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Crying Uncle

How to keep the kids entertained -- and out of your house

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I don't have kids: Being City Paper's editor is like being a monk, right down to the hairstyle. But I do have a 3-year-old nephew, and I'm gearing up for the day when my brother drops him off for an afternoon. I mean, eventually, the kid is going to tire of playing "Get Uncle Chris a Beer." (Or maybe not: He already shows signs of being into NASCAR.)

So how to entertain him?

The most obvious option: Take him to the Pittsburgh Children's Museum (412-322-5058 or www.pittsburghkids.org). Housed in a pair of North Side architectural treasures -- the former Buhl Planetarium and the Allegheny Post Office -- the museum's motto is "Play with Real Stuff." This summer, the museum is offering "LEMURtron," a collection of musical robots kids can play with, like the "GuitarBot" or "Ill-Tempered Clangier." Kids can also make art, tinker beneath the hood of a car, and experiment with pipes and plumbing. ("Never too soon to learn a useful trade," is Uncle Chris' motto. "You don't want to end up like me.")

Most local museums have youth programming: Exhibits at the Carnegie Science Center (412-237-3400 or www.carnegiesciencecenter.org) seem directed at the little 'uns almost exclusively. But the place to take the kids this year is the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (412-622-1950 or www.carnegiemuseums.org/cmnh), which recently overhauled its dinosaur exhibit. The fossils are now situated in a "naturalistic" setting, as if they were tramping around Mesozoic forests. For kids who long to lay waste to civilization -- and like I say, this one is into NASCAR -- nothing is more fascinating than dinosaurs.

We might also take in the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium (412-665-3640 or www.pittsburghzoo.org), which features a Kids Kingdom petting zoo, where he can meet goats and other animals. The new polar bear exhibit is especially popular. There's also the North Side's National Aviary (412-323-7235 or www.aviary.org), with its collection of birds in their native habitats.

My nephew shows distinct signs of musical talent -- or at least a highly experimental sense of rhythm -- and Pittsburgh's cultural institutions offer numerous kid-friendly productions. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, for example, features a "Fiddlesticks Family Concert" series presided over by a giant cat who encourages a love of music in kids ages 3-8.

The Gemini Children's Theater (412-243-6464 or www.geminitheater.org), meanwhile, features stage adaptations of children's stories; it also offers summer camps in its Point Breeze home, the Factory. (The same facility houses a popular children's gymnastics center, Gymkhana -- 412-247-4800 or www.gymkhanafun.com.) South Hills families can attend performances at Little Lake Theater's Looking Glass Theater productions (724-745-6300 or www.littlelake.org/youth/lookingglass.htm).

Perhaps the best-known local children's theater group, though, is the Pittsburgh International Children's Theater (412-321-5520 or www.pghkids.org). The group hosts the Pittsburgh International Children's Festival, a multi-day event held in May featuring performers and other attractions from around the world. The organization also offers children's-theater productions all year round, performed at area high schools and at the Byham Theater, Downtown.

In the summer, the area offers its share of amusement parks as well. The best-known is Kennywood, in nearby West Mifflin (412-461-0500 or www.kennywood.com), which has a full complement of rides for kids -- including a wonderfully restored carousel. Just downstream, in West Homestead, is Kennywood's sister facility, Sandcastle (412-462-6666 or www.sandcastlewaterpark.com). The park features more than a dozen water slides, a wave pool and inner-tube ride, plus a water playground for kids. Uncle Chris, meanwhile, can get soaked in a different fashion at the nearby swimming pool/bar.

Farther away is Ligonier's Idlewild Park (724-238-3666 or www.idlewild.com), which features a water park of its own, the "SoakZone." Kids can also wander through Story Book Forest and meet characters from children's books ... or ride a trolley through a life-sized version of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

The nephew's already been on a real trolley -- when you're 3, the Port Authority's "T" is like a roller coaster -- but I'll be taking him on Carson Street's historic Monongahela Incline (412-381-1665 or incline.pghfree.net) just as soon as I'm sure he won't spend the whole ride screaming. Anything to introduce the little NASCAR fan to mass transit.

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