Archive for ‘Outdoor Play’

January 20, 2015

We Are Getting SO Excited About Summer Camp!

by Melissa Harding


We’re so excited and we just can’t hide it! Summer is almost here and we have just finalized our offerings for the upcoming camp season. We are so pumped to offer a new selection of summer camps to help your child connect with nature. Highlighting ecology, conservation, healthy living and art concepts through hands-on activities, each camp offers a fun and unique Phipps experience. This year we are expanding our age groups to include older campers, as well as continuing to offer the popular programs that families love. We have a great line-up of immersive experiences designed to increase your kid’s enthusiasm for the natural world, with something to offer for every child, no matter what their interests:
Do you have a child who loves BUGS? A camper who likes to make homes for all the insect friends she finds in the yard and who knows all about dragonflies? Then check out our bug camps for campers ages 4-7: Bugs in the Burgh and A Bug’s World! Your camper will have fun hunting for bugs all over the Conservatory, inside and out, and learning what makes bugs so important.

Check out this post to learn how to trap bugs at home, just like we do at camp!

Do you have a camper who loves to dance and perform? A child who pretends to be a cat under the table or a dinosaur at bedtime? Then Dancing with the Plants, for campers ages 4-5, is just right for him. Your camper will learn about plants and animals through dance and movement exercises!

Not sure that your child will love dance-based camp? Check out these fun photos from last summer – a great choice for boys AND girls!

Phipps Science Education (3)ghghghgh
If you have a child who loves to draw, paint, sculpt, or tell stories, then our art camps are right up her alley. We are offering nature-based art camps for children ages 4-5 and 10-11: Backyard Art and EcoArtist. Your camper will use nature as her inspiration to create beautiful and unique projects.

Can’t wait to start making nature art? Prepare for spring by making seed balls at home!


Do you have an older child who loves exploring nature and learning new facts about plants and animals? A camper who pours over books about his favorite animals and wants to be park ranger or a scientist when he grows up? Check out our new camp for children ages 8-9: Nature Explorers!

Want to practice observation skills at home? Check out this post for ideas!

DSC_2906Does your child have a passion for environmentalism? Does she love to learn about different places in the world? If your 12-13 year old camper is a budding steward of the plants and animals of the planet, then Climate Defenders is the right camp for her! Campers will learn all about world biomes while experiencing them right here at Phipps, as well as how their actions can have a positive effect on the world around them.

Learn how spending time in nature helps all children to become better stewards of the Earth!


These are just a few of the camps that we are offering this summer. Check out our website to see our entire line-up, including Little Sprouts, cooking, fairytale, bug, dance, and ecology camps. Our summer camps are both educational and super fun – at Phipps, we LOVE camp!

If you would like to register your child for summer camp, contact Sarah Bertovich at  412|441-4442 ext. 3925.

We hope to see you there!

The above photos were taken by Science Education staff and volunteers.

January 9, 2015

Backyard Connections: Going on a Snowflake Hunt

by Melissa Harding

This activity was inspired by Science Friday; check out their great video on snowflakes to learn more about how they form and the scientists that study them.

Today is a very snowy day at Phipps and it has got us thinking about some of our favorite snowy day activities. While it may not be fun to shovel, it sure is fun to play in. Snowball fights, building snowmen, and sled riding are just a few of the fun activities that you can do as a family in the snow. However, if you are looking for a more low-key snow activity, try this idea: Take your family on a snowflake hunt!

Snowflakes are the most basic parts of snow, after all, and each one is unique. A snowflake is formed around a tiny bit of dust in the atmosphere that builds up into slightly larger bits of ice called crystals; when these crystals start to stick together, they form snowflakes. A snowflake can be made of as many as 200 crystals! Although we may all draw snowflakes the same way in art class, they actually come in many different shapes – from the classic pointy star to round plates and square cubes. Taking a closer look at an individual snowflake is pretty amazing; while the best way to see a single snowflake is under a microscope, you can still observe quite a bit with a magnifying glass.

To go on a snowflake hunt, you will need the following things: a snowy day, a piece of dark construction paper, a magnifying glass and journaling supplies:

1. Put your paper in the freezer or leave it in a cold, dry place so that it can get nicely chilled.
2. Holding the paper by its edges, go outside and catch some snowflakes on the paper.
3. Use your magnifying glass to look at the snowflakes on your paper (cover your nose and mouth with a scarf so that you don’t melt your snowflakes!)
4. Draw your favorite snowflakes in your journal, nothing overall shape, number of points (if any) and anything else of note. Which is the most popular shape of snowflake? Which one was the weirdest?
5. Try to look for as many different kinds of snowflakes as possible

This activity is a great way to practice observation skills while enjoying the winter weather. You can spend 5 minutes or 50 working on this project – it can be fun for even your littlest of kids! Have a cold day but no snow? Try using your trusty magnifying glass to examine frosty windowpanes. The crystal patterns of the frost are just as neat as snowflakes and can be observed from inside!

For more fun snowy day ideas, read this blog post on exploring nature in winter!

To learn more about the importance of observation, check out this post!

The above video is used courtesy of Science Friday.




January 2, 2015

Backyard Connections: Take a Holiday Hike!

by Melissa Harding

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As the old year comes to a close, so does the traditional winter holiday that most students enjoy during this time of the year. While it’s always great to have a break, the lack of structure and schedule can make normally laid-back kids turn cranky. The same can be said for parents. The winter break can also be a long period of time to occupy your family, especially when there is the added holiday expectation of infusing every outing and activity with extra meaning. One activity that is always a winner for both kids and adults alike is a holiday hike. Spending the afternoon in nature is beneficial for everyone: it soothes frayed holiday nerves, provides an outlet for energetic children, and is the great backdrop for having meaningful experiences together as a family.

Taking family hikes is also a great way to help turn your children into future naturalists. Research has shown that having positive outdoor experiences with a trusted caregiver – especially a parent or grandparent – play an important role in the formation of a conservation mindset. When adults identify figures in their childhood who were most influential to the development of their love for nature, they most often mention family members. Your children will learn their environmental values from your actions; they see every time you stop to smell the roses or observe animal tracks in the snow and will derive more meaning from that than anything else. Hiking or taking nature walks as a family is a wonderful way to share your love of the natural world with your children and for them to share theirs with you!

Taking a hike together can be as easy as stepping out your front door or can involve a drive to your local park or green space. No matter where you decide to take your hike, you will have ample opportunity to breathe in fresh air, feel the wind on your cheeks, and observe the plants and animals around you. Whether you are in a warm or cold locale this January, there is a lot to see and do outside.

Here are some suggestions to make your family hike fun for everyone:

1. Plan a scavenger hunt: Make a list of easily-found nature items like leaves, bark, birds, mud and sticks for younger children; add harder to spot items like specific species of birds and animals for older children. Scavenger hunts are always fun for kids, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself playing along too!
2. Journaling: While not every kid is into writing, most love drawing and coloring. Bring along your nature journals or some paper and a variety of vibrant pens, colored pencils and crayons. If you have room in your pack, watercolors are fun to bring as well. Encourage your family to draw their favorite plants, trees, rocks, animals, landscapes or each other. Make leaf and bark rubbings. Play games to see who can draw the best tree from memory or who can draw the best leaf with their eyes closed. Don’t be afraid to be silly and definitely don’t forget to spend some time creating art yourself!
3. Engage the senses: Observation exercises are a great way to engage the senses on a hike. Classic outdoor education activities like Meet a Tree or Hide and Seek are fun ways to get everyone looking closely at the natural world without seeming too much like school. For more ideas for encouraging observation, check out this this blog post!
4. Play trail games: A meaningful hike in nature doesn’t have a to be silent! Play word and observation games together as a family to keep everyone interested and laughing at they walk down the trail. Ideas include playing I Spy, Twenty Questions, and telling riddles and jokes. For a great list of trail games, check out this website by the Washington Trails Association.

A few safety reminders: Remember that not every child will have the stamina to hike very far or for very long. Be sure to bundle everyone up so that discomfort doesn’t make their hike a poor experience. Also be sure to pack plenty of water and snacks to keep everyone feel full and hydrated. Finally, always take a trail map and know where you are at all times; a family hike is not the place to try new paths!

No matter where you hike or how long you spend in the woods, your family will all benefit from an afternoon spent away from the TV and on the trail! Long or short, there is no wrong way to take a hike, so get outside!

Looking for more ideas of how to spend your time outside? Check out this blog post of fun winter activities!

To learn more about the importance of caregivers on environmental attitudes, check out this post!

The above photo was taken by Science Education and Research staff.





December 26, 2014

Backyard Connections: Healthy Holidays Start Outside

by Melissa Harding


The holidays can be a wonderful time; they are traditionally a time for sitting by the fireside, drinking hot chocolate, and spending time with loved ones. Unfortunately, they are also a time for eating too many sweet and savory treats and spending a lot of time sitting on our collective bottoms in front of screens. While the holiday season is a great time to relax from the stresses of school and work, it can also be pretty hard on our bodies. Kids and adults alike get lethargic and can gain weight from all the rich foods and inactivity; this makes us sleepy, uncomfortable and even grumpy. No one wants to spend weeks feeling horrible, or even worse, parenting children who are feeling horrible. However, there is a simple solution to make your holidays healthier for everyone. Don’t worry, this post will not tell you to count the calories in your cookies or to hit the gym every morning before breakfast; instead, there is a much simpler and more fun prescription for a healthy holiday: go outside!

Being outside is not just fun, but good for you as well. Nature has a positive, direct impact on human health; it enhances the ability to cope with and recover from stress and illness, reduces the risk of obesity, increases happiness and positive life outlook, increases the body’s natural immunity to diseases, increases creativity, and improves mental health.  This is especially true of children, who benefit greatly from time spent outside as well. In addition to the above benefits, playing outside also makes children kinder and more compassionate, more confident and more likely to become a successful adult. Not bad for just building a snowman, right?

Spending time outside will refresh your mind and body, giving you back the energy and feelings of well-being that too many treats can steal from you. Whether the weather is rainy and gloomy, cold and snowy, or beautiful and sunny where you are, there is always something to do outside. Here are some ways to make the most of your time outside during this holiday season, no matter what your winter looks like:

1. Go on a treasure hunt: This works especially well for young children. Take a short walk around your yard, neighborhood or local green space and look for collectibles that catch your child’s eye; rocks, pinecones and bark are commonly treasured items, as are flowers and leaves. Encourage this by bringing a container for holding treasures – mason jars, plastic food containers, and even grocery bags make good collecting containers. As a bonus, scouring nature for treasures improves observation skills! Remember, while these nature treasures may not look like much to you, to a child these items are priceless indeed.
2. Take a hike: Taking a walk in nature is always a great way to spend part of your day. Whether this is a short walk around the block or a hike on a trail will depend on your family’s stamina and the weather. However, even seemingly inclement weather can be fun to walk through; a walk in the rain is a great excuse to splash in puddles and a snow storm can turn your landscape into a beautiful wonderland. Just be sure to bundle everyone up and use caution on slick or precarious surfaces.
3. Look for animal friends:
 Everyone loves to spot a critter outside, whether it is a hawk soaring in the sky or a deer feeding in the park. Any member of your family can keep a keen eye out for animals, no matter their age. Older children may enjoy bird watching in the woods and tracking their finds, while younger children will enjoy watching cardinals at the backyard feeder.  If you can’t spot the animals themselves, look for signs of their presence: tracks, bite marks, scraped tree trunks and piles of nuts or pinecones are just a few signs that show you have an animal visitor nearby.
4. Feed those critters: Winter is a tough time for all animals, as the cold temperatures and scarce food supply can make survival much harder. Do your animal neighbors a solid and give them a holiday treat! This can be a wonderful activity to do as a family; string berries, nuts and seeds together for beautiful and delicious garlands to adorn your trees and shrubs or spread shortening on pinecones and roll in bird seed to create feeders for your feathered friends. However, animals don’t need fancy crafts, so even filling up your bird feeders and restocking your salt licks will be much appreciated (and make them stick around longer for you to watch!)
5. Create some art outside: Nature is full of beautiful art supplies; use the natural world as inspiration to create a piece of art as a family. Create a nature mandala in the snow, nature weavings to hang on your doors, or snow sculptures. You can even get crazy and bring your nature inside to do some crafting; assemble pinecone bird feeders, press leaves and flowers, or create happy holiday cards and thank you notes. With nature as your canvas and your paints, the possibilities are endless!
6. Play and explore: Sometimes, activities and crafts are not necessary; what a child (or an adult) really needs is the time to play and explore. Sled riding, building snow forts, stamping in icy puddles and generally running around will connect you all with nature just as well as anything you may use to guide your family’s energies. Sometimes all you need to do is go outside and rest will take care of itself!

Spend ten minutes in the yard or several hours taking a hike; the longer you spend outside, the more benefits you will reap. If you take some time every day to explore nature as a family, you will certainly beat those holiday blues and feel healthier in no time!

Looking for ideas of how to spend your time outside? Check out this blog post of fun winter activities!

Learn more about the benefits of nature on human happiness here!

The above photo is taken by Science Education and Research staff.

December 26, 2014

Tune In: Edible Plants and People Photo Winners on the Radio this Saturday!

by Melissa Harding


Tomorrow, December 27th at 10:35 am, The Saturday Light Brigade family radio station will feature a 25-min interview with the Edible Plants and People middle school photo winners from the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps competition. Over 465 area students created photo essays that reflect the relationship between people and the food on their plates. Hear from the winners about the challenge and what they learned from it!

The Saturday Light Brigade can be heard every Saturday morning on WRCT 88.3 FM. It also streams live at where the interview will be archived under Neighborhood Voices.

Read more about the previous challenge and  learn about the Fairchild Challenge competition at the blog!

The above picture was a winning photo in the most recent challenge!

December 17, 2014

Kids and Cats: How Caring for Pets Can Increase Our Environmental Stewardship

by Melissa Harding


“Until one has loved an animal,  a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France

Many of us have pets at home; whether it is a cat, dog, gerbil or fish, these critters play an important role in our lives. In fact, about two-thirds of American homes have at least one pet.  We often think of our pets as our companions. We dote on them, play with them, and try to get them to behave. While we know that our pets can make us smile, they are also giving us many unseen benefits. They are a good source of social and emotional support, increasing overall well-being. Research shows that pet owners fare better than non-pet owners in the areas of self-esteem and physical fitness. They are also found to be less lonely, less fearful, more extroverted and more conscientious than non-pet owners. In children, the effects are even greater; caring for a pet teaches empathy, kindness, and responsibility. However, there is one more benefit pets can give us that has only recently begun to be studied: greater connection to nature. Caring for pets has been shown to increase our ability to care for nature in general and to increase our feelings to connectedness to the natural world. After all, we only care about (and for) the things we love.

When we talk about nature, we don’t often think of the animal companions that we interact with every day. However, human interaction with domesticated animals goes back many generations. The earliest known domesticated animal was not a cow or a pig, but a dog. We have been domesticating animals for companionship longer than for food, that much is clear. Maybe that’s because humans naturally want to connect with animals. E.O. Wilson hypothesized this connection to animals in his theory of biophilia, which says that humans are innately drawn to the natural world. By seeking relationships with animals, especially with pets, we are able to connect with nature. It has been suggested that owning a pet symbolizes a unity with nature and acts to satisfy part of this human need for a connection to the natural world. Humans love being with animals, both wild and domesticated. After all, we are all part of nature, our pets included.

There is also research showing that attachment to animals correlates with a positive orientation towards the environment and vice versa. In other words, it seems that your love for your pet makes you more likely to feel connected to nature and that if you feel connected to nature, you are more likely to feel a bond with animals. So how does connecting to nature through our pets get us to be better environmental stewards? To answer this, we need to get into some environmental psychology. There are three psychological components to a person’s connection with nature: a sense of connection, a caring response and commitment to action. In a scenario in which there is a connection to the natural world, that connection leads to caring for nature and then to taking actions on its behalf; in a scenario in which a connection to nature is absent, that lack leads to caring for oneself and then taking actions to protect oneself above all else. If we are feeling more connected to nature through our pets, then we will be more likely to take actions that protect the natural world that we care so much about.

IMG_1402However, you probably don’t need a psychologist to tell you what you can already observe in your children and yourself; there is ample research showing that children learn nurturing skills by bonding with and caring for pets. Many naturalist educators, including David Sobel, advocate for cultivating children’s relationships with animals from a very young age as a way of increasing their empathy for nature. The bond that forms between children and animals has been shown to increase social competence and sense of well-being. As a child cares for and nurtures an animal, he or she develops a sense of empathy, which in turn promotes pro-social behaviors towards other people and the natural world. This is not only a predictor of a successful adult, but also a predictor of a future naturalist.  Its clear that the attitude of stewardship taught through walking a dog carries through into the rest of life.

A Henry Ward Beecher once said, “The dog was created especially for children. He is the God of frolic.” Dogs and other pets are great companions for children and wild animals can be excellent examples as well. Here are some ways that you can use help your child bond with the natural world through animals:

1.  Give responsibility: The best way to promote caring for animals is to actually care for them. Give your child responsibility towards the pets in your home, making sure that the assigned tasks are developmentally appropriate for your child’s age level and abilities. Support your child in this work, helping them to remember that they take care of their pets not because it is a chore, but because their pet needs them. Encourage your child’s teacher to consider a classroom pet; check out this website for convincing reasons why.
2. Go for a walk: Beyond pets, also search for wild animals on your walks. Children always enjoy seeing animals in their journeys; point out birds, squirrels, and other pets. It doesn’t matter if they are common, children will be excited to spot them.
3. Go to the zoo or aquarium: Seeing wild animals is very exciting for children of all ages (adults as well).  Many zoos have programs that allow visitors to help feed and care for the animals, as well as petting areas for children. Point out staff taking care of the animals you see.
3. Look for examples: Animals play a central role in many children’s books and media (up 90% of counting and language-learning books); this can be a great way to expose children to animals from other parts of the world or situations they are unlikely to experience themselves. Use the examples of human/animal interaction to talk with your child about proper behavior towards animals. Ask your child to view the situation from the animal’s perspective. Also have a discussion about the animal’s role in the world, whether it is in a neighborhood, a home, or a wild habitat.
4. Recognize undesirable behavior: Mistreatment of animals can be a warning sign of developing aggressive behavior. Deliberately harmful or frightening actions towards animals should be discouraged. While very young children are often not developmentally able to understand proper behavior towards animals, older children may need parental intervention if negative behavior persists. The Human Society has a helpful guide in dealing with negative behavior towards animals.

To learn more about how interaction with the natural world can increase empathy in children, check out this post.

The above photos were taken by Jeff Harding.



November 25, 2014

Cultivating Attitudes of Gratitude: Teaching Thankfulness Through Nature

by Melissa Harding


How often do you stop and count your blessings? Gratitude may seem to be all the rage right now, with bloggers and magazines talking about the importance of  having an attitude of gratitude, but there is some real research supporting this trend. Studies have shown that people who cultivate gratefulness are happier, more optimistic, more energetic and nicer than those who don’t. Not only that, but they are physically healthier as well. In fact, gratitude is even becoming commonly used as a tool in therapeutic interventions; it can function as a kind of “social support”, which is what psychologists call the perception that people have of being care about and for by others. Many believe that cultivating attitudes of gratitude can help people to build the psychological capital which is beneficial in difficult situations, such as the death of a loved one or a job loss. In short, being grateful is pretty great!

So what is gratitude? Robert Emmons, perhaps one of the foremost experts on gratitude research, has this definition of gratitude: “[Gratitude is] an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received. We recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves … We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.” There is also a social dimension to gratitude, which is that it is a relationship-strengthening emotion, because it requires acknowledging the social support in our lives.

Research has found this to be a positive attitude in children as well as adults. It seems that materialist youth tend to do poorly, while youth that demonstrate pro-social behavior, such as gratitude, flourish. In fact, this same study found that higher levels of gratitude can uniquely predict outcomes like higher grade-point average, life satisfaction, and social integration, as well as lower levels of depression and envy. In contrast, higher levels of materialism predict the opposite outcomes. Research shows that as children internalize materialistic values, their well-being and self-worth actually decreases. Mental health also decreases, since many of their perceived needs are not met. Gratitude, however, seems to have an opposite effect, in part because it helps people fulfill their basic psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

DSC_1465Children who cultivate grateful attitudes are more successful, exhibit more pro-social behaviors, and generally have higher overall well-being. Additionally, grateful children develop intrinsic goals, such as helping the community and connecting with others, rather than materialist goals, like fame and wealth. This may seem like common sense, and to an extent it really is. We all like to be around people who are kind and positive and we like to help those people to achieve success. On the other hand, materialism erodes friendships and creates attitudes of envy; those people experience less success for the same reasons that their grateful peers succeed. Having grateful attitudes set children up for success as adults in the same way that being kind and empathetic does.

However, this is much easier said than done. We live in a culture that values materialism as a measure of success and this can be difficult to avoid for adults, let alone children. As they develop, children naturally internalize attitudes and values from society and those societal concerns have a real effect on their worldview. One sure way to increase gratitude in both your child and yourself is to go outside. Being outside has a host of benefits outside of increasing gratitude and interacting in a sensory way with nature is shown to increase appreciation for both the natural world and for life itself. Explore your backyard or local green space and observe the trees, flowers, dirt, and critters that live there. Use magnifying glasses to observe bugs and snowflakes, dig your hands in the dirt, and smell the roses (literally). If you’re feeling brave, maybe taste a dandelion or some clean snow. The more time you spend outside with your child, the more they will love and appreciate the natural world. For some ideas to help you make the most of your time outside, check out this post.

Nature is not the only way to cultivate gratitude; here are some other ways to help your child develop a grateful heart:

1. Keep a gratitude journal: Recording 3-5 things per day that you are grateful for is shown to increase gratitude. This can be done as a family on a communal board, during dinner as part of conversation, or in an actual journal (virtual or otherwise). A great start is to ask your child to share “three good things” that happened to him or her that day. Remember to share your own list as well, making it a family activity rather than a daily quiz for your child. You are a great role model for gratitude and your own attitude will go a long way in influencing your child.
2. Write a gratitude letter: This is not just a thank-you note for a birthday gift, but a real, heart-felt expression of gratitude for someone else. Help your child write a short note of gratitude to a family member, friend, or teacher; adding pictures or a small, homemade present is even better. It can be anything, a homemade card or just a note, but the goal is to get your child to articulate how others help him and to give him the experience of thanking those people with sincerity.
3. Practice mindfully receiving gifts: Help your child to consider that someone mindfully intended to give him a gift or help him, even at a small cost to themselves. Research shows that this in particular is a helpful practice.
4. Say grace: Whether or not your family subscribes to a particular religion, recognizing the work that went into a meal is a good thing. This can take a more traditional or religious tone if desired. If not, say a small blessing on the farmers who grew the food and those hands that prepared it.
5. Help others: Volunteer as a family to help those less fortunate. Whether it is a shift at the soup kitchen or donating toys to charity, helping other helps us appreciate our own blessings even more.

To learn more about the ever-growing science of gratitude, check out this article by The Greater Good or this one on the benefits of appreciation. Or read the full article cited above.

To learn about the benefits of nature on pro-social behavior, check out this blog post.

The above photos are taken by Science Education staff.


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