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9 outstanding outdoor learning opportunities in Pittsburgh this summer

Emily Stimmel
June01/ 2015

Summer and sunshine is on the way for Pittsburgh. The change in season brings lots of opportunities to get outside—and many ways for kids to continue learning even as the school year winds down.

We’ve rounded up a selection of outdoor educational experiences in the city and surrounding suburbs. Though many focus on themes of nature exploration and environmentalism, others are less conventional—allowing children and their families to participate in artistic and wellness activities in the Great Outdoors. Best of all, they’re all affordable—and some are even free!

Hiking into nature with Venture Outdoors

As its name implies, Venture Outdoors (VO) helps Pittsbughers get outside and connect with nature. Each summer the organization hosts a popular kid-friendly educational program called Tyke Hikes, led by volunteer naturalists who take families on themed treks through some of Pittsburgh’s most beautiful parks. Held at an easygoing pace, kids can smell the roses, chase butterflies, taste herbs, examine seeds and learn about the plants and animals who call these parks home. All Tyke Hikes end with a themed craft activity and a snack.

Trails are stroller- (and baby-wearing) friendly, so kids from birth to age 8 can attend at a cost of $5 per child. Adult caregivers hike for free. This year’s Tyke Hikes will be held on Tuesday mornings from 10 to 11:30 a.m.

Looking for other educational activities with Venture Outdoors? Learn to kayak at monthly family beginner paddles and learn to fish at the free weekly TriAnglers program.

Getting creative with the Roving Art Cart, photo courtesy of Citiparks
Getting creative with the Roving Art Cart, photo courtesy of Citiparks
Getting creative with the Citiparks Roving Art Cart

We love the name. And we love the concept. This summer, the free Citiparks Roving Art Cart returns for its 42nd season of helping Pittsburgh children commune with their creativity in the outdoors. A wandering band of local artists and educators, the Roving Art Cart brings easels, paint, brushes, beads, clay and a nifty bicycle-powered spin art contraption to children at parks and playgrounds throughout the city—for free!

This year’s Roving Art Cart will place special emphasis on art history with creative activities designed to teach even the youngest children about the works of great artists like Matisse, Warhol and Seurat. Kicking off in Highland Park’s Super Playground on June 16, the season begins with a celebration of Kandinsky, a Russian abstract artist who painted what he “heard” in musical pieces. Kids can read The Noisy Paint Box about Kandisky’s artistic process, listen to the music of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra and create whatever their ears inspire.

The Roving Art Cart will then travel to other local parks and playgrounds on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. until August 7.

Bringing the fun Downtown at KidsPlay in Market Square

The coming of summer means the return of KidsPlay in Market Square—a family-friendly educational program in Downtown’s picturesque Market Square. Hosted by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, KidsPlay offers a variety of free activities for young children and their caregivers. In addition to a weekly story time and crafting activity, there are also special guest visitors throughout the summer including the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s Fiddlesticks, Santa, Mister McFeely, penguins from the National Aviary and many more.

KidsPlay kicks off on June 9th and runs from 10 to 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday mornings until August 25. And after KidsPlay each week, families can purchase a book for $1 or $2 from the Carnegie Library’s mobile Reading Room set up just a few feet away.

Playing in the Phipps Discovery Garden, Photo by Cory Doman
Playing in the Phipps Discovery Garden, photo by Cory Doman

Learning about the environment during Story Time in Phipps Conservatory’s Discovery Garden

With its mission of promoting environmental sustainability, it’s not surprising that Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens would appear on this list. Though the seasonal exhibits in its historic glasshouse bring the outside in, there are still plenty of outdoor activities afoot at the Conservatory.

During the warmer months, Phipps’ weekly Story Time is held in the Discovery Garden, a beautiful outdoor play area. After listening to nature-themed stories and doing craft projects, kids can explore the Garden’s many hands-on features, including interactive fountains, a climbable mock tree stump, a maze and a rock pit. Children can also learn about animals and plants in special interactive gardens.

Story Times are free with admission and are held at 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Wednesdays and 10:30 a.m. on Thursdays. And if you attend six sessions, your child can pick out a free book in the gift shop.

Exploring the Outdoor Classroom at Tot Hikes at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh 

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has a cool secret—its Outdoor Classroom. Tucked behind the building, the Outdoor Classroom is used primarily by the Museum’s preschool program. But during the warmer months, museum educators also bring families into the space for structured Tot Hikes.

Intended for children under five with a caregiver, Tot Hikes give kids a chance to explore the Outdoor Classroom and its play areas, including a woven basket hut for playing house, raised veggie beds for digging and a rain barrel for filling up watering cans. Kids also listen to nature-based stories, sing, dance, snack and more. Tot Hikes are free with admission to the Museum and run from 11 a.m. to noon.

Also good to know: The Children’s Museum’s other outdoor space, the Backyard, now features a new art studio area where kids can participate in projects like plein air painting. Also, for older children, the Museum’s Youth Grow classes—for kids 10 and up—are monthly seasonal gardening workshops.

Exploring Upper St. Clair's Outdoor Classroom, Photo courtesy of the Outdoor Classroom
Exploring Upper St. Clair’s Outdoor Classroom, photo courtesy of the Outdoor Classroom

Talking, walking and hiking under the moon at Upper St. Clair’s Outdoor Classroom

Located in Boyce Mayview Park, The Outdoor Classroom offers educational programs that honor our rich local heritage—from early settler development and coal mining to agriculture and ecological diversity.

This year, the facility will hold monthly Talk N Walks, where kids and their families can listen to short presentations on a nature-based topic and then hike into the woods to put their new knowledge to the test. With bug boxes and swooping nets in tow, kids will learn to identify animals by their tracks, droppings and nests and to distinguish different insect species. Talk N Walks are particularly popular with kids 7 to 10. Cost $10 per adult and $4 per each child over age 2.

On the full moon of each month, families are also invited to Moonstruck Hikes, where they can take a guided nighttime hike and learn about nocturnal animals like owls, bats and bugs. Each leader’s interests and expertise—from astronomy to nocturnal mammals—guide the hikes. Pricing and more details can be found on the Outdoor Classroom events calendar.

Visiting the Wonderful Woodlands at Forest Stories at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden 

Located in Settler’s Cabin Park, the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden is a 30-minute drive from Downtown Pittsburgh. On track to become one of the largest outdoor botanic gardens in the country, the first phase of the project opened last year. This Woodlands portion includes miles of hiking trails, a lotus pond, meadows and a variety of “family moments,” each with kid-friendly interactive features like a giant bird’s nest and a Bookworm Glen playhouse. And for its second year, the Garden will be hosting a Forest Stories series on Friday mornings at 10 a.m. for children ages 3 to 6 years old.

This year’s Forest Stories series has a “Wonderful Woodlands” theme, emphasizing “woodlands real and imaginary.” Stories will feature plants and animals from wooded areas of the world plus fictional forest friends like fairies and gnomes. Following each reading, kids are invited to head over to the chicken coop where they can watch the Garden’s new birds enjoy a special treat. Forest Stories will be held from June 5 to August 21 and are free with admission.

Learning about nature at Fern Hollow Nature Center
Learning about nature at Fern Hollow Nature Center, photo courtesy of Fern Hollow

Becoming a yogi at Fern Hollow Nature Center

“In this day and age with everyone so connected electronically, we want to do whatever we can to get kids outside to disconnect and refocus,” says Stacey Widenhofer, environmental educator at the 33-acre Fern Hollow Nature Center in Sewickley. And Fern Hollow’s outdoor yoga programs present a perfect opportunity for kids to unplug and unwind in a peaceful, natural setting.

Storytime Yoga, for kids ages 3 to 9, begins with a story emphasizing awareness of the natural world and respect for animals. Children then learn playful yoga movements and age-appropriate relaxation techniques. Other classes include Family Yoga for parents with kids ages 5 and up and Healthy in the Hollow, for teens and adults ages 16 and up. Registration for all yoga classes is available on Fern Hollow’s website.

In addition to yoga classes, Fern Hollow also offers Nature Play Dates from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesdays beginning June 10. During this program, children and their caregivers can explore the Center’s Natural Outdoor Classroom, where they can dig in a fossil pit, construct a lean-to, enjoy berries from a community garden and much more.

Celebrating Judaism at the JCC’s Henry Kaufmann Family Park in Monroeville

This year, The Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh (JCC) is bringing its kid-friendly educational programs to the outdoor Henry Kaufmann Family Park in Monroeville. On July 12, the JCC will offer its Bagels and Books program (for kids under 5) at the Family Park. A bagel brunch will be followed by a PJ Library story time and a craft—with all activities designed to celebrate Jewish stories and values. Families are then invited to swim in the JCC pool—usually a members-only perk.

On Sunday, August 9 at 10 a.m., the JCC will also be hosting a “no paintbrush” painting party. Story time and swimming are back on the agenda, but the star of the show is the painting. Stations will offer spatulas, spoons, whisks and toy vehicles as painting tools while t-shirts, hats, and paper serve as canvasses. The cost for both events is $5 for members and $8 for non-members.

We hope this article gives you a jumping-off point for a season packed with outdoor adventures and learning experiences for the whole family. Also, take some time to check out the event calendars of the organizations highlighted here. You’ll be sure to find even more fun for all ages and price points, including structured camps and special celebrations. Here’s to a great summer!

Featured photo: Tyke Hikes with Venture Outdoors, photo courtesy of Venture Outdoors

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. A former arts & entertainment contributor to Pittsburgh City Paper, Emily has worked in non-profit public relations for over a decade. She enjoys cooking, reading, crafting and exploring Pittsburgh with her husband and two sons.