9 Ways to Get Your Kids Exploring Nature — Anywhere!

Parks are not only some of the very best playgrounds, but also amazing classrooms. By observing, touching, smelling and hearing the natural world, kids (and adults!) are learning, sometimes without even knowing it.

This year, our Homewood Naturalist Educator and Parks Conservancy educators have been taking the parks to communities, showing kids and their adults that nature is wherever they are. Through Buzzword, Nature in Your Neighborhood, and Raising Reader events, we’re working with partners and getting kids active, learning, and jazzed about the outdoors.

Want your kids to stay curious? Read on for some of our favorite family friendly activities that you can do on a walk through your neighborhood, a hike through the park — anywhere!

Cloud grin by Teri Clark

Cloud grin by Teri Clark

1. Keep Your Head in the Clouds

Is that a bird? A plane? What about a big fluffy marshmallow? Find a nice comfy spot on the grass, look up, and let your imagination do its thing.

2. I Spy with My Little Eye…

Nature! Keep your eyes peeled in your backyard or sitting on a park bench when you play “I Spy,” and you’ll be surprised at all that you see.

3. Match Swatches

With just a few color swatches from a hardware or paint store, you’re ready for a color scavenger hunt. Let the kids match colors from the swatches with those they find in a garden or even in a business district. The greater the variety of colors, the bigger the challenge.

4. Make Words Jump off the Page

Kids and parents had a blast bringing books to life on Raising Readers and Nature in Your Neighborhood hikes. After reading aloud books with outdoor themes, they took a walk to spot (and reinforce) what they read. Some fan favorites are Something Beautiful, Tree Pittsburgh’s If We Were to Plant a Tree, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

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Raising Readers hike with Parks Conservancy and PAEYC educators.

5. Pack a Lunch

The ingredients for the perfect picnic are simple: One large blanket or sheet; one basket of sandwiches, drinks, and fruit; and whoever wants to eat! Picking a spot is easy — grab the best patch of grass you can find, then sit on it.

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Painting a flower pot in Frick Park.

6. Have a Crafternoon

The limit to the number of projects that can be done with a little glue, paint, construction paper, and objects found on a hike is imagination. Paint a rock like a rockstar, make a daisy chain crown, or draw a picture of something you see in the parks.

7. Be a Good Helper

We all love to live and play in places that are beautiful. Your little ones can have a hand in making their favorite playground even better by being a good helper and cleaning up litter. Who knows, maybe this will even inspire them to clean their rooms!

8. Bug Out with Entymology

Creepy crawlies aren’t so creepy crawly when we give them a closer look. How many insects can kids find on a walk through the woods? Sweep insects into a net or a bug jar to get a closer look before setting them free.

9. Rain, Rain, Go and Play

Whatever the weather, there’s fun to be had outside. In fact, rainy days are sometimes extra special. Galoshes? Umbrellas? Mud puddles to jump into? Count us in!

Have more suggested outdoors adventures for kids? Leave them in the comments section below!

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Summer camp kids aren’t afraid of a little mud!

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What’s the Word in Homewood? Buzzword!

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Heron perched in Panther Hollow Lake.

Let’s imagine for a moment that we’re reading a children’s book all about our city’s parks. The colorful pictures on each page would illustrate and introduce you to trees and plants in our parks: sycamores and horse chestnuts, beeches and ferns. You would probably also meet some of the local residents: wrens, thrushes, maybe some larks. Perhaps a kingfisher or heron, if the book visits Panther Hollow Lake or Nine Mile Run.

Now, grab a giant imaginary eraser. Erase those plants and birds. And half of the words. Erase all of the letters, except for one or two. And really, anything about those pictures that seems familiar. What do you think of this book now? How does this change your understanding of the parks?

This storybook scenario isn’t fiction for many kids. Today’s youngest generation experiences what has been called nature deficit disorder, a disconnect from the natural world around them. Many find themselves on the wrong side of the reading gap when they start school. Studies have shown that children from lower-income homes may know only one or two letters of the alphabet when entering kindergarten, compared to children in middle-class households who will know all 26. And when they do learn to read, they may find that words like ‘attachment,’ ‘blog,’ and ‘broadband’ are deemed more relevant than ‘acorn,’ ‘beech,’ and ‘chestnut.’ (Not to mention all of those other nature words mentioned above: sycamore, horse chestnut, fern, wren, thrush, lark, kingfisher, and heron.)

Here in Pittsburgh, we’re changing the story. We’re looking for a happily ever after.

One word at a time, we’re working with Buzzword Pittsburgh and the Homewood community to bring the outdoors and all of the wonderful words that describe it to area youth. By exciting children and families to discover the world and words that are all around them, Buzzword is expanding children’s vocabulary and conversation skills. With the support of PNC Grow Up Great and alongside Carnegie Science Center, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Buzzword engages families and community organizations in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood and the greater community.

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Homewood Nature in Your Neighborhood hike.

Starting this month, our Homewood Nature Educator Will is tag-teaming with Pittsburgh Ballet Theater for six weeks of free family sessions at Homewood-Brushton YMCA to learn words like ‘habitat,’ ‘observe,’ ‘senses,’ ‘garden,’ and many more. Additionally, we’ll be out and about on Nature in Your Neighborhood hikes showcasing the nature that’s all around us — wherever we live and play!

We hope that you’ll take part in these free and fun family programs. These programs are particularly designed for children younger than 10, but all ages are welcome. Find the full listing of activities on our calendar and the Buzzword website and join us to see what all the buzz is about!

Buzz… Buzz… Buzzword! Meet Our New Homewood Nature Educator

Buzz… Buzz… Buzzword! Meet Our New Homewood Nature Educator

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Parks Conservancy’s new Homewood Nature Educator, Will, and new best buddy with the Nature Play station.

Communication is key.

This doesn’t just go for the seven Pittsburgh educational non-profits working together on the new literacy program in Homewood called The Buzzword Project. It also goes for the children and their caretakers in the Homewood area who will take part in the program. And really, communication is important for caretakers not only in Homewood, but around the world.

buzzword logo

The driving message of The Buzzword Project is “Be Present, Be Playful, Be Proactive!” This slogan stems from the belief that talking, thinking, and putting into practice reading, writing, and vocabulary at a young age sets children up for a life full of success. The Buzzword Project is a capstone initiative of PNC’s well-known Grow Up Great program.

As a collaborator, the Parks Conservancy is setting out to deliver nature-oriented programs that promote specific vocabulary words. Words like “investigate,” “habitat,” and “outside” will be our model as we work to promote early childhood literacy with children and their caretakers. Our events, and the events hosted by each Buzzword Project partner pertaining to their topic area, will take place every first and third Saturday of the month at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh — Homewood. And starting February 2015, Buzzword Project partners will team up to host six-week sessions that take a more in-depth approach to modeling early childhood literacy.

Kids get up close and personal with the outdoors at last year's Nature in Your Neighborhood hike.

Kids get up close and personal with the outdoors at last year’s Nature in Your Neighborhood hike.

In addition to the Saturday library sessions, the Parks Conservancy, in collaboration with various neighborhood organizations, will be inviting community members to explore their community through Nature in Your Neighborhood hikes and activities in Homewood. Keep an eye out for upcoming hikes here!

As the Parks Conservancy’s newly hired Homewood Nature Educator, my first project was to organize the very first event of the new Buzzword program in the Homewood community. The event was based on the word “Investigation,” with a setup of five different stations: Journal Making, Nature Play, Seed Play, Dirt Exploration, and a Book Station. As the program continues, we hope to bring more and more kids and adults to these free Buzzword events.

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Though these efforts will prove to be difficult at times, I’m more than ready for the task. My goal is to carry out these efforts in the most community-oriented fashion possible. As a recent graduate of Allegheny College with a degree in Environmental Studies and a minor in VESA (Values, Ethics, and Social Action), and a strong education background through the Creek Connections and Frick Environmental Center summer programs, The Buzzword Project is right up my alley. Now employed at the Parks Conservancy, I truly enjoy working to create and implement programming in Homewood and am genuinely invested in forming a strong relationship between the Parks Conservancy and the Homewood community.

As an educator, I hope to inspire and share a love and curiosity for nature with anyone I meet. Hope to see you in Homewood!

Will Tolliver, Homewood Nature Educator and newest member of the Parks Conservancy family


One year ago: Tackling Oak Wilt in Schenley Park

Two years ago: Not Your Average Knot Garden — Riverview Park’s New Knot Garden