The simple secrets to museum hopping

Taking a toddler to some of the area's top institutions


Alena Murguia


Winter’s “short” days can feel long when you have toddlers or preschoolers in the house, especially if you think there is nowhere to go or nothing to do. Luckily, Chicago and its surrounding suburbs offer an array of wonderful children’s museums. But even these can get tiresome, especially for adults. So what is a parent to do?

Try exploring some of Chicago’s many other cultural institutions. Some are not marketed to the preschool set but, with a little know-how and planning, they can be a great adventure.

You also might consider buying a membership. But think about your child’s age and interests as well as your time and location. If you’re going to visit several times, the memberships pay for themselves. And best of all, memberships take the psychological pressure off of visits. If your toddler has a meltdown after 30 minutes, you can leave without feeling like you’ve wasted $40. Just try again next time.

Most memberships give families unlimited free admission throughout the year and often include free or discounted admission to special exhibits, discounts on purchases and sometimes free or discounted admissions to other museums throughout the country. BROOKFIELD ZOO 3300 Golf Rd., Brookfield (708) 485-0263,

This is a favorite destination, year-round. Kids love the animals and parents appreciate the convenient parking, numerous bathrooms, changing stations, eating areas and stroller-friendly walking.

There are several don’t miss stops for preschoolers. The Living Coast features fish, sea creatures and penguins. This permanent exhibit has tons of hands-on activities, including water walls, large-scale aquariums for kids to press against, as well as flaps and buttons galore. At the end of the exhibit is a replica kitchen, complete with cabinets and drawers to be opened and closed, filled with conservation lessons.

Brookfield’s Hammill Family Play Zoo is its own trip with indoor and outdoor activities. My boys especially love the veterinary clinic where they can examine and operate on stuffed animals. The mix of pretend and real animals to touch and learn about fascinates them. Personally, I’m grateful for the air conditioning in August and the coat rooms in winter. The play zoo also offers large, clean bathrooms and family rooms for nursing and changing diapers.

Tropic World, home to the gorillas and orangutans, is also worth a visit. But, be warned, strollers are not encouraged and after you’ve trekked through the length of the exhibit, you have to walk all the way back to the front of the building to reclaim your stroller. There is just no good way to do this in winter when you are carrying everyone’s coats to boot.

Hints: For a full day at the zoo, take advantage of Brookfield Zoo’s trolley. With four stops and unlimited access with a day pass, you can skip a stroller for preschoolers. Park at the south gate, catch the trolley immediately inside and ride it to the first stop. Explore the children’s zoo, polar bears and dolphins. Then get back on and ride to the Australian and African habitats. You can cover the whole zoo and hear tons of interesting information from the drivers.

The restrooms in the Discovery Center (near the north gate) are air-conditioned, clean and almost never crowded. General admission is free Tuesdays and Thursdays October through March.

LINCOLN PARK ZOO 2001 N. Clark St., Chicago (312) 742-2000,

One of the last free zoos in the country, this is a great destination. Of course “free” depends upon your ability to take public transportation or luck into street parking in Lincoln Park. Even if you have to pay to park, this world-class zoo has amazing exhibits.

The new gorilla and chimpanzee house has floor-to-ceiling viewing glass that allows my son to go face-to-face with a silverback. The tropical foliage in the background (as the great apes also have access to the outdoors) made my son ask, “Are we in Africa?” The indoor viewing area is spacious with many nooks and crannies to explore. This is great for kids but can be challenging for parents trying to keep track of multiple toddlers.

The small mammal and reptile house is the other “must-see” for my kids. Once again, the animals are on display at toddler height, which means no lifting and carrying required. The colorful sculptures of giant-size creatures had my 2-year-old ga-ga. But the trip through the “bat-cave” is the highlight. The exhibit’s designers did a great job sculpting a passage through a virtual cave with live, and very large, bats on either side of you. Even though the bats are behind glass, the feeling is very real. Big fun.

Lincoln Park Zoo does have its problems. Chief among them is the absence of stroller-friendly restrooms and a lack of eating areas. Most of the bathrooms are down steep flights of stairs, although the central food court has one with elevator access. This food court lacks the seating needed to accommodate visitors during peak times.

Hint: Avoid visiting this zoo in the spring. It’s high season for field trips, which makes it virtually impossible to get close to the animals, find a spot to eat or use the restroom without a substantial wait.

SHEDD AQUARIUM 1200 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago (312) 939-2438,

This is well worth a family membership if you have small children. Over the past few years, each new exhibit seems to target younger visitors. The Shedd’s latest offering, Sea Star Quest, is tailor made for kids age 6 and younger. Upon entering, kids are invited to stick their hands in the water and touch sea stars and sea urchins. My boys were surprised to find the urchins did not feel sharp and pointy. (“That’s how they look, Mom.”) The looks on their faces as they discovered spongy and slightly slimy animals was priceless.

All the viewing tanks are a few feet off the ground, meaning they could press their faces right up to the sea life. And, best of all for my 2-year-old, the exhibit invites children to press buttons everywhere for more information. He didn’t stop long enough to listen to the facts, but he sure loved pressing the buttons. After seeing all the live animals, preschoolers are invited to “play in the sea.” The play area includes costumes, a ball pit, wall rubbings and even a large-scale habitat in which kids can climb, slide, make colored sticks glow and, potentially, learn.

My kids and I also love the Wild Reef. You literally step into a coral reef exploding with colors, shapes and sound. It’s like being in an underwater circus. Throughout the exhibit are child-level touch-sensitive monitors. Touching the screen allows kids to learn about an assortment of animals. My 3-year-old had the steps mastered within minutes and was content to stop at every screen and choose every animal.

Of course, there are also fish tanks and cries of, “There’s Nemo.” What I find interesting is the exhibit’s grand finale, the shark tanks that literally surround you on all sides. This was the big marketing push, but holds very little interest for most of the youngsters I saw. They were more fascinated by the tank of rays that is lit from underneath and on which they could walk. Really cool.

Unfortunately, the aquarium is another stroller-challenged institution. Its most popular exhibits are on different levels and the elevators are relatively small. Maneuvering a double stroller through the museum on a crowded day requires a lot of patience and some muscle. Again, crowds make viewing and bathroom trips challenging.

Hints: Ask the aqua-shirted guides for directions. You can literally walk in circles trying to find your way through the Shedd. The guides are friendly, courteous and knowledgeable about the best routes.

Visit on a weekday, arrive early or after 2 p.m. and bring quarters. There are metered parking spots on the museum campus that are closer to the entrance. If you arrive before 10 a.m. (9 a.m. on the weekends), you can usually find a spot. It’s cheaper and more convenient than any of the lots. Do not drive there on a Sunday when the Chicago Bears are playing at home. There is no parking and traffic is a mess.

FIELD MUSEUM 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago (312) 922-9410,

This is another museum that is not cheap when you include parking but, if you have animal lovers, it’s worth the cost. What Is an Animal? leads youngsters from window to window using color, shapes and sound. There are low-to-the-ground stops for feeling and exploring. Preschoolers can “be a barnacle” by waving their fingers. It’s a lot of interactive fun before leading visitors out into the endless halls of animal dioramas.

I remember these glass cases as being too static and boring, but with my young children I see them fresh. The groupings are a great way to teach my kids about geography and variety within species. I’ve introduced my boys to animals they’ve only seen in books and shown them how different animals have different skeletons. They never seem to tire of looking for their favorite animals. Several of the areas have been updated with sound and video, including the wilderness trail, where kids can pick up telephones to hear about the animals.

Apart from the animals, my children look forward to the dinosaurs. Unfortunately, except for Sue, the giant T-Rex in the Great Hall, the dinosaurs are currently off exhibit. An updated exhibit should open in the spring.

Underground Adventure is an interesting exhibit for little kids. But be warned—it can be scary for some. The exhibit is designed to make you feel the size of an ant. It’s dark, feels dirty (though it’s not) and has caterpillars in nightmare-size proportions. I have one boy who loves it and one who won’t go near it.

The Field Museum has done an admirable job of making itself more family friendly. There are two elevators, tot-friendly bathrooms, nursing stations and an in-house McDonald’s, which offers member discounts. They’re even working on a new entrance for wheelchairs and strollers closer to the parking lots. Currently, you have to walk all the way to the west end of the building or carry your stroller up the marble steps.

Hints: Rent a stroller at the coat check once you’re inside, and don’t forget to explore the lower level. There are many great displays and sculptures “hidden” down there.

The Field Museum offers discounted admission on Mondays and Tuesdays through Dec. 21 and again Jan. 1 through Feb. 28. See the Shedd Aquarium for parking tips.

THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO 111 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago (312) 443-3600,

This is a surprisingly rewarding destination, especially on free Tuesdays. It’s definitely stroller-challenged but, again, the employees and volunteers are happy to help. After trying to make sense of the map, I finally just asked how to get downstairs—and an employee opened the key-operated elevator for us.

Children make great art critics, especially when they’re telling mom what modern art is about. Like most people, my children were taken with Marc Chagall’s lovely dark blue windows. We stayed there for 20 minutes while my boys ran back and forth, discovering pictures within the picture. We also discovered a children’s room, located on the lower level in the Kraft Education Center. There is a space dedicated to preschoolers with books and blocks that was peaceful and entertaining.

The Art Institute is not the best place to visit if you’re put off by strangers staring disapprovingly at you. I was amazed at how many patrons gave us the “shush eye” as my children expressed their amateur opinions. Far from letting their judgmental gazes bother me, we made a game out of critiquing paintings and deciding what abstract sculptures “meant.”

Hint: Stop talking and listen to your kids. I learned a lot about the inner workings of my 3-year-old’s imagination in a one-hour visit. And take public transportation—you can explore the Magnificent Mile while in the city.

Tuesdays are free.

GARFIELD PARK CONSERVATORY 300 N. Central Park Ave., Chicago (312) 746-5100,

This has got to be one of Chicago’s best hidden gems. Run by the Chicago Park District, admission is free, although there is a low suggested donation. The exhibits change with the seasons and it is next to the CTA’s Green Line—just get off at the Garfield Conservatory stop. (This makes it a double adventure for my kids, who love to ride the train.)

It’s magical to watch children toddling through the great Palm Room or exploring the great leafy paths. There is even a Children’s Room in the conservatory with a giant slide and baby-safe play zone. The park district also brings special exhibits into the conservatory. Last year’s Chapungu featured African sculpture and came complete with an “I spy” chart and stickers for kids to identify the art they found throughout their visit.

Unlike most destinations, Garfield Park is perfect for weekend visits. I rarely know the schedule in advance, but we usually discover surprises such as children’s story times or hands-on horticulture experiences. There may be extra people milling around, but it never amounts to a crushing crowd—instead, there are just enough people to enhance the experience without getting in the way.

Hint: If possible, skip the stroller. There is ample street parking plus a free lot if you drive. Relying on a stroller prevents easy access to the Jungle Room, which is designed to replicate Illinois millions of years ago. You enter down a flight of steps. There are rocky jumps over streams and ponds kids want to kneel over, none of which work with a stroller. 

Alena Murguia, who lives in Berwyn, is the mother of Patrick and Connor and works part-time for Chicago Parent.

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