With the arrival of tulips, cherry blossoms and pastels comes something else—a dramatic change in my family’s perspective. We feel alive again with the warmer weather—social, adventurous, energetic, and excited to be outside.
While we love to frequent our neighborhood playground, we also enjoy venturing out to explore cool places to play in Pittsburgh, and there are plenty. To get you started on your own citywide adventures, here’s my list of the Top Ten Most Unique Outdoor Play Spaces in Pittsburgh, in no particular order. Got your own favorite? Please comment and share at the end of the article.
1. Backyard at the Children’s Museum
The Backyard is one of our favorite spaces in the museum and a lovely place to retreat when the indoor exhibits get crowded. The museum’s uncanny knack for producing cutting-edge and creative exhibits is evident in this creative space. Here are some highlights:
The “Musical Swing Set,” by Shigehiko Hongo: The mechanics of a child swinging activate chimes, producing a pleasant, musical sound that fascinates the kids, not to mention adults.
“Animated Earth” by Steven Eisenhauer: Children can plunge their hands into vats of bubbling mud, exploring the textures, and getting crazy dirty in the process. No fear. Aprons and fresh water are provided for cleanup on-site.
“Allegheny Waterworks” by Keny Marshall: Children open spigots to pump water through a sculpture created out of stone pieces salvaged from old buildings. My kids enjoy building dams and creating “leaf boats” in this sculpture.
2. Discovery Garden at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
The Discovery Garden at Phipps is another favorite outdoor spot. This innovative play space encourages children to use their senses to understand biological concepts such as life cycles, species interdependence, and environmental stewardship. All in the name of fun. The play space is comprised of several gardens including the Bird, Butterfly, and Bee Garden which attracts wildlife and delights the kids, the Water Gardens with a mushroom fountain where children can fill up watering cans, and a woodland stream area with interactive fountain creatures. There’s also the Bog Garden with fascinating plants such as the Venus flytrap, and the Sensory Garden which stimulates all five senses. Other highlights include a maze, a pretend tree stump made for climbing, a rock pit for digging, burlap sacks and sticks for creating forts, and small sanded blocks of wood for building. My kids love it.
3. Animal Connections Playground in the Kid’s Kingdom at the Pittsburgh Zoo
Animal Connections helps children learn about animal behaviors in a playful environment. For example, they learn about spiders by climbing just like them on a large web, about naked mole rats by burrowing through a massive tunnel system, and about gibbons by pulling themselves up a rope. The play space also includes a designated area for young toddlers and a kid-friendly restaurant with shaded seating. Plus, it is surrounded by the other Kid’s Kingdom exhibits including Animal Motions (with huge slides), Wilderness Walkways (with deer, beavers, river otters, and owls), and a sheep/goat yard. Not to miss.
4. DiscoverGround at Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve
The Audubon Society’s Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve in Fox Chapel is one of the city’s best-kept secrets. It is breathtakingly beautiful and wonderfully peaceful, making it our family’s favorite spot. DiscoverGround takes a minimalist approach to play, encouraging children to use natural elements in creative ways. The staff at Beechwood Farms has made artful arrangements of fallen logs, rocks, tree stumps, and more that inviting ways to encourage exploration. Don’t miss the tree house, a water feature (where children can use a farm-style pump to bring water into troughs that drain into a small wash), and a tunnel sandbox (where children can play with sand inside of a tunnel built into a hillside and protected from the sun).
5. Tiny Town at Soergel Orchards
Visiting Tiny Town at Soergel Orchards in Wexford is a fun weekday outing (warning: the weekends can get crazy). Resembling an old western town, Tiny Town features a general store, jail, doctor’s office, a working mining sluice, and even a stationary train. There are live animals to visit in the nearby barn, delicious berries to pick in the fields, a pretend pirate ship to explore, and, coming soon, a butterfly house. Bonus: there’s a wonderful deli with a healthy and yummy kid’s menu. We look forward to morning outings at Soergel’s in the coming months.
6. Water Steps at the North Shore Riverfront Park
The Water Steps are built of large sandstone blocks made to resemble steps of varying heights that lead from street level down toward the river. Water flows down this public fountain, collecting in shallow pools at different levels. The fountain is not only a thing of beauty but is also interactive. On hot days, it fills up with happy and wet children. Visiting the Water Steps is my husband’s favorite warm weather outing because it’s free, we can ride our bikes to it, our kids adore playing in the water, we can picnic on the adjacent grass, and it has one of the most stunning views of Downtown Pittsburgh.