Best Things to Do with Kids in Chicago

10 fun, interactive things to do with kids in Chicago

Chicago is home to so many places for children to explore and some of them are free.

Bring their bathing suit or a change of clothes and let them run around and work off some energy at Crown Fountain, an interactive work of public art within Millennium Park.  The park features an ice rink during winter. Just south is Lurie Garden where kids can enjoy five acres of gardens within the city (and a great place to snap photos). 

Museums like the Museum of Science of Industry, Shedd Aquarium, the Chicago Children's Museum and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum are always a hit with kids and adults. Plus the nature museum is a hop, skip and a jump from the always free Lincoln Park Zoo. The highly interactive Kohl Children's Museum focuses on early childhood from birth to age eight. Outdoors consider strolling Navy Pier, a leisurely  afternoon or evening on the water to watch fireworks via Chicago Boat Rentals or take a city bike tour with Bobby's Bike Hike. Don't forget that are 24 beaches in Chicago along the shores of Lake Michigan waiting for family fun in the sun. 


Kohl Children's Museum
Photo courtesy of Kohl Children's Museum

Kohl Children's Museum was named one of the country's Ten Best Children's Museums by Parents Magazine and it's one of a handful in the country that focuses on early childhood from birth to age eight. Indoors, families explore 15 interactive, hands-on exhibits involving art to animals and sunny days are best for exploring the two-acre outdoor Habitat Park. Check the calendar on the web site for free additional programming such as Art Adventures; Science Sleuths; Story Time for various ages; and Tinkering Tuesdays all included with regular admission. Expect a world-class venue where kids can play, and learn in a fun, colorful space built specifically for them. Look throughout the exhibits for concept signage and parent tips to give you ideas on enhancing the learning experience. The Museum can be easily reached by public transportation, including PACE and Metra.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: The highly interactive museum focuses on early childhood from birth to age eight.

Jacky's expert tip: Purchase tickets in advance and save $2 per ticket.

Read more about Kohl Children's Museum →

The 24.5-acre Millennium Park is one of the most extraordinary public spaces in the world, a stunning showcase for the visual and performing arts and a permanent homage to the vitality of our world-class city. The centerpiece of the park is the Frank Gehry-designed Jay Pritzker Pavilion and there's not a chance you'll miss one of the world's largest outdoor sculptures by British artist Anish Kapoor - Cloud Gate - or the Crown Fountain designed by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa. The towers project video of faces of Chicagoans on LED screens and water flows through an outlet in the screen to give the illusion of water spouting from their mouths. Kids love to splash among water elements. Winter brings ice-skating and Christmas lights. At the southern tip is Lurie Garden, a 5-acre urban oasis, that holds on and off-site programs throughout the year like a Family Workshop on terrariums.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Chicago's magnificent outdoor space next to Lake Michigan, the park offers free concerts,"The Bean," Lurie Garden and Crown Fountain's shallow pool and water spouts.

Jacky's expert tip: Check the website for special events like Chicago SummerDance Celebration.

Read more about Millennium Park →

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.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Families at the Museum of Science and Industry can enjoy science experiences, tour the U-505 submarine and catch a big-screen film all in one day.

Jacky's expert tip: Splurge for the U-505 Submarine tour or zip down the mineshaft of a true-to-life coal mine.

Read more about Museum of Science and Industry →


Three blocks west of Navy Pier, Bobby's Bike Hike beckons families to don a helmet and see the city in a most refreshing way. The longest-running city bike tour company in the country offers a plethora of food, walking and bike tours including the Chicago Family Food & Bike Tour. Kids love bicycling and the food stops preclude any belly-aching about thirst or hunger. The tour explores North Side neighborhoods and downtown sites with timed stops fitting all ages and fitness levels. Plus, you can get your Chicago-style hot dog and deep dish pizza without having to wait in line. There's also a kids' edition "Tike Hike," a two-hour, easy riding tour stopping at a secret garden, petting zoo, Oak Street Beach and others. If you'd rather explore on your own, Bobby's has rental bikes (comfort/E-bikes/kid equipment), parking, downtown access to the lakefront bike trail, free locks, helmets, maps and service with rental.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: It's a dynamic way to see the city, expend some kid energy and even have a special Chicago nosh.

Jacky's expert tip: Bike tours depart March - December; walking and food Tours take place year-round. Reservations accepted only through the website.

Read more about Bobby's Bike Hike →

As buildings continually go up, nature gets pinched, so a visit to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is an ideal respite from the concrete landscape. Explore the region's only year-round butterfly sanctuary where as many as 40 species of native and exotic butterflies flutter. Every day at 2pm, watch newly-emerged butterflies fly for the very first time in the "First Flight Butterfly Release" program. The Secret Forest is a brand-new experience designed to immerse the youngest visitors into nature: explore canopy tents, steer a boat on an imaginary river, and climb a treehouse with slides. Get the news about the ooze at Mysteries of the Marsh and when it's nice outside head to the museum's Nature Trail, a nearly 1/3 mile trail to revel in the abundance of nature. Visit the website in advance for a listing of special events and exhibits. The museum celebrated its 165th birthday in 2022 making it the oldest public museum in Chicago.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: The nature museum has plenty of cool interactive exhibits to keep even the youngest tree huggers interested.

Jacky's expert tip: If you have the energy, walk across the street to the free Lincoln Park Zoo.

Read more about Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum →


One of the best ways to enjoy nice weather in Chicago is on the water and you needn't be a wealthy yacht person to do so. Take the family on an afternoon pontoon cruise on the river or consider family get-togethers and birthday parties aboard a luxury yacht. Chicago Boat Rentals is stocked with gas powered boats equipped with bluetooth speakers so you can play your favorite tunes. How about a two-hour cruise along the Chicago River so the fam can take in a Navy Pier fireworks show from the water (without the crowds). A yacht charter Includes kitchen area and wet bar, entertainment area, seating, two bedrooms, two sleeping areas and a swim platform with ladder. All the boats are simple to operate and can be driven by Mom, Dad or anyone else in the family who is 21 years of age with a valid driver's license. Feel free to insist, "I am the captain. now!" Bring your own food and beverages or the team at Chicago Boat Rentals will arrange to have it catered for you.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: You no longer need to enviously glare at sailors on the river - rent a pontoon or a yacht for a special family outing.

Jacky's expert tip: The parking lot is the property of Azul Mariscos and the restaurant offers valet parking which ranges anywhere from $15-$20 based on the day and/or events.

Read more about Chicago Boat Rentals →

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 animals, too. The Zoo is open 365 days a year and constantly hosts events and activities.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: The free zoo is set within the heart of Chicago and is open 365 days. Visitors can enjoy seeing the animals in award-winning habitats.

Jacky's expert tip: Check the website for announcements on new arrivals. Everyone loves furry newborns.

Read more about Lincoln Park Zoo →

Located within Navy Pier, the Chicago Children's Museum is geared to toddlers to fifth graders. Its interactive exhibits are spread across three floors, including a Tinkering Lab (great for older kids) and Pritzker Playspace, CCM's open playgroup for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers They can wiggle up ship-shape rigging in the Kovler Family Climbing Schooner or explore a re-creation of the real Saharan expedition where Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno discovered a new type of dinosaur. The new Cloud Buster is 37 climbable feet of structural steel, wood, wire, rope, acrylic, fiberglass, and artificial turf perched over Navy Pier's Fifth Third Family Pavilion. The Art Studio serves as a space for families to embrace and practice creative expression, but it's also an active commitment to the arts. In March 2022, expect a new art experience developed in collaboration with the internationally acclaimed, Chicago artist Hebru Brantley.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: This large, hands-on museum is geared exclusively to children but adults will have fun, too.

Jacky's expert tip: Check the museum's calendar for special events. Advance ticket purchases are encouraged.

Read more about Chicago Children's Museum →

This large aquarium with 32,000 animals guides visitors through the world's many marine habitats, from the entertaining colony of penguins to the mysterious Amazon. Watch divers as they feed sea turtles, stingrays, sharks and tropical fish in the Caribbean Reef's circular viewing tank. A perpetual highlight is the Oceanarium where dolphins and beluga whales spread their infectious joy. Finally, the towering Wild Reef tank creates the feeling of being underwater and you can eye sharks gliding above. Seek out touch experiences to feel cool, smooth stingrays to leathery sturgeons or a Virtual Reality 3-D swim with a humpback whale mother and her calf off the Islands of Tonga. There are special Extraordinary Experiences: choose a guided tour behind-the-scenes to come face-to-face with a beluga whale, experience a shark feeding or meet a penguin. Kids can even be a trainer for a day.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Shedd offers kid-friendly experiences like museum sleepovers, behind-the-scenes tours and animal encounters.

Jacky's expert tip: Avoid waiting in line by arriving early on weekdays or save money on admission using CityPASS.

Read more about John G. Shedd Aquarium →


Generally, the only Chicagoans you'll run into at Navy Pier are the employees but out-of-towners and suburbanites love the downtown pier that extends into Lake Michigan. Once used by the military, it's now Chicago's largest tourist attraction. You can just walk up and down the pier, taking in skyline and lake views. Or you can visit the excellent Chicago Children's Museum or ride the Centennial Wheel, a 200-foot-high Ferris wheel with enclosed gondolas. There are plenty of boat ride options, too, from the zippy Seadog to a more stately Odyssey. In summer, you can watch a free fireworks show synchronized to music on Wednesday and Saturday nights. An "old Chicago" style IT'SUGAR store offers a "Taste of Chicago Box" featuring products that originated here including Tootsie Rolls®, Baby Ruth®, Juicy Fruit®, Charleston Chew®, Chuckles®, Sugar Daddy®, and others.

Recommended for Things to Do with Kids because: Chicago's most popular tourist destination includes a 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel offering sweeping views of the city.

Jacky's expert tip: Sable at Navy Pier recently opened offering comfortable accommodations especially nice for families who want to take in the Pier.

Read more about Navy Pier →


Meet Jacky Runice

Born in Bucktown when bulletproof was a home safety choice and not a coffee order, Jacky Runice has been knocking around Chicago as a professional print, online and broadcast journalist and...  More About Jacky