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2007CriticsKids

Best Community Child Care
Escuelita del Alma

The "Little School of the Soul" nearly became collateral damage in the battle between Las Manitas Avenue Cafe and the Marriott Corp. over the restaurant's site on Congress. Its existence as the only Downtown preschool, multi-ethnic at that, has always been precarious, but it continues its nurturing commitment under the threat of the developer's wrecking ball. Anyone who has seen the annual graduation ceremony, with generations of youngsters performing for their parents, understands how precious to the city this little island of learning and community is. Long may it prosper, and may it be the seed of many more little oases of learning to come.

Escuelita del Alma, 213 Congress, 512/474-4702, www.escuelitadelalma.com

Best Dawg-Gone Time for Kid and Dog
Urban Dawgy

The concept is simple and brilliant. Take your dog and child. Put them in the car. Drop them off at a place that is fun, educational, and loving. Relax. Come back later to pick them up only to discover both are exhausted from learning and playing too hard. Drive home, and encourage child and dog to take a nap. Relax some more. Owner Natalie McMahon loves dogs and children and helps find ways for both to achieve a healthy partnership through training. McMahon offers a summer camp, ongoing classes, and one-on-one instruction in basic dog manners and skills such as sit, stand, lie down, as well as rally and agility (including competition level). The educational process benefits not only the dog looking for that alpha-human to take directions from, but the child who has yet to discover his or her inner alpha self.

Urban Dawgy, 3901 CR 175, Leander, 512/577-0562, www.urbandawgy.com

Best Ghoul
Mr. Creep

Mr. Creep (or Creeps to his friends) isn’t just some guy who runs around a haunted house going “woooooh!” to scare the kids. As the regular scarer-in-chief at the House of Torment, he’s spent years refining his zombie chic, spending as much time keeping the line enthralled and handing out spooky candies to the kiddies as he does lurching out of the shadows. An artist of eerie, the always elegant Creep also has his own claw-made clothing line, and his cadaver jackets are to be caught dead in.

Mr. Creep, House of Torment, 523 Highland Mall Blvd., www.thehouseoftorment.com

Best Locally Made Fairy Princess Dresses
Ruby Pearl at Vivid

Designer Sunny Haralson and her company Ruby Pearl make chic dresses for women out of restyled vintage wear. The fairy princess dresses she designs for little girls (available exclusively at SoCo's Vivid) are a big slice of heaven. Layers of tulle and gossamer fabrics in electric colors make your little princess feel like … well, a little princess.

Ruby Pearl, Vivid, 1200 S. Congress

Best Midweek Mingling for Toddlers Into Localization and Sustainability
Austin Farmers' Market at the Triangle

Whether it's the ample expanses of soft grassy surfaces, the easy-on-the-ears live music, the kid-friendly fountain, or the numerous vendors selling tasty tidbits, the Austin Farmers' Market at the Triangle (where Guadalupe and Lamar meet north of 45th) has become a hot spot for the teething set and their hip, savvy parents. The market, open Wednesdays from 4-7pm, is a convenient, central location to pick up all-natural and locally produced veggies and meats, as well as cheeses, salsas, herbs, baked goods, and a whole bunch more.

SFC Farmers' Market at the Triangle, 4600 Guadalupe, 512/236-0074, www.austinfarmersmarket.org

Best New Lease on Life Without a Mortgage
Out Youth

Out Youth is back, babies. And we better not hear anymore talk of doors closing forever. No, dude. That sucked. We suspect it won't be a problem in the future, actually, as all that icky grown-up business of mortgages and executive directors and boards in disarray is a thing of the past. And it's a good thing. Because the kids don't need anymore problems. This past year, an angel of a donor anonymously paid off the entire mortgage on the OY house, leaving the group to focus on fun stuff like new drop-in hours, the new CyberCenter, a haunted house and Halloween party, Coming Out Day (the day this issue hits the stands!), and maintaining a nice, fluffy landing pad for queer and questioning young people who are learning the fine art of being accepted and loved.

OutYouth, 909 E. 49 1/2, 512/419-1233, www.outyouth.org

Best Place to Get Hooked - or Needled
Craft-o-Rama

Lordy day, who would have thought that once-frumpy cousins of the design world like knitting, crocheting, and felting would ever show up on the radar of the hipster set? Well, the old girls have found a new identity in a bright, airy, fresh, and funky setting on South Congress called Craft-o-Rama. A variety of classes for not just adults, but the young ones, too, makes this a great afterschool alternative to the ennui of syndicated reruns. Beginning sewing is taught in a two-part series, and they offer some unpredictable endeavors as well. Jump-start your teen's or tween's creative instincts with forays into fashion illustration, fabric wallets, recycled-sweater handbags, and tote bags. Want to knit or crochet? Craft-o-Rama has a yummy selection of Brown Sheep yarns along with the new line of cotton yarns by local knit-chick Vickie Howell. Patterns, books, notions, embroidery kits by Austin’s own Sublime Stitching, and other cool things you don’t know how you lived without, add to Craft-O-Rama’s allure. And with Amy’s Ice Creams right next door, you’ll swear you've died and found yourself in DIY heaven.

Austin Craft-O-Rama, 3100 S. Congress #3-B, 512/707-2405, www.austincraftorama.com

Best Place to Play in a Fountain
Brushy Creek Lake Park

Just a short drive north of Austin is a hidden, 90-acre treasure of a park – a free treasure of a park. In addition to bike trails, a sand volleyball court, picnicking areas, and a playground, there’s a water playscape open 10am to 8pm, April through September. So, after heating up with a bike ride on the trails, kids can cool down while dancing in the fountains. Families can enjoy quieter pursuits as well: There’s a nature trail, a fishing area, and a labyrinth.

Brushy Creek Park, 3300 Brushy Creek Rd., Cedar Park, www.cedarparktx.us

Best Surfeit of Sweets
Big Top Candy Shop

Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, step right this way, and behold the most mouthwatering accumulation of sugary delights ever assembled under one roof. From the far corners of the globe, owner Brandon Hodge and his crack crew of confectionologists have gathered sweetmeats and neat treats to tickle your taste buds. You'll gasp at the astonishing array of candy bars, from the humble Hershey's milk chocolate to the elephantine Chunky to the inscrutable Chick-o-Stick. You'll drool over the monumental vintage soda fountain, from which dairy-case prestidigitators produce magically delicious cones, shakes, malteds, and the fabled egg cream of the (Not So) Far East. You'll marvel at the chocolate-covered potato chips. You'll recoil from the bulk bin of circus peanuts. See jelly beans and stick candies in more hues than Crayola has crayons; see jawbreakers bigger than a baby's head; see the fearsome Atomic Fireball, all surrounded by brightly colored banners and black-and-white photos that pay tribute to the three-ring spectaculars and sideshow oddities of yore. Like the big top itself, this Big Top leaves you wide-eyed with wonder and feeling like a giddy kid, no matter how old you are.

Big Top Candy Shop, 1706 S. Congress, 512/462-2220, www.bigtopcandyshop.tumblr.com

Best Tot Dancing
The Oak Garden at Güero's Taco Bar

Trip the light fantastic, and dance the fandango with your precious bundles of joy in the garden at Güero's, under the live oaks at sunset. The charm of this oasis amid the bustling SoCo scene is irresistible. And better yet, it's free. Wednesday through Saturday, 6:30-9:30pm; Sunday, 3-6pm (weather permitting).

Güero's Taco Bar, 1412 S. Congress, 512/447-7688, www.guerostacobar.com

Best Walk on the Wild Side
Nature Nights at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Introducing kids and adults to the outdoors doesn’t have to be difficult or boring. With the help of the naturalists at the Wildflower Center, the whole family can join guided hikes exploring the 16 gardens, the Little House Courtyard (created especially for children ages 2-6), the bloomin' South Meadow nature preserve around the visitors' center, as well as take part in craft demonstrations. The Nature Nights programs happen every Thursday in July and one Friday each month September through November. The evening events (6-9pm) are fun, informative, and best of all, only $1 per person.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse, 512/232-0100, www.wildflower.org

Tastiest Crickets
Herpeton Exotic Pets

According to a recent informal poll of some Austin frogs and skinks, the crickets at Herpeton Exotic Pets are tastier, crunchier, and more nutritious than other crickets. And while it may be difficult to stomach that, we can say for sure that Herpeton does offer crickets in three delicious sizes: small, medium, and large. Seriously, if you are an exotic pet enthusiast or just curious about creepy crawlies, you'll enjoy Herpeton's selection of sugar gliders, frogs, hedgehogs, snakes, chinchillas, ferrets, iguanas, bunnies, bearded dragons, hamsters, gerbils, lizards, guinea pigs, geckos, and more. Plus they do kids' birthday parties, special events, and educational shows.

Herpeton Exotic Pets, 4211 S. Lamar Ste. A-1, 512/916-9177, www.herpeton.com

Herpeton Exotic Pets, 8820 Burnet Rd. #507, 512/419-0077, www.herpeton.com

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