3 free, innovative ways for kids to get the best of nature in Pittsburgh

Experts agree: Time spent outdoors can promote physical activity, which in turn improves focus and reduces anxiety. Putting away screens and enjoying the sunshine and fresh air outdoors encourages play and socialization.

These innovative new Pittsburgh programs will get your kids to embrace nature.

1. Pittsburgh Parks Prescriber Toolkit

Here’s a prescription for your family’s health that includes fun physical activities, fresh air and mental challenges: Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC teamed up to create the Pittsburgh Rx Service and Toolkits to get kids to explore Pittsburgh parks in new ways.

A printable activity sheet from Parks Rx. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

Head to the website to begin the adventure. Click on one of the neighborhood parks to find a printable activity sheet that’s specifically designed for that individual park. We love browsing through them all to find parks we’ve never visited before.

The Arsenal Park plan, for example, includes a photo scavenger hunt, a bit of history, plus bus routes to the address. Arsenal Park activities include:

  • Walk the wall! Walk along the stone wall perimeter and keep an eye out for openings, markings and other interesting things.
  • Find the biggest tree! There are lots of big trees here. Use your arms (and your friends’ arms) or a piece of string to find the biggest one.
  • Make a map! From above, Arsenal Park looks like a rectangle. Take a rectangular sheet of paper and mark down all the different places in the park: fields, trees, benches, you name it.

The website includes suggestions for exercise and ways to play in all the parks. Seasonal activity sheets guide families to things to do throughout the year. You’ll find some excellent links to the park events calendar and tips to get the most from a hiking experience.

A backpack full of tools, guides and activities from the Nature Explorers Program. Photo by Sally Quinn.

2. Nature Backpack Program

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a personal guide walk your family through local parks, point out the highlights and teach you a bit about Pittsburgh’s green spaces and wooded trails?

Discover nature in Pittsburgh. Photo by Sally Quinn.

Allegheny County Library Association thinks that’s a great idea. They’ve collaborated with other likeminded organizations – Allegheny County Parks, Allegheny Land Trust and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy – to launch the interactive Backpack Nature Program for kids.

The backpacks, free to borrow from county libraries, are themed by five areas of interest and multiple subjects, such as wetlands, birds, wildflowers and conservation. Each backpack holds a treasure trove of activities and information. Depending on the subject, kids will find guidebooks, laminated trail maps, crayons and a magnifying glass or binoculars. Exploration tips will prep junior naturalists before heading out into the wild.

To add an incentive to discover multiple subjects and backpacks, the partners initiated a Nature Explorer Program (NEP). Kids can sign up at their participating library and receive a NEP Passport and nature journal. As they work through various backpack subjects, their passport will be stamped. Once all five themes have been completed, they will earn a certificate and nature tool for future exploration.

The ultimate goal is to produce a generation of citizen scientists, who will become our environmental caretakers.

Dylamato’s Market storefront was transformed into a play stop along the Hazelwood Play Trail. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Playful Collaborative.

3. Neighborhood Play Stop Project

Volunteers of all ages helped remake space for parks and stops along the Hazelwood Play Trail. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Playful Collaborative.

Kids can experience outdoor fun in a more urban setting, too. The Hazelwood Play Trail is a work in progress that encapsulates the concept of “play on the way” rather than seeing play as a destination. The idea is to make play a part of the neighborhood routine with play stops that kids can encounter in daily life.

Pittsburgh Playful Collaborative teamed with Trying Together to get the party started. Many community groups and volunteers have been working on the project since 2015. So far, they completed the KABOOM! playground, they turned a parking lot into the green space of Elizabeth Street Park (ESP) and they painted the ESP mural that was inspired by the neighborhood’s rich history.

One of the recently completed play stops fronts Dylamato’s Market. This neighborhood grocery’s brick storefront has been transformed into an oversized red-and-white tablecloth set for dinner. Kids can attach food images magnetically to build healthy meals. Or they can flip the pages on the over-sized cookbook to find delicious recipes, such as Apple Cake, Stuffed Cabbage, and Tomatillo and Strawberry Salsa.

The ideas came from the community, whose members actively participated in the creation. Next up: The YGarden and the Spartan Center. Pittsburgh Playful Collaborative hopes to expand these ideas to other neighborhoods as well. More outdoor play opportunities? Yes, please!

Other outdoor resources:

Allegheny Parks programming: The nine Allegheny County Parks offer a ton of outdoor seasonal programming. Download the 56-page Fall/Winter 2019 Parks Program Guide, which includes guided nature hikes, ice skating lessons, star parties and youth deck hockey.

Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy: City parks play host to the many Community and Family Programs, such as Volunteer Naturalists and Night Explorers. Head over to the Events Calendar for detailed info on active ways to make the most of the city’s parks.

Venture Outdoors: This organization coordinates year-round outdoor activities for all ages. The Gimme S’More Walk is a stroll through Riverview Park that ends with a marshmallow roast. Make a plan to head to the Candy Cane Walk to search for hidden candy canes through Schenley Park. And be sure to check out the 32 urban walks and trails your family can do on their own.

L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Programs: The outdoor retailer offers free programming for enthusiasts from tot-sized on up. Join a family-friendly hike, learn show-shoeing essentials, or boot up for a winter solstice outing. Smaller kids can develop a love of nature through weekly Tent Tales for Tykes, which focuses on nature-themed stories, games and crafts.