kids on blocks

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

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

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

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!

KidsPlay in Market Square

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership hosts an outdoor educational program called KidsPlay on Tuesday mornings in Market Square.  Intended to enhance the family-friendliness of Downtown Pittsburgh and provide an enriching experience for young children, KidsPlay is a cool chance to venture to the heart of the city and learn something new.  Each week features a story time, craft projects, and a special guest.  Kids can meet Mr. McFeely, a penguin from the National Aviary, exotic animals from the Zoo, and many others.  KidsPlay is a free program that runs from 10-11:30 am on Tuesday mornings in Market Square.  It is followed by a visit from the Carnegie Library’s Mobile Reading Room where kids can purchase a book for $1-$2.

Storytime at Soergel Orchards

Located in the North Hills, Soergel Orchards is a well-known local farm with a wide range of family-friendly events, including a free Monday morning outdoor educational program designed to introduce young children to agricultural topics.  These sessions include farm-themed stories, a related craft activity, and even an occasional tractor ride to explore the farm.  Many families make an entire morning out of the experience, playing in “Tiny Town,” the farm’s Western-themed outdoor play space, picking berries in the fields, and enjoying a kid’s meal from the Farm Deli.  Storytime starts at 10:30 am on Monday mornings and lasts about 30-45 minutes.

Preschool Fledglings at Beechwood Farms and Nature Reserve

Fern Hollow Nature Center. Photo by Jennifer Scheib

Beechwood Farms and Nature Reserve is located in the Fox Chapel area of Pittsburgh and is the headquarters of the Audubon Society of Western PA. This idyllic place features beautiful hiking trails, a pond with bullfrogs, loads of wildflowers, and even a natural playground called DiscoverGround.  Staff educators lead a monthly program called “Preschool Fledglings,” where children and their caregivers take a guided hike through the Nature Reserve and then participate in a themed story time and craft activity. These sessions usually last about 45 minutes to 1 hour and many families choose to stay afterwards to play at DiscoverGround and enjoy a picnic.  If your child is still too young for Preschool Fledglings, you might consider the Babes in the Woods program, a less-structured alternative for littler kids.

Forest Stories at the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden

Tot Hike at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Photo Courtesy of Children’s Museum.
Tot Hike at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Photo Courtesy of Children’s Museum.

The Forest Stories series is a new program undertaken by the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, a huge project under development west of the city.  Although portions of the Garden will open to the general public on August 1st, young children and their caregivers are invited for a special sneak peek during Forest Stories on Friday mornings.  This series is an outdoor, volunteer-run educational program that encourages exploration of natural environments.  At each session, children will hike into the Eastern European Woodlands to the “Bookworm Glen,” where they will hear some nature-themed stories and participate in a short exercise or craft.  The Glen also holds a charming “Storybook House” that kids can explore.  Forest Stories is a free program that runs from 10-11:30am on Friday mornings.

Summer Fun at the Etna Pool

The Shaler North Hills Library is a large, award-winning community library with a renowned Children’s Department.  During the summer, they take their educational programs on the road!  On Thursday afternoons they bring books, crafts, and prizes to the Etna Pool for an afternoon of educational enrichment to complement your child’s swim. Summer Fun at the Etna Pool starts at 2pm on Thursday afternoons and generally runs for a couple of hours.  Children also get a free book during each session.

Nature Play Dates at the Fern Hollow Nature Center

Fern Hollow Nature Center is located in Sewickley and houses the state’s first certified “Nature Play Area” in its White Pine Forest.  Children and caregivers are invited to visit the space on Wednesdays during “Nature Play Dates” where they can reconnect with nature at a variety of activity stations.  Some highlights:  building a lean-to, playing a giant xylophone, pretending to fish, digging in a fossil pit, doing some crafts, and even picking berries from the community garden. This programming runs from 11-1pm every Wednesday and 6-8pm every other Wednesday starting June 25th.

I encourage you to check out some of these wonderful ways to learn something new with your kids and spend time outdoors this Summer.  Wishing you happy, safe, and fulfilling adventures!

Nadine Champsi

Doctor turned write-at-home-mom of two wonderful children. Founder of the Pittsburgh Mommy Blog. Editor of Kidsburgh. Contributing Editor at Next Pittsburgh. In love with the city of Pittsburgh and so...