Phipps Winter Light Garden. Photo by Paul G. Wiegman.

It’s a magical time of year at Phipps Winter Light Garden. Photo by Paul G. Wiegman.

The holiday break is fast approaching: that magical time of year when parents juggle the last of their annual vacation days with the kids’ full week off from school. Whether you’re looking for a full-day program, a week-long camp, or just some outdoor activities where you can join the fun, there are plenty of options in and around Pittsburgh to keep kids busy and entertained until school starts up again in January.To get your own school vacation activities planned, check out our list of some of the most popular winter break activities in Pittsburgh for kids with a little time on their hands.
Phipps Family Fun Days: Come for the plants, stay for the light show 
Courtesy Phipps Conservatory/Paul G. Wiegman

Phipps Conservatory is known for its fabulous holiday lights.

Family Fun Days lets kids explore the indoor gardens at Phipps with volunteer educators. This year’s theme is “Deck the Halls,” so each room in the conservatory will be adorned in style. In addition, the fabulous Phipps’  Winter Flower Show runs through Jan. 11. Try to stay past 5 p.m if you can, to visit the outdoor Winter Light Garden. The show is spectacular.

Carnegie Science Center: Perform some experiments

carnegie science center

Having fun at camps at the Carnegie Science Center.

During the week after Christmas, Carnegie Science Center offers a wide range of both full-day and half-day Holiday Camps for children ages 4-10. The topics include everything from experiments with snowflakes to learning about robots, to programming with Scratch. Carnegie Science Center’s holiday camps offer both before and after-care for the full-day sessions for an extra fee. These popular camps frequently  sell out, so register soon. For more information call the Science Center at 412-237-1637.

National Aviary: Hang out with some penguins

Courtesy National Aviary.

The penguins await at the National Aviary.

If your kids are into penguins (who isn’t into penguins?) the National Aviary’s Holiday Camps will fit the bill. All camps include penguin meal preparation, educational activities and the chance to take home a work of art created by a penguin just for you. The one-day sessions run from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Dec. 28 (for ages 6-8), Dec. 29, (for ages 9-12) and Dec. 30 (for ages 13-18) For more information call the aviary at 412-258-9439.

 Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium: Say hi to a tiger

Your kids will have great fun at the zoo and learn a lot, too. The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium’s Winter Mini-Camp runs Dec. 28-30 for children ages 5-9. Kids can participate in one, two, or all three days, with tours of the zoo and aquarium, live animal visits and craft projects, as well as a different animal theme each day. Owls, otters, Amur tigers (pictured) and penguins are all slated to make appearances. For more information visit the zoo’s website, or call 412-365-2528

The Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museum: All aboard!

Courtesy of the Western Pennsylvania Railroad Museum.

Trains galore at the Western Pennsylvania Railroad Museum.

For a trip a little outside the city, the nonprofit Western Pennsylvania Model Railroad Museumin Gibsonia is only open during the holiday season. Its display features model trains traveling between Pittsburgh and Cumberland, MD past numerous well-known landmarks. It also has a Lionel toy train display and special activities for younger visitors.

Kennywood Holiday Lights

More than a million lights will transform Kennywood in the month of December and there’s still time to see it this weekend. Enjoy the dazzling light show choreographed to favorite holiday songs and don’t miss the local choirs performing, too. Other things to see during this extravaganza: Santa, of course, the Gingerbread Express which offers rides, and the spectacular 90-foot Christmas tree.

For the first time, Kennywood’s 4-D Theater will show screenings of The Polar Express: A 4-D Experience, based on the popular Caldecott Medal Children’s book.

Ice skating: Multiple locations

Courtesy PPG Place.

Ice skating has never been better at the expanded rink at PPG Place.

If your little adventurers want to get outside during their school break, there are plenty of options for ice skating in the area. Schenley Park’s family-friendly outdoor ice rink is undergoing renovations this year, so keep an eye on the Citiparks website for specifics about holiday week hours, which are subject to change. The Schenley rink usually has extended hours throughout winter break and offers skate rentals for a fee.

The MassMutual Pittsburgh Ice Rink at the Plaza at PPG Place offers skating lessons  as well as open skate hours during the week and on weekends. Its reopening was pushed back slightly by warm temperatures in November, but it’s expected to be in full swing by the time the post-holiday break rolls around, bigger and better than ever.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve with Kid-Friendly Countdowns

Courtesy Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Welcome the New Year downtown where there’s plenty to do for families. Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Pittsburgh offers many kid-friendly options for New Year’s Eve, most of which don’t require the kids to stay up until the clock strikes midnight.

The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium’s annual Noon Year’s Eve starts at 11 a.m. with a noon ball drop

And of course, there’s the annual First Night celebration Downtown, which features two fireworks displays (hey this is Pittsburgh, after all), at 6 p.m. and at midnight to ring in 2016.

New Year’s Day

Besides reveling in the exhibits, 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. How can you resist?

Whatever your family is into, there’s plenty to do in the Pittsburgh region during the holiday break to keep kids from getting bored and parents from getting frazzled. Happy holidays from all of us at Kidsburgh and NEXTpittsburgh.

Featured image: Phipps Winter Light Garden. Photo by Paul G. Wiegman.  

This feature originally ran in Kidsburgh, a publication of NEXTpittsburgh and the Grable Foundation.