There's a lack of activities for West Loop small fry Story by Laura Putre • Photos by Frank PincBubble-blowing was the headlining activity at West Gate Coffeehouse.
West Gate Coffeehouse owner Laura Bearss doesn't mean to be rude, but she really doesn't want any more impish additions to her establishment's Thursday morning play group. Don't get her wrong, she likes hearing "Wheels on the Bus" sung 13 times in succession, with moms and nannies joining in on the hand motions, but there simply aren't enough couch cushions and carpet squares to go around.
"We started in late March, early April," says Bearss somewhat breathlessly, in between serving steaming mugs of coffee and bowls of raisin oatmeal. "We had half a dozen. Since then, we've reached that critical mass. There are tons of parents with small children in the neighborhood who don't have the time to drive to Lincoln Park for their activities."
That poses a problem, say the play group moms, because the West Loop is a veritable desert of family friendly activities.
"There are tons of moms with children under 2, with all the high-rises, all of these apartments," says Kelli Ramsey, mother of Isabella, a pixieish 1-year-old swathed in pink. "But [the play group] is the first thing we've encountered here. We need more. It's a profitable opportunity for someone who wants to do it."
Before she found the play group, Ramsey's social interactions consisted of running into other moms at Dominick's, either in the diaper aisle or by the one-hour photo counter.
"It's lonely, I think, being a new mom," says the former management company vice president. "Even if you pass someone in the hallway, one of you two has to be kind of outgoing to make it work at first."
Before her pregnancy, Cristen Dokic, mother of 1-year-old Gabriella, moved with her husband to a small condo in the West Loop to be close to downtown. At the time, they didn't think much about the logistics of raising a child in a one-bedroom loft. Once Gabriella was born, they made the bedroom the baby's room and used bookshelves as room dividers throughout the rest of the space.
It's a temporary fix. "For us to want to stay, we'll need more space," she says. "We want to find three bedrooms here."
Even with three bedrooms, however, staying in the neighborhood will be difficult as Gabriella gets older. The West Loop lacks a preschool, a public library and daycare facilities. Although Skinner Park has a playground with baby swings and after-school programs for elementary kids, it doesn't offer any tiny-tots programming.
"There's land here that's still available, and the business opportunities are huge," says Dokic. "Maybe people don't think there's a need in the neighborhood, that it's mainly commercial, but that's just not true.
"We like the urban lifestyle; we don't want to give it up. But eventually, we're forced to move to the suburbs because there aren't many options here."
With slim pickings, they've had to be creative in their recreation. Ramsey plans to take her daughter to Wiggle Worms at the Old Town School of Folk Music or Gymboree in Lincoln Park. Dokic, who's on a tighter budget, tends to look for activities at libraries and parks.
With their help, we've compiled a handy list of activities for small children in and around the West Loop. Some require a fee and a short drive, while others are free and close to home. Some of them are just creative ideas for families who live anywhere and want a city adventure.
And remember, if all else fails, there's always West Gate Coffeehouse (924 W. Madison)-anytime but Thursday morning. Unlike the almost entirely grown-up Starbucks a few blocks away, West Gate, has a cozy play area for toddlers filled with puzzles, puppets and brightly colored pictures. Bearss encourages parents to bring their little ones and recreate to their hearts' content.
Keep your tots busy in the West Loop
Duncan YMCA 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. (312) 421-7800 Details: For tots who just can't get enough of live theater, the Duncan Y Chernin Center for the Arts offers the Shoebox Series, especially geared toward ages 3 to 5. Tickets are $6.50 each; the series itself is ongoing. Coming up in 2004: "Tantrum on the Tracks," the heartwarming story of two hapless young train cars, and "Marvelous Marvin's Mother Goose Mistake," a trip into story land with all-original puppets.
Chicago Public Library Theodore Roosevelt Branch 1101 W. Taylor St. (312) 746-5656 Details: Every Tuesday and Thursday at 10:30 a.m. the library hosts Tales for Tots, a free story time that features songs, finger plays and crafts. Head librarian Joanna Hazelden suggests you call ahead to register, so the library has a head count. On Fridays at 10 a.m. the library pulls out all the building blocks, ABC flashcards and pop-up books for Read and Play, an informal play group for kids from infancy to 4 years old. "We've had a very good response with that," says Hazelden. "Some of the newer moms that come into the neighborhood come to Read and Play, and as their kids get older, they come to the Tales for Tots." Every so often, the library also hosts a Family Reading Night. For information, call the main number and ask for children's librarian Laura Kracke.
Daley Bicentennial Plaza Ice Rink 337 E. Randolph St. in Grant Park (312) 742-7650
McCormick Tribune Ice Rink 55 N. Michigan Ave. Millennium Park (312) 742-5222
Johnny's Ice House 1350 W. Madison Ave. (312) 226-5555 Details: Get those snowsuits out of storage-the Park District's all-ages ice skating skating rink runs through March 16. Daley Bi is an outdoor rink with free admission and $5 skate rental. Hours are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. to noon, 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. and 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. At the indoor McCormick Tribune Ice Rink, admission and rental are priced separately but the total cost per person still runs around $5. Open skating times are 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday (even later if there's no private party scheduled). Johnny's Ice House usually caters to day traders who want to let off steam, but twice a week the ice is cleared of Type-A personalities for the Icicle Club, an open skate for 2- to 4-year-olds and their parents, with instruction from the indomitable Coach Ken, who's been teaching kids to slice the ice since the Kennedy era. Twelve sessions cost $150, parents included. For those who can barely stand, let alone balance on a razor-thin piece of metal, the sessions include free use of pole walkers-contraptions that do much the same job as regular walkers, but on a frozen, slippery surface. Though it's not as if there's stigma in falling down, the wobblier students spend about half the time on their butts.
Sherwood Conservatory of Music 1312 S. Michigan Ave. (312) 427-6267 Details: Aspiring pots-and-pans bangers can refine their technique in Music Together, a mixed-age class at Sherwood Conservatory whose students range from 6 months to 4 years. They're taught many valuable lessons that they'll use often in life, like how to keep a steady beat, how to sing in tune and how to use scarves for movement (that will come in handy when signaling a cab). They also take up various percussion instruments during the class, including egg shakers, rain sticks, and maracas. Moms and dads attend with their children; thanks to the age range, the older, savvier kids show the ropes to the ones still in plastic pants. "It's pretty exciting," says Jane Sullivan, director of early childhood programming at the conservatory. "With the babies, you'll see a lot of bouncing and kicking of their feet and cooing and making all kinds of musical sounds. The older kids can follow directions, while those around the 2-year-old age wander around the room and observe rather than actively participate." Cost of the class is $166 for a nine-week session. Once the little noisemakers turn 3 or 4, the conservatory offers many more options, including Suzuki-method violin lessons, Percussion for Kids, and a chorus-type class called Songbirds. All the teachers at Sherwood are accomplished musicians with master's degrees in music or education-or both.
Bubbles Academy 1504 N. Fremont (312) 944-7677 Details: Bubbles Academy has dreamed up about a thousand ways to keep the upper-middle-class youth entertained; hence, it's located in Lincoln Park. But hey, if their parents can foot the bill-and a lot of them probably can-West Loop kids are welcome to take classes on papier-mache and theater design, too. And who knows, maybe they'll grow up to be world-famous party-planners. For 2- to 4-year-olds Bubbles offers a music yoga class, which is apparently a hoot to observe from behind the glass partition. The downward dog and bunny positions are really a hit with this crowd. "We do a mini-sun salute, with cut-out suns, and put them on our head, behind us or between our legs," says director Kristine Swano, who has a master's degree in education. "In the beginning, we do lots of imitation and acting like animals, then move into more formal naming of the poses." The littlest squirts can partake in music and movement classes, which are intended to "expose the children to music and get moms out to meet other moms." Cost is $140 for an eight-week session, which includes parking. A single drop-in class is $20.
Laura Putre is editor of Chicago Journal, a sister publication of Chicago Parent.