Living in a major metropolitan area has many benefits, including a beautiful lakefront and great parks. But raising small children in Chicago’s temperamental climate leaves me grateful for the indoor attractions as well, including wonderful children’s museums. Over the past four years, my boys and I have visited these museums many times.
In this roundup, you’ll get the benefit of those kid-tested trips and my suggestions on interactive exhibits, educational and artistic activities and toddler-friendly spots.
You’ll notice not every children’s museum is included here. It’s because my family hasn’t been to them all (yet). Bronzeville Children’s Museum in Evergreen Park is the first and only African-American children’s museum in the country. And though the interactive exhibits sound fascinating, it is operated on a tour basis and meant for school-age children, making my boys too young. And word is Exploration Station in Bourbonnais is also a terrific place for kids to explore and learn.
For a good museum visit, children need space and an opportunity to explore. So, it’s best to visit museums outside of peak morning hours to avoid crowds. Very early mornings or late afternoons seem to be best. Also, it is really important to let your child take the lead. He or she will gravitate toward the exhibits that are of real interest and discover them in his or her own way.
Many of these museums offer special programming, including guest speakers and temporary exhibits. Check their calendars for events specific to your child’s interests. Then plan your visit around those events to make the most of your experience.
More a community gathering place than a major museum, Wonder Works is good for a couple of hours of fun. The exhibits of special interest are “The Great Outdoors” and “Lights, Camera, Action!”
In “The Great Outdoors,” kids explore a darkened corner of the museum made to look and sound like a night forest. Activities include a climbable tree and buttons that, when pushed, make animal sounds. The background of forest noises and rain (including thunder), as well as low lighting, bring the exhibit to life. Picnic tables, tents, fishing poles, stuffed animals and even a boat are great for imaginative play. At first, my sons were afraid of the darkened space, but now it is usually their first and last stop.
“Lights, Camera, Action!”—often the museum’s most crowded room—is a child-size replica of a TV studio. Various backdrops slide into place on a stage starring costumed preschoolers. Fake instruments and props complete the show. Kids can also operate the camera, lights and sound to capture the action on the monitor. This set-up, which includes a puppet theater, allows for great performances.
The long-promised “Farm to Market” exhibit opened this spring. There, kids can pick apples and watch them turn into applesauce or apple juice.
Wonder Works also has a nice art room. A peaceful break from the hustle of the other exhibits, it allows for quality one-on-one time.
Only in its second year of operation, this museum has room for improvement. The staff seems inconsistent in its attention to visitors and exhibits. I sometimes worry for my kids’ safety since the museum’s horseshoe design makes keeping kids in one exhibit difficult. “The Great Outdoors” and the gift shop are next to to the entrance, and I don’t trust the staff to prevent a toddler from walking out the front door.
Still, the museum brings in plenty of special exhibits, including live animals, which kids love.
Wonder Works is at 6445 W. North Ave., Oak Park. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Also closed June 26 and July 4. Admission is $5; free for kids under 1. Call (708) 383-4815 or visit www.wonder-works.org.
Hands On! Children’s Art Museum
This art museum is a hidden gem in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood. The delightful storefront space offers children endless opportunities to experience and create visual and dramatic art. For a $5 admission, children can paint, draw, sculpt and even craft pottery on a spinning wheel. Best of all, you can take it all home.
My sons excitedly gathered recycled materials such as paper towel rolls, tissue paper, yarn and wood to craft their own telescopes.
The museum provides everything you need—even smocks—but doesn’t inhibit creativity. There are no rules to follow in terms of artistic expression. The museum even displays visitors’ creations, serving as inspiration as well as decoration.
In addition to the visual arts, kids can hone their acting skills in the museum’s puppet theater or kid-size castle. My boys loved dressing up as knights and pretending to feed the painted dragon. Playing make-believe occupied them while I perused the museum’s library of art-related books.
Hands On! Children’s Art Museum is at 1800 W. 103rd St., Chicago. Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. Admission is $5. Call (773) 233-9933 or visit www.handsonart.org.
Kohl Children’s Museum
Kohl is finishing construction on a new, expanded facility, which it desperately needs. Currently, families have to battle big crowds—though that didn’t bother my kids until they had to wait in long lines to paint their faces and visit the mini Dominick’s. I was nervous, however, because it was hard to keep them in sight.
Crowds aside, Kohl’s exhibits are great. Beginning with “Music Makers,” there are interactive activities we’ve never seen anywhere else. We loved the music video room, where we were captured on the big screen waving ribbons and dancing. My 4-year-old could have spent an hour rearranging notes on a giant scale and hearing his compositions played back. I appreciate the museum’s parent tips—posted questions parents can use to help kids get the most from the exhibits.
On the way to “Construction Zone,” my kids’ attention was diverted to the “Great Kohl Sailing Ship.” The boat has magnets on poles and nets for fishing, but mostly it was filled with boys pretending to be pirates. It is great to watch kids interact even though they don’t know each other.
Other highlights for preschoolers include “Mighty Maze,” “All Aboard!” (where kids pretend to operate cars and a CTA train) and “H2O” (where they get soaked—despite the smocks).
The new space promises more parking and a café, an improvement over the current tiny lunchroom. Another plus is four infant and toddler areas.
Several traditional exhibits will be revamped in the move to Glenview. “Water Works” will triple in size and the new “Discovery Maze” will be more interactive, with periscopes and mirrors at every turn. But enjoy the sailing ship and “All Aboard” while you can—those exhibits are being retired (except for the L car).
The Kohl Children’s Museum is at 165 Green Bay Rd., Wilmette (through Sept. 4). Hours are 9:30 a.m. to noon Monday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. $6, $5 for seniors, free for kids 1 and under. The new location (opens Oct. 20) is 2100 Patriot Blvd., Glenview. Admission will be $6.50, $5.50 for seniors, free for kids 1 and under. Call (847) 512-1300 or visit www.kohlchildrensmuseum.org.
DuPage Children’s Museum
This museum is a great destination for young families, with three floors of exhibits to explore in a new and exciting building. Its open design and easy traffic flow minimize overcrowding.
It deserves to be around for a long time. But it’s had a few years of financial trouble. Still, the museum recently received a $100,000 donation from a senior citizen housing developer, so it is possible it may make it.
The museum’s water tables are the best around. “WaterWays” is next to the bubble tables, which is convenient since kids are already wearing smocks. Parents also appreciate the sinks for quick and easy hand washing.
DuPage also has the most helpful museum staff I have ever experienced, with at least one person in each exhibit. As the mother of three, I appreciate their friendliness in explaining how things work to my kids. The “Creativity Connections” exhibit has so many tables that we don’t always know how to explore, so having someone to answer questions is key.
The “Build It” carpentry exhibit on the main level is wildly popular because kids get to work with real—not plastic—tools.
Provided they wear safety goggles, children can hammer, saw and drill to build their own creations, which they can take home. A unique and well-planned space, dads seem to enjoy this as much as their kids.
After visiting the main level, we usually go downstairs to wind down. It’s easy to see kids here, giving Mom and Dad a break. The puzzle tables in “Math Connections” are great for one-on-one interaction.
As on the main level, there is a “Young Explorers” area for babies with pillows and infant development toys—perfect for younger siblings.
The DuPage Children’s Museum is at 301 N. Washington St., Naperville. Hours are 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $7, $6 for seniors. Call (630) 637-8000 or visit www.dupagechildrensmuseum.org.
Chicago Children’s Museum
Located at Navy Pier, this is the biggest of the area children’s museums. In fact, it’s so big that one visit is not enough to explore the whole place—especially with small children who last only a couple hours.
And remember, if you are walking from the parking facility or even along the outside walkways, the family has to get through all of the enticing Navy Pier attractions first.
But once you’re in, each room is better than the last. On the entrance level is “Play It Safe,” which lets kids sit in a fire truck and get close to a mannequin in full firefighter gear. It was great exposure for my 2-year-old, who was frightened of the uniform until we talked about it.
The third floor houses most of the exhibits. Highlights include “Dinosaur Expedition,” where kids can unearth dinosaur bones. My kids were frustrated that they couldn’t pick up their discoveries, but loved it when I joined them in the “dirt.”
Across the hall are the preschool exhibits, including “Playmaze” and “Treehouse Trails”—interactive rooms filled with kid-size cars, stores, trees and streams. Locked gates meant I could allow my boys to explore without fear they would wander off.
We wisely saved “WaterWays” for last. Allowing kids to connect pieces of pipe to reroute water flow is a great idea. For some reason, though, they consistently manage to direct that flow at themselves. Even though I stripped my kids down to T-shirts and water smocks, they were soaked down to their shoes when we left. This is better on a hot summer day. But it didn’t bother my boys a bit.
The major drawback to this museum is paying for parking. The fee for the Navy Pier lot on a recent weekend was $22. Add admission and lunch, and it becomes a cost-prohibitive visit for many families. If the weather is nice, there are other parking options and trolley service to Navy Pier.
The Chicago Children’s Museum is at 700 E. Grand, Navy Pier, Chicago. Hours are 10 a.m to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $7, $6 for seniors. Call (312) 527-1000 or visit www.chichildrensmuseum.org.
Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn
The first time I pulled up to this museum, I couldn’t imagine the tiny building providing more than a few minutes of fun.
I was wrong. In fact, the museum’s small size fits toddlers and preschoolers perfectly. There are no concerns about them getting lost or leaving the building. Its nine interactive exhibits are close enough together to accommodate short attention spans and endless curiosity.
With every exhibit in sight, my boys spent the first few minutes running from place to place sampling everything but soon, the water tables at “The Pond” drew them in.
While they splashed, poured and netted plastic water animals, I read the posted explanations of how children learn from each exhibit.
My boys also spent a great deal of time at the “Art Cart.” Materials are readily available and sample projects are displayed as ideas. I encouraged them to create kites since the museum boasts a cool pulley system that flies handmade kites around the room.
Our favorite discovery was our last. “Look Out Point” has two periscopes overlooking a park. My sons were fascinated at seeing outside without windows. The fact they could pull the periscopes up and down and side to side was “superhero cool.”
When we left, the boys recognized the pond and geese they had seen through the periscopes. They asked to return in the summer and have a picnic in the park.
The drawback to this museum is that it is open only for a few hours Wednesday through Saturday, but there are plans to move to a new space with expanded hours.
The museum is at 9600 E. Shore Dr., Oak Lawn. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Admission is $3.50, $3 for kids ages 1-16, free for kids under 1. Call (708) 423-6709 or visit www.cmoaklawn.org.
If your family loves children’s museums, consider a membership to the Association of Children’s Museums (www.childrensmuseums.org), which allows you to visit its member museums throughout the state and the nation.
Alena Murguia, who lives in Berwyn, is the mother of Patrick, Connor and Matthew and works part time for Chicago Parent.