Pittsburgh's hot places for cool kids
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As summer comes to a close there's still a chance to partake in some cool activities for kids, now and into the fall.
When it comes to the great outdoors, the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden
, 20 minutes west of Pittsburgh in Oakdale, is putting a world-class spin on botany for little ones and family members of all ages.
While the Botanic Garden won’t be open to the general public until spring of 2014, organized peek and preview tours and educational classes are now available.
The park’s development marks the transformation of 460 acres of abandoned mining land into a sprawling natural reserve. Among the many features is an eight-acre dogwood meadow and woodland trails and play gardens featuring “Family Moments” where parents may perch in the cool of the shade while children explore the natural surroundings.
“The idea is to encourage kids to explore the leaf litter, climb under logs and build things from nature,” explains Greg Nace.
Other highlights include the exotic Eastern European Woodland and Bookworm Glen. The centerpiece is the newly constructed Storybook House situated under a magnificent, spreading white oak where children may explore and volunteers will read fairy tales on any given day.
There’s also the 25-foot Fairy Tale Cob Dragon and “Lets Get to the Root of the Matter,” a play area with a balance beam made from a locust tree and handmade Lincoln logs that will encourage children to build their own habitat. A Mister Rogers' Garden of Make Believe, featuring the beloved neighborhood characters, is underway.
Older children will learn to identify native trees species in Pennsylvania with the help of trees adorned with ceramic faces.
“The whole point is to reinvigorate the connection between parents and kids and reduce the ever-increasing screen time,” says Kitty Vagley, director of development. “We’re hoping this fosters a greater relationship with the environment.”
Looking for a free sport to play outdoors in our region’s beautiful parks? Frisbee Golf is gaining popularity and doesn’t take much more than the ability to fling plastic flying discs.
The first 18-Hole Frisbee Golf Course was created in Schenley Park at 101 Panther Hollow Road; more elaborate courses can be found in Moraine State Park, Pymatuning State Park, Phillips Park in Carrick, Knob Hill Park in Marshall Township and Deer Lakes Park in Tarentum.
Driving the sport’s popularity is the Professional Disc Golf 2015 World Championships coming to the region, bringing professional disc golfers from all over the world to join our local Pittsburgh Flying Disc Society
. The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DNCR) is actively spreading the word on Frisbee golf this summer.
“Kids love disc golf,” says Jess Rohrdanz, environmental educator and specialist for the DCNR. "It’s all about being active and giving people more reasons to get out and explore.”
Learning the toss can be a challenge, she notes. During the noon hour most days this summer, DCNR is holding demonstrations of game play with a par-three pin on a grassy swath of Point Park. The game is basically golf, with a pin as target instead of a hole.
Gage Cormier, 7, a student at Green Valley Elementary was practicing his toss at Point Park on a recent day, having learned the game with his dad. “I’ve played it on the Wii and I play golf,” he explained during his wind up. “This is fun.”
After borrowing the use of other stables for years, Horses with Hope
has opened its own therapeutic riding center in South Park Fairgrounds. The nonprofit group has been operating since 2007 in Paradise Hills, Washington County, where it still maintains a presence.
Riding a horse can open the door to healing for children and adults who suffer from a range of mental and physical disabilities, explains Anne Davis, founder and instructor. “I was blessed with a daughter with Down Syndrome,” she says. “Through my research, I came across therapeutic riding and I instantly knew what I was supposed to do.”
Not only does riding help improve physical balance and muscle tone, according to research on a wide range of special needs, but it assists with core strength, fine and gross motor skills and social and emotional development.
Riding sessions with certified instructors typically last about 45 minutes; riders learn to groom and care for their horses as well. The cost is $40.
“A lot of what the children learn riding the horse is transferred into their daily life skills,” says Davis. “Autistic children, for example, are better able to hold things and speak. Through the horse they discover a subject they are excited about and want to talk about.”
In the good ol’ summer nighttime, there’s nothing quite like taking the family out to a ball game, and this may be the season to do it. A beautiful, clear night is the perfect salve for the soul, from the crack of the bat to the roar of the fans — especially when your Pirates
“My own dad gave me a love of baseball and living in Pittsburgh has allowed me to pass that gift on to my kids,” says Jim Nealon, Mt. Lebanon dad of four. Nealon, a die-hard Bucs fan, frequents PNC Park as much as possible, no matter the record.
“We prefer night games, when we get the added benefit of watching the Pittsburgh skyline change colors before our eyes with stunning views in all directions,” he says.
PNC Park has a longstanding family-friendly history. Kids save $8 off regular price tickets throughout the season and every Sunday is Kids Day, starting with the Family Fun Zone on Federal Street from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., which features games, activities and entertainment for fans 14 and under. Kids also get a gift at the gate (and meet a racing Pierogi) before the games; afterward, children under 12 are invited to run the bases on the field.
And When the heat is on, there’s nothing more refreshing than the gush of cool water, especially when it’s splashing from colorful buckets and flower spouts and creating shallow pools that cool little toes. There's still time.
Pittsburgh lost 13 municipal swimming pools in 2004, due to budget cuts. Since then, it has responded with a wave of miniature water parks. Four “spray parks
” offer free fun from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day.
“Spray parks have been overwhelmingly popular, surpassing our expectations,” says Marissa Doyle, city spokesperson, who notes that they provide easier splashing opportunities for children with disabilities.
The two newest parks opened last May. The Shadyside Spray Park is next to Mellon Park, and the East Hills Park sits beside the city playground on Wilmer Drive; they join spray parks at the former Cowley Pool facility in Troy Hill, and in Beechview, next to the Vanucci Playground, on Orangewood Avenue and Westfield.
The city broke ground on a fifth spray park in July at the Warrington Community Center in Beltzhoover, which promises to be the largest park to date. It will open in August and feature even more water buckets, sea monsters and flower towers than existing parks.
Spray Parks are bringing back a sense of community in the summer months that was lost with the pools, says Tyeshia Morris, who visits all of them with her two children, ages seven and one. “My daughter loves the sprinklers. I have a hard time getting her to leave."
Photographs by John Altdorfer.