As a parent short on sleep, stretched tissue-paper thin, you sometimes find yourself annoyed at the little challenges of raising children—bathrooms too small to change a diaper, restaurants without children’s menus, stores with aisles too narrow for a stroller—to name a few. Hang in there—the “family friendly” concept to the rescue. But how can a weary parent tell when it is a hollow marketing gimmick or the real deal?
In researching and writing Windy City Baby: The Insider’s Guide to Raising Kids in Chicago, my children and I scoured the city to identify programs, classes and destinations that are truly family friendly. I fine-tuned my definition of family friendly as having three common elements: affordability, convenience and interest to both children and parents.
Affordable Kids are challenging customer. They grow quickly. Their interests are ever changing. One day they love music, the next they only want to paint. All of which can stress any family’s budget. So where can a family find a good value?
The Chicago Park District and suburban park districts are gold mines. When my first child was a baby, I noticed a parade of parents pushing strollers into my neighborhood park district field house. I went inside to find out where all the babies were headed. It turns out park districts offer an abundance of affordable baby and children’s programming from “mom/pop and tot” classes to tumbling to preschool and more.
The Chicago Public Library’s “Great Kids Museum Passport” program is another good value. These free passes are good for one week and allow access to 11 Chicago museums.
Another great freebie is story time at local libraries, bookstores or children’s boutiques. The bookstore, Women and Children First, 5233 N. Clark St., has a popular story time. Storeowner Linda Bubon can capture the attention of even the wiggliest child with her ever-changing character voices, rhymes and songs. Psychobaby, 1630 N. Damen Ave.; Children in Paradise, 909 N Rush St.; the Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave., and 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th St., also sponsor weekly story times.
Last, Chicago is a city that knows how to celebrate. Throughout the year there are numerous festivals that provide affordable, if not free, family entertainment. A few of our favorites include the Chinese New Year Parade in January, which features a gigantic paper dragon; the Maple Syrup Festival at the North Park Village Nature Center, 5801 N. Pulaski Rd., in March, where kids experience the process of making maple syrup from start to finish, and the 57th Street Children’s Book Fair, a celebration of children’s literature in September.
Convenient A second requirement for being family friendly is convenience—from accessible parking to bathrooms that accommodate kids.
Throughout my book I include parking options for every entry because it is an important factor when hauling children, strollers and diaper bags. My favorite wintertime museum destination is the Museum of Science and Industry, 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive, because it has an underground garage. Parking is $12, but the museum is free on Mondays and Tuesdays in January and February.
Looking for a class with convenient parking? It doesn’t get any better than classes at Sing ’n’ Dance, 2632 N. Halsted St., which has free valet parking. Long before the boom in “mommy and me” classes, Sing ’n’ Dance offered fun baby and toddler classes.
Before having children, grown-ups cannot imagine the effect a family friendly bathroom (or not) can have on day-to-day life with children. While “family” bathrooms with changing tables, toilets, sinks and enough space to push a stroller into are nice, you also can find yourself waiting for a long time. This is why my favorite bathrooms offer multiple toilets, including toddler toilets, a place to change babies and toddler-size sinks.
Bathrooms that meet these requirements include those at the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier, 700 E. Grand Ave., and Health World Children’s Museum, 1301 S. Grove Ave., Barrington. Health World earns a gold star because its stalls accommodate a stroller—so you do not have to keep the door cracked to watch your baby while you are inside.
Interesting My last requirement for a family friendly place is that it be interesting to both children of various ages and parents. A few good spots include the DuPage Children’s Museum, 301 N. Washington St. in Naperville, and in Chicago: the Museum of Science and Industry, Bubbles Academy, 1504 N. Fremont Ave., and the Portage Park Center for the Arts, 5801 W. Dakin St.
I am in awe of the DuPage Children’s Museum. I do not know whether my children or I get more satisfaction out of nailing, sawing and sanding pieces of wood in the “Construction House.” And it is harder to drag me away from the “3-D Me Pinscreen” than my 4-year-old.
The “Idea Factory” in the Museum of Science and Industry is an easy destination to entertain more than one child. There are three distinct sections, each with age-appropriate activities and experiments.
Finding classes can be a challenge when you have more than one child. Bubbles Academy has a great solution: While mom or dad enjoys a class with one child, the older or younger one is entertained in the play center.
Families with older children will appreciate the efforts by Jennifer LaCivita of the Portage Park Center for the Arts to create a center the entire family can enjoy. The classes, such as theater, papier-mâché and watercolor.
Yes, Chicago is home to world-class museums, phenomenal children’s classes and continuous festivals, but it is the efforts they make to accommodate families that make Chicago a unique city in which to raise children.
Shana Trombley is the mom of two and author of Windy City Baby: The Insider’s Guide to Raising Kids in Chicago (Curtain Time Press, $16.95).