School’s out, the weather’s finally nice, and a long summer stretches out before us. In my heart, I’m hoping to really savor my time with the kids this season.  After all, these early childhood years seem to be passing us by so quickly.  I dream of a summer filled with fresh berries, hammock time, digging in the garden, and getting out to the city to explore.

In preparation, I’ve spent the last few weeks researching fun and educational ways to spend outdoor time with my kids in the city this year.  In this article, I highlight some of these opportunities.  I have included structured educational programs that a) involve caregivers and b) are free or very affordable.  Also, if you are a working parent, I have included some evening or weekend options for you!

Citiparks Roving Art Cart

Celebrating its 41st anniversary this year, the Citiparks Roving Art Cart has long been renowned for helping children get creative throughout the summer months.  The Roving Art Cart brings its friendly staff and its mobile art supplies to parks and playgrounds throughout Pittsburgh, offering free projects for young children.  This year’s focus is “Projects From Around the World.”  Each week, kids can stamp their “Passport for Fun” as they build a Chinese dragon, make an Amazon rain stick, create an African mask, and participate in a whole host of other international-themed arts & crafts projects.  Each session also includes a painting, clay, and paper project.  The Roving Art Cart travels throughout the city on Tuesdays through Fridays, visiting a different park or recreation center each day from 10 am to 1 pm.  Their full schedule for this summer is here.

Tot Hikes at the Children’s Museum

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Tot Hikes at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh/Photo Courtesy of the Children’s Museum

Hiding behind the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is a little-known space, used only for the Museum’s in-house preschool program and Tot Hikes in the warmer months.  Known as the “Outdoor Classroom,” it’s a safe, contained, young child-friendly play garden with a woven basket hut, raised veggie beds, a rain barrel, musical instruments, sanded tree trunk blocks, and more.  Each Friday, the beloved Miss Yvonne takes a crew of young children and their caregivers on a themed outdoor educational adventure called a Tot Hike in the Outdoor Classroom.  Kids can listen to stories, dance, sing, dig in the soil, water the plants, and commune with nature in many other ways.  Tot Hikes run from 11-12pm on Friday mornings and are free with purchase of admission to the Museum.

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Making a splash at the Discovery Garden at Phipps Conservatory. Photo by Annie O’Neill.

Storytime in the Discovery Garden at Phipps Conservatory

As I mentioned in my recent article about unique outdoor play spaces in Pittsburgh, the Discovery Garden at Phipps Conservatory is one of the most beautiful, creative kid-friendly play spaces in Pittsburgh.  During the warmer months, the Education Staff at Phipps brings their weekly Wednesday story time into the Discovery Garden, giving kids and their caregivers a chance to enjoy the outdoors while participating in a free (with admission) educational program about a nature-based topic.  Children can listen to thematically-appropriate stories, sing, dance, participate in a craft project, and even take an occasional “field trip” to another spot in the Garden or the Conservatory. Added bonus:  if you participate in six of these storytimes, you get to pick out a free book from the Conservatory’s gift shop!  Storytime happens at 10:30 am and 1pm on Wednesdays throughout the year.  In the warmer months, it’s outside.  On a cold or wet day, it’s in the Tropical Forest.

At the Storybook Forest House. Photo by Nadine Champsi, aka Mom.

At the Storybook Forest House. Photo by Nadine Champsi, aka Mom.

Tyke Hikes with Venture Outdoors

Venture Outdoors is a local nonprofit working to connect Pittsburghers with the Great Outdoors through affordable recreational and educational opportunities for everybody, including the youngest members of your family.  Venture Outdoors hosts a young child-friendly educational series called Tyke Hikes, which get kids and their caregivers outside for some exercise and nature-based education.  These volunteer-run sessions take place throughout the week (including some weekends) in parks all over the city.  Each session is themed and includes an easygoing hike, nature-based education, a craft activity, and a healthy snack and drink.  These sessions cost $10 per child and adults are free. Advance registration is recommended, although you can walk-up and pay a little extra.  If you’re feeling a bit more brave, you might even want to check out some other young child-friendly programming including “Family Paddles,” where even the youngest toddlers can try out kayaking!