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2008CriticsKids

Best Blackboard Jungle for Budding Auteurs
Austin School of Film

Austin is a city rich in arts and culture and offers a wide variety of opportunities for up-and-coming visionaries. When it comes to filmmaking – especially for children – there are a number of venues that offer classes here and there, but when you compare variety and quantity, Austin School of Film stands out. Its award-winning youth program, which has been in existence since 1999 as the Center for Youth Cinema, offers small classes for ages 10 to 19 in live-action film, computer animation, and more. Small classes ensure personal attention and encourage group collaboration in all facets of filmmaking, including screenwriting, visualization, developing narrative, and the entire production and postproduction process.

Austin School of Film, 2200 Tillery, 512/236-8877, www.austinfilmschool.org

Best Empowerment for Families
Any Baby Can

The programs at Any Baby Can aren't just for babies or new mommies. Kids and adults of all ages benefit from the awesome free offerings of this Eastside nonprofit – from literacy classes to teen-parenting workshops to childhood cancer support groups. An especially admirable program called Comprehensive Advocacy and Resources for Empowerment is for families of children up to age 12 who have developmental delays or chronic illness and helps coordinate access to social services for the whole family. We feel CAREd for!

Any Baby Can, 1121 E. Seventh, 512/454-3743, www.anybabycan.org

Best Johnny- or Janey-on-the-Spot Child Care
Tree Tops Learning Center

At first glance, Tree Tops might seem like your everyday kid-care haven. But what sets it apart from the rest is its glorious drop-in service. You read right: drop-in childcare. Day and night, Monday-Thursday, 6:30am-12mid; Friday, 6:30am-2:30am; and Saturday, 8am-2:30am. So if you have an itch to take your sweetie out for dinner and a show but don't wish to make it a family affair, let your child revel in the company of other kids while enjoying organized activities led by a sweet and caring staff. And you get a night off.

Tree Tops Learning Center, 1700 W. 32nd, 512/467-8500, www.treetopslearningcenter.com

Best Kid-Friendly Coffeehouse
Jungle Java

Jungle Java is Mom and Dad's dream: Grab a triple espresso, and enjoy some much-deserved time to yourself while Junior runs off to play basketball, climb a wall, or fly down one of the five slides. Free Wi-Fi, a decent food menu, a special area just for toddlers — this jungle has it all.

Jungle Java, 1400 E. Old Settlers Blvd., Round Rock, 512/494-4258, www.junglejavaplay.com

Best Kids Photographer
Lyndsay Stradtner

After losing her home and family photos in Hurricane Katrina, Lindsay Stradtner was driven to capture new memories. Since moving to Austin, Stradtner has been rebuilding her life with her husband and three children – whom she documents beautifully and honestly in her blog – while at the same time building an impressive portfolio as a child photographer. Stradtner has a knack for making photo shoots fun for little ones – and for amazing their parents when they see the results.

Lyndsay Stradtner, www.lifeinmotionphotography.com

Best Kids Water Park
Rock'n River Family Aquatic Center

Round Rock's Rock'n River makes the rather mundane municipal pool into an endless playground of water-oriented activities that will keep both kids and their parents joyful and, perhaps more importantly, cool. With crazy slides and water cannons, an aquatic jungle gym, tunnel showers, and floor geysers, parents wistful memories of adolescent summer days at water parks will return. Meanwhile, the gleeful little ones won't know the difference.

Rock'n River Family Aquatic Center, 3300 E. Palm Valley Blvd., Round Rock, 512/671-2737, www.sportscapitaloftexas.com

Best Place to Walk or Run Outside After Dark
Butler District Park

Head to Butler District Park – just west of the Palmer Events Center, between Riverside Drive and Barton Springs Road – when you or the kids need a safe outdoor location to walk, jog, or bike after dark. The broad, paved walkways with scads of bright lighting make it ideal. Enjoy a beautiful park setting, a great night view of the Downtown skyline, and evening colored-light shows at the splash fountain. Restrooms and limited parking are by the Dougherty Arts Center on Barton Springs Road.

Butler Park, 1000 Barton Springs Rd., 512/974-6700, www.cityofaustin.org

Best South by Southpark
The Grove at Southpark Meadows

Where can you order a California roll while your other half noshes on a burger and beer and all the while your tyke plays on a killer playscape? The Grove at Southpark Meadows, of course! Gone are the days of our angsty youth watching Smashing Pumpkins and the like in the sprawling South Austin outdoor music venue. Southpark Meadows, specifically the Grove, is now replaced with a grownup food court (with mostly local serveries), a jumping water-fountain thingy, and – did we mention? – a playscape. And for those of you who are sentimental, it still possesses a handful of large trees and green grassy hills (sans the crushed plastic beer cups and Doc Martens boot prints).

Southpark Meadows, Slaughter Lane & I-35, www.southpark-meadows.com

Best Way to Channel Your Inner Child
Joe McDermott & the Smart Little Creatures

They're songs for kids! Who doesn't love songs for kids? Commie pinkos, that's who! Okay, it ain't Mr. Waffles, but it is communicative in a way that isn't pandering or condescending, which makes McDermott's kiddie ditties quite satisfying for the chronologically adult set. Skip yoga, put the tunes on the stereo, and posture around your living room the way you did when you were 8 – you remember what that was like, right?

Joe McDermott, 339-9528, www.joemcdermottmusic.com

Best Way to Guarantee Nap Time
RadiJazz Playnasium

Kids who come to this 9,000-square-foot indoor wonderland don't get bored — they get exhausted. Their parents, on the other hand, get to relax. There's a story stage, slides, a giant purple alligator made of foam, and a volcano with foam lava cubes. It's the perfect place to bring kids 7 years old or younger.

RadiJazz Playnasium, 6406 N. I-35 #2200, 512/302-5299, www.radijazz.com

Best Way to Turn a Kid Vegan
Celeste's Best

Parents! It's cool! Those peanut-butter cups and chocolate-chip cookies are A-OK! Of course, we can all agree that sweet treats are only acceptable in moderation, especially for hyperactive kiddos, but Celeste's Best treats are made with vegan goodness and without the stuff that gives indulgence a bad reputation. You can find Celeste's Best at local coffee shops and cafes around Austin. Your young ones will never know the difference, but you will.

Celeste's Best, 512/689-3745, www.celestes-best.com

Happiest Vegan Bakery & Cafe
Dhaba Joy

Dhaba Joy has grassy walls, glittery chandeliers, and a 100% vegan menu of special edibles. From the Hello Kitty Cupcake to the Lavender Lemonade Freezie, the treats are made with rare originality and flair. Separated from Toy Joy by a disco curtain, this place is pure fun for kiddies and grownups both.

Dhaba Joy, 2900 Guadalupe, 512/320-0705, www.dhabajoy.com

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