Childwise: Enjoying Nature with Your Children

Childwise is a medical advice column for parents of children ages birth to 21. 

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By Kathleen Ganster

Growing up, my friends and I would spend hours playing in the woods near our house. We would climb trees, catch bugs and make little, outdoor huts.

My family also camped across America, enjoying nature as often as possible.

But these are different times and parents are leery about letting their little ones just roam through the woods and “nature” seems to get harder and harder to find.

In his book, Last Child in the Woods, author Robert Louv talks about the link between the “nature deficit” and childhood obesity, diabetes and attention disorders.

The National Wildlife Federation studied the relationship between academic performance and outdoor activity and found outdoor play helps students perform better when they have outdoor play time.

And in his book, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” author John J. Ratey discusses the link between physical exercise and increased mental sharpness.

Peter Greninger, Outreach Specialist, REI Pittsburgh & Settlers Ridge, said that the REI Foundation has recognized that many people who have a love of the outdoors had discovered the natural world early in life so one of their goals is to encourage outdoor activities for young people and their children.

So, there is a lot to be said for fostering exercise outdoors, but how do we make nature interesting to children when there are so many other options that attract their attention?

2011 Chartiers Creek CleanUp
Peter Greninger

REI has created the Family Adventure Program, a program designed to help families find activities, places and things to do outdoors.

“We have a great, little journal to help the kids keep track of their adventures and put a photo inside,” said Greninger. The journals are free at REI stores.

The REI website offers a wealth of tips and ideas for families to enjoy including links to family friendly hikes and biking trails.

“The trail descriptions tell you what kind of trail surfaces they are, what to expect when you get there – if there are restrooms and nearby attractions, things like that,” said Greninger.

The trails tend to be on the shorter side so that families with children of all ages can enjoy them and vary to those close to the city such as those at North Park, Beechwood Farms (an Audubon Society site) and the Montour Trail to those a little farther away at Moraine State Park and the Laurel Highlands area.

REI also sponsors a variety of classes and clinics for all ages. One program, Kinderclimb, is geared for children 7 and under to teach them learn how to use the climbing wall. Kinderclimb is Friday afternoons from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at the REI stores and is free of charge.

“We like to have programs to expose children to something new. We also like to offer programs that are family-friendly for volunteering opportunities,” he said.

REI also has Promoting Environmental Awareness in Kids – PEAK – program that helps train adults who work with youth activities to teach the children how to have fun while also being responsible stewards of the outdoors. The PEAK Pack is a backpack filled with teaching modules groups can borrow to use the programming with there own members.

Venture Outdoors is a non-profit group in the Pittsburgh area that hosts numerous events designed to get folks outdoors, including families. On June 23rd, REI and Venture Outdoors are helping to promote the Great American Backyard Campout through the National Wildlife Federation to encourage more families to campout, even if it is just in their own backyards. Families can borrow equipment from REI for free and camp at Raccoon State Park with Venture Outdoors. Visit  and

Need help planning for the campout? Read the column on the REI website at

For other ideas on getting your children outside, you can also visit the National Wildlife Federation website at

The Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania also features programming for children and family-friendly hiking trails at Beechwood Farms in Indiana Township. Visit for more information.

Questions or suggestions for future Childwise columns? Contact Kathleen Ganster at

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