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.
7. The Water Feature at PPG Place Plaza
Picture 140 columns of water that shoot off randomly, surrounding a 44-foot obelisk. The water feature at PPG Place surges from the ground to varying heights of up to 15-ft and at different times. Children love the surprise of running through them and not knowing when they’ll go off. The setting in the center of a one acre space called PPG Place Plaza is quite splendid and includes cafe tables and chairs and some shady spots. While the kids get soaked, I enjoy sitting nearby, taking in the majesty of the sparkling glass of PPG Place. Visit on KidsPlay days at nearby Market Square—another treat.
8. The Lozziwurm at the Carnegie Museum of Art
The Lozziwurm is a welcome addition to Oakland, a neighborhood that is increasingly becoming more family-friendly. The “play sculpture,” which is outside the Museum entrance, was brought in for the recent Carnegie International (which has since ended). Our kids love to climb, slide and play hide and seek in the long tubular, curving structure with small windows along its course. It’s free and open to the public during the Museum hours. Bonus: it’s next to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and Schenley Plaza, two other great places for kids.
9. The Exhibit Farm at Round Hill Park
Recently, we ventured to the South Hills to visit the Exhibit Farm at Round Hill Park for the first time. How cool! The Allegheny County Parks Department maintains this modern, small-scale, complete farm and welcomes the public to visit it every day of the week. We had a blast visiting with all the farm animals, from horses, sheep, and cows, to goats, pigs, and chickens. We also ran around in the barn, peeked into a milk house (where cows are milked throughout the day), and spent leisurely time picnicking on the grass. The Exhibit Farm is just beautiful and a really cool way to introduce your children to farm life. Plus, there’s a farm-themed spray park, lots of picnic tables, and a new playground nearby.
10. Highland Park’s Super Playground
Highland Park’s Super Playground was built in 1991 by community volunteers. It is the only “traditional-type” playground that I have included on the list because it truly is special. A wooden, castle-like structure frames the outside of the park with climbable turrets and connecting catwalks. A central area contains lots of fun components including wooden trucks, tire swings, monkey bars, tire netting, and more fun elements. We have passed many pleasant afternoons exploring this great playground. My kids never get bored.
Feeling lucky? Head over to the North Side’s Jacksonia Street for my bonus suggestion: Randyland. This unique Pittsburgh gem is one of my family’s favorite places to explore. Randyland is the home of the very creative Randy Gilson, who has transformed his North Side property into a wonderland of “upcycled” trash and fanciful murals. His impressive collection includes a good share of quirky kid-friendly elements such as animal figurines, pinwheels, and pint-sized seating. He heartily welcomes families to hang out and encourages children to play with the toys in the yard. Although it’s not always open, you just might get lucky. If you do get the opportunity to explore Randyland with your family, seize it. You won’t be disappointed. And if you miss it, the National Aviary, another Pittsburgh treasure, is nearby.