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Sewickley Heights nature center gets kids' eyes off their screens

| Wednesday, July 16, 2014, 9:01 p.m.

Jennifer Scheib has found a haven that ensures her sons, Matt, 9, and Jake, 7, get to experience the outdoors in a safe and unique way.

She started taking them to Fern Hollow Nature Center and its Natural Outdoor Classroom “to get them off the computer.”

“It's something that's structured, but there's a lot of room for creativity,” said Scheib, of Economy. “It's a good, open space for them to run around and it's a safe place to do that.”

Fern Hollow's outdoor classroom is the first certified “Nature Play” area in Pennsylvania as listed by the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimension Research Foundation. It's the 44th such certified area in the United States. The program was inspired by the Arbor Day Foundation's “Nature Explore” program.

Constructed in the White Pine Forest section of Fern Hollow Nature Park along Glen Mitchell Road in Sewickley Heights, the outdoor classroom opened in spring 2010 but will have an open house toward the end of July to introduce new features.

A grant from Child Health Association of Sewickley last summer for about $2,900 partially funded the second phase of construction at the outdoor classroom.

This past spring, Fern Hollow received a grant from the Garden Club of Allegheny County for $8,265 to complete that phase.

The classroom is open from dawn to dusk. Wednesday Nature Play Dates are geared toward children in preschool through 8-year-olds.

New equipment being installed and features being added include tunnels; ramps and balls; an interactive water feature; musical instruments made of natural materials — there already is a 6-foot xylophone made of wood; craft supplies; a gathering area for parents to relax while their children play; and a garden complete with a newly constructed pergola and thriving herb, vegetable and flower plants.

Stacey Widenhofer, 39, lead classroom staffer and Fern Hollow employee, said, “Kids don't go outside anymore. If you take them to the edge of the forest and tell them to walk in, there is a fear. Our space is great because it's still woodsy but safe.

“It teaches them it's OK to be outdoors; it's OK to get dirty.”

With “tons of volunteers,” Widenhofer hauls out all of the equipment each week to create education spaces in the outdoor classroom. The play dates, she explained, are parent-led.

“I'm here to guide them, she said.

Parents are handed an outline to help them make the best use of the various areas of the outdoor classroom.

In the amphitheater area, they are encouraged to help their children build fairy houses. A climbing and crawling area includes log balance beams and stepping stumps of varying heights. Natural wood and plant materials are provided for constructing lean-tos in the building area. The challenge area has a simulated “fishing pond” where children use magnets to catch “fish.”

There is a sand pit, an area to dig for fossils and gemstones and a messy-materials area. In the nature-art area, children can sit on the foundation of an old chicken coop or tree-stump stools and create bookmarks and other items inspired by nature. An open area encourages large-motor activities.

Scheib explained how important the Fern Hollow program is for her children.

“Certainly, the wildlife, the insects they've seen there, the habitats. We don't have a garden at our house. They have a huge one there,” she said. “They get to see the things growing — the plants — and learn how to take care of it and be respectful of it. They don't get to do that at our house.”

She said she plans to continue taking advantage of the programs at Fern Hollow.

“It's just a great place for families,” Scheib said. “They are very welcoming, and it's so comfortable. I even bring guests there because people don't know it's there, and it's just awesome.”

Mya Koch is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1403 or mkoch@tribweb.com.

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