Chicago is home to so many places for children to explore and many of them are free.
Bring their bathing suit or a change of clothes and let them run around Crown Fountain, an interactive work of public art within Millennium Park. Just south is Lurie Garden where kids can enjoy a beautiful garden within the city. The Garfield Park Conservatory just west of downtown Chicago is an urban oasis worth the trip. For more nature love, the Morton Arboretum is not to be missed.
Millenium Park features an ice rink during the winter but how about ice skating in the middle of summer? It’s possible at McFetridge Sports Center. Museums like the Museum of Science of Industry and zoos like the Lincoln Park Zoo are always a hit with kids and adults. If theater is more their speed, check out the performances by the Emerald City Theater Company.
Often overlooked but just as much fun is a trip to the Green City Market. Club Sprouts allows children to taste a different market item every time they visit while the Edible Garden provides opportunities for anyone to learn more about the gardening process through free hands-on gardening workshops each month. The Market moves indoors during the winter months.
Green City Market, Chicago's only sustainable market, has an extensive selection of conscientiously raised produce and other products. While milling around the park-turned-market, you'll have plenty of opportunity to snack on fresh crepes, visit with local farmers, and enjoy fresh flowers. Be sure to follow the crowd to chef demonstrations (10:30am) featuring some of Chicago's most famous talents. Club Sprouts allows children to taste a different market item every time they visit while the Edible Garden provides opportunities for anyone to learn more about the gardening process through free hands-on gardening workshops each month. During November and December the market moves indoors assuring comfort as you shop. Many vendors can't take credit cards, so carrying cash is optimal.
Located just a short distance from Chicago, this fabulous "Tree Museum" features 3,000 varieties of trees, shrubs, and vines. Its 1,700 acres include Illinois Tree Trails, sugar maples, a Crabtree orchard, a delightful prairie that blooms in summer and fall, 13 miles of trails and 11 miles of road viewing. Founded by Joy Morton (of Morton Salt fame) in 1922, the Arboretum continues to delight guests with seasonal events, the Sterling Morton Library and the Ginkgo gift and coffee shop. There are specific kid and family-friendly programs designed to encourage exploration and curiosity. The Children's Garden includes three areas with 10 themed gardens, each with engaging and interactive activities that children enjoy.
McFetridge Sports Center (MSC) is owned by the Chicago Park District and it's one of the busiest because it has a host of family-friendly activities. It has the Park District's only indoor ice rink and six tournament-quality indoor tennis courts which allows more than 2,000 patrons each week to train year-round for competitive ice skating, hockey and tennis programs (those who want to use it for recreational purposes are welcome, too). Additional features include a fitness center overlooking the ice rink, Illinois' first wheelchair baseball field, NHL-size ice arena with seating for 1,200 spectators, 50-yard outdoor pool, four outdoor tennis courts and four outdoor basketball courts. Forgot your skates? The place has ice skates rentals as well as locker rooms and showers. The center is accessible to people of all physical abilities and there is an adjacent parking lot for those who choose to drive here.
Millennium Park is Chicago's crown jewel. With the change of seasons, the park attracts thousands every day. Summertime means a stellar line-up of concerts at Jay Pritzker Pavilion (during the day, on most Tuesdays through Fridays, the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus can be heard for free in the Pavilion as musicians rehearse for upcoming concerts). Winter brings out the ice-skating rink and Christmas lights. Get a picture with the Cloud Gate sculpture, or 'The Bean' as we call it in Chicago and at Crown Fountain, two 50-foot glass block towers at each end of a shallow reflecting pool. The towers project video of faces of Chicago citizens on LED screens and having water flow through an outlet in the screen to give the illusion of water spouting from their mouths. At the southern tip is Lurie Garden, a 5-acre urban oasis featuring perennials, bulbs, grasses, shrubs and trees.
Interactive museums are multiplying like rabbits, but this complex is considered one of the first and best. You'll find more than 2,000 hands-on exhibits including the Zephyr (a famous train that once set a land-speed record) and the Idea Factory (whose interactive exhibits have kids of all ages learning without realizing it). Take a short tour of an authentically recreated coal mine or step inside the U-505 submarine and experience life aboard the sub in the days leading up to her capture. The five-story Omnimax Theater presents shows that take visitors on a virtual voyage to outer space or under the sea.
It's not often you get to enjoy oak savanna, a forest, wetland and prairie all in one area but you can at North Park Village Nature Center. There are three trails from which to choose and explore: main loop, wetland and woodland and while you can take as long as you'd like, it's possible to do them all within an hour if you're in a hurry (although hopefully you're not because you want to stop at the lily pond, gaze at the free roaming deer and catch a turtle or finches as you take in the fresh air and scenery. Early Spring Chicagoans from all over the city come by for the annual Maple Tree Tapping Festival where kids can enjoy free activities and see demonstrations on the Maple syrup process. The Center offers great (many of which are free) educational programs on topics such as composting.
There is something magical that happens when children are exposed to age-appropriate theater at a young age. Emerald City Theater aims to inspire early learners through play and has been delighting audiences since 1996 with performances. As one of Chicago's most attended non-profit theatres, it welcomes 80,000 children and their grownups annually through its programming. Plays feature well-known children's characters such as 3 Little Piggies, Ramona Quimby and Charlie Brown. It's also home to the city's largest theater school for children ages 3 to 13 with a focus on teaching important life skills through theater. Performances are located at three locations.
A serene, tranquil setting is the trademark of one of the world's largest indoor gardens but it's also a great place for kids of all ages, too. The Elizabeth Morse Genius Children's Garden is open during normal hours. As kids enter the garden they are greeted by a giant, meandering vine with larger-than-life sized roots. A 7-foot-tall seed begs to be climbed (climbing is encouraged) and kids love to touch the Sensitive Plant which is so shy it cringes when touched. Another favorite is the Balsa Tree which emits a hollow sound when its trunk is tapped. The youngest set have their own place to explore colors and textures of soft-form blocks and play rings in the special permanent Crawling Area.
An ape house, a birdhouse and a working model of a five-acre Midwestern farm are just a few examples of what makes this zoo special. Founded in 1868 and known as America's oldest free public zoo, the Lincoln Park Zoo still manages to charge no admission and remains open year-round. Set on scenic park grounds with lush lawns and pleasant walkways, the zoo greets visitors with the beauty of Georgian Revival buildings and a spectacular greenhouse. Prominent zoo residents include elephants, giraffes, sea lions, gorillas, reptiles and an endangered Siberian tiger. The Zoo is open 365 days a year and constantly hosts events and activities.
Located within Navy Pier, the Chicago Children's Museum serves children from toddlers to fifth grade and features 14 permanent exhibits, many of which are interactive. The Kovler Family Climbing Schnooer is especially fun and unless your kid is afraid of heights, you may be stuck there all day. The Dinosaur Expedition lets kids dig without getting dirty and be prepared because there is a good likelihood they'll get a bit wet in the WaterWays exhibit. Children under one are always free and guests ages 15 and under enjoy free admission all day on the first Sunday of every month and on Thursday evenings from 5-8pm.