Nature is waiting: How to get Pittsburgh kids to play outside

Photo above by Phil Goodwin via Unsplash.

Many of today’s kids think of tablets, phones or game systems as their playground. Some do play in the backyard from time to time. But most often, the digital world is the one they run to when it’s time to play.

My kids play on their tablets and phones. So as a parent, I get it. Their generation was born into this technology. Their reality is virtual or augmented, not so much actual reality. It’s their world, and I’m not here to yell at the clouds about that.

But I am here to hopefully get them, and you, to play outside and explore nature. It may seem like an uphill battle, but I promise you: Instead of looking down at their devices, you can get your kids to look up at the natural world around them. To be present.

In a previous article I mentioned that I was a latchkey kid of the mid-80s. Although we had Nintendo in its 8-bit glory back then, we kids were always outside. Our parents demanded that we go outside. So, out we went.

We spent ALL DAY outside — except to come in for dinner, after which we’d bolt back outside — playing hide ‘n’ seek, tag, kick the can, or a pickup game of baseball until the streetlights came on. When they did, that meant it was time to go home.

My family lived surrounded by woods and a creek, so I would also be out exploring, fishing, climbing trees, building forts or roaming the nearby cemetery (especially at night). Nature was my video game. I’d run, jump, climb or ride my bike down trails. It was exercise (though I never thought of it that way) and it was fun, scary (in the good way) and exciting.

I had no reason to stay inside when the fun was outside with my friends.

I understand that things change. Times change, and that’s a good thing. But there’s nothing wrong with being a part of nature – in fact it’s pretty wonderful for kids and adults. To camp, to fish, to hike, to climb a tree and sit up on a thick branch feeling the summer breeze on your face while eating the mulberries or cherries that the tree was kind enough to offer you. (Having lived at another home with a small orchard out back, I did this quite often until my stomach hurt.)

It sounds old-timey, I know. But I’m not that old. And I know that for you parents who want your kids to embrace nature and play outdoors among the trees, there are plenty of ways to make this happen.


The Pittsburgh area has numerous summer camps where kids will explore and craft and learn about the natural world around them, including the plants, trees and critters who call the woods home. All the while exercising and making new friends.

There are even farm-based day camps where kids can learn about crops and how we grow our food, farm animals and what it’s like to be a farmer.

Though some camps are filled up for this summer, many still have spaces available. (And a note for next year: Kidsburgh publishes our camp guide in early February each year with all the info about camps for the summer ahead. So look for that next February!)

Kids can also join the Scouts and take part in their many programs for girls and boys, from Cub Scouts to Sea Scouts to the Exploring program.

You can head out to a local park with your kids and read books together under the shade of a tree. You can also visit one of the local farms where families can pick berries, cherries and flowers.

And of course, your family can fish and camp. But if you haven’t done either (you don’t have to do both) these are nice ways to be out in nature and relax. To soak in the surroundings. To let your senses fill you up with the chattering of birds, the smell of wildflowers, the cold splash of a lake, the soaring red-tailed hawk cruising the azure sky above or the sweetness of a picked raspberry. Again, it’s a chance to be in the moment with yourself and your family.

The Pittsburgh region has tons of camping areas and parks for families to enjoy. And thankfully, our country has many national parks to go and explore, along with our local parks. You can take the bike trails or walking trails — or make your own trail. (Just don’t get lost.)

Camping is a great way to play in nature, since you’re literally living in nature. And you don’t have to rough it to enjoy nature. You can go “glamping” (that’s glamorous, fancy camping). No need to make your experience a bad one. Because it’s about the outdoors. It’s not about sleeping on the ground and eating burnt hotdogs from the campfire. You’re not trying simply to survive; you’re trying to be more alive.

Fishing can also be relaxing and enjoyable. As a kid, I fished all the time. But it wasn’t about the actual fishing. It was about being outside and hanging out with my friend. (Not that I’d complain if I caught a largemouth bass.) Here’s a tip: You don’t have to bait the hook or even take the fish off the line. As a family, just enjoy the time together.


Sometime just offering kids the opportunity to go outside is enough.

But what if your kids are so comfortable in the digital world that it’s pretty much the only place where they want to be? How do you get your kids to put down their devices and go outside?

Step one can simply be to drive them to a park and go for a family hike. Or bike. Take some snacks and water with you, be sure not to leave any garbage behind, and walk or bike along a trail. If your park has a river or creek, go see it. Then let the natural wonder grab the child’s attention. In time, they’ll really look at the surroundings. They’ll skip rocks across the river. Climb a tree. Maybe learn the difference between poison ivy and poison oak.

It’s simple but powerful stuff: They’ll sit, eat and talk. They’ll listen. Nature has a lot to say.

Have patience. At first your kids may not enjoy it, but with time they will — if these experiences are given to them often enough.

So, take advantage of nature. It’s free and it’s waiting for all of us. Play in her world. Our kids’ futures will be filled with devices. They’ll have plenty of time to use them when they’re older.

This summer, we have the power to help them realize how important nature is and how it can benefit them — not just by protecting their eyes from the impact of too many screens, but also by benefiting their other senses, strengthening their growing muscles and even inspiring their souls.