the harder to wash out of her clothes, the better. And when all the blue and purple paint is gone from her brushes, she smears her hands along the paper and the easel.
“Hands!” she demands suddenly.
They are indeed covered with paint, way too much for the stash of paper towels I got from the big sink in the corner. I decide it’s time for Waterplay.
We have been in the museum for nearly an hour and a half — quite a stretch for any toddler — but Stella’s ready for more. We take a short detour to the Nursery, where she runs toward a toddler-sized teeter-totter. When she goes down, she giggles as bubbles spray up inside the glassed-in wall of water separating her from her father.
Nearby, babies watch fish swim in an aquarium just above their heads, and I’m guessing some learn how to pull themselves up on the bar around the tank, just so they can get a closer look. It’s fun to guess what the educational motivation is behind every display — from the sandbox with green sand to the wall of lighted pegs that looks like the game Lite Brite to the vat of rice.
“Let’s go play in the water!” I say, dragging her away from a bucket by her paint-stained hand.
In Waterplay, it is forever spring. Kids don bright yellow slickers and clasp their hands over water shooting up through pipes in the floor to make it rain on their yellow boots. Older kids design their own fountains or construct wooden boats and send them down a rapids- and whirlpool-filled waterway.
The smallest raincoat we can find hangs off Stella like one of her dad’s windbreakers, but her boots fit just fine. She stands on a stool and throws plastic boats and rubber duckies into “The River.” Then she moves to “The Pond,” where she throws plastic sharks, stingrays and more rubber duckies into the water.
I watch her from a bench made out of a surfboard, thinking about all the real stuff she played with today: glitter, knobs, dolls, shovels, paint, water, buckets, balls, levers, paper, boats, slides, nets, mirrors, books and chalk. Then I think about all the things that’ll have to wait for our next visit: bubbling mud in the Backyard, the musical swing, the 25-foot-tall poodle, greasepaint and costumes at the theater.
Now it’s my turn to beam. Stella hasn’t said “Elmo” once the entire day.
The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, 10 Children’s Way, (412) 322-5058. www.pittsburghkids.org. Admission for adults is $8, children 2-18 and seniors $7 and children under 2 free. Thursdays are $6 for all.