School is just around the corner, which can bring a sense of desperation to the last days of summer. But that isn’t what summer—or life—should be about. So we put together some of our summer favorites. Most are cheap or free; some are worth the big bucks. The key is to make summer memories to warm your family through the coldest Chicago winter.
Look to the skies
The Chicago Air and Water Show is one of Chicago’s gems—free family fun that engages kids for a full afternoon. If you (or your kids) are crowd-averse, don’t watch from North Avenue Beach. Instead, bring a blanket and settle in for a less crowded afternoon at the south end of Monroe Harbor along the Museum Campus. You’ll miss the water show, but you’ll be able to watch over your kids while they search the sky for parachuters or the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. (312) 744-3370, www.cityofchicago.org/specialevents.
Take a ride
No childhood is complete without at least one trip to KIDDIELAND Amusement Park. This magical place in Melrose Park (North and First avenues) has one section with toddler-friendly rides and another with zippier rides that will thrill slightly older kids. Yes, some parts could use a coat of paint and it isn’t as flashy as Great America. But you’ll rarely wait more than 15 minutes for a ride—even on busy summer days. (708) 343-8000, www.kiddieland.com.
Commune with nature
There’s nothing like a good harvest to help kids see the connection between nature and nutrition. August is blueberry month—they are smaller now but have intense flavor. There are several blueberry farms within a few hours of Chicago, such as Billy Boys Blueberry Barn in Michigan City, Ind., (219) 872-7477. Make a day of it. Then head home with your berries and start cooking—blueberry pie, blueberry bread, blueberry pancakes ...
Or have a great time watching others play. Forget the overpriced, overhyped Cubs and White Sox. For pure family fun, head to a minor league field. Our favorite is the Kane County Cougars. Their games are filled with silly contests, giveaways, music and, oh yeah, some pretty good baseball. (630) 232-8811, www.kccougars.com.
Millennium Park may have gone $300 million over budget, but it’s a wonderful addition to the city. There are many spots to explore, but three are guaranteed kid favorites: the Bean, the bridge and the fountain. The Bean, officially called Cloud Gate, still is more than half-covered, but the shiny part that peeks out is perfect for photos or funny faces. Then walk across the BP Pedestrian Bridge—you can enjoy the city views while the kids see how fast they can run down the sloping bridge. End your day at the Crown Fountain, where you can watch the ever-changing photos while the kids cool off in the water. (312) 742-1168, www.millenniumpark.org.
After walking through Lincoln Park Zoo in the sweltering heat for a few hours, take a break on the lagoon. Paddle boats rent by the half-hour. Family-size, four-passenger boats are $12, while the more magical but less spacious swan boats carry two riders and are $16. If the kids are old enough, they’ll get a kick out of paddling (tell them it’s fun, not work) while you enjoy the ride. (312) 742-2000, www.lpzoo.org.
Navigate the pier
Yes, you can spend a week’s pay in a day at Navy Pier. But you don’t have to. Take public transit downtown and catch the free trolley to the pier on a Thursday evening for a free night at the Chicago Children’s Museum. Or go on Wednesday and simply stroll. Start outside where you can admire the skyline and point out the city’s tallest buildings to the kids. Then head inside for the free entertainment and a look at the gorgeous windows of the Smart Musuem of Stained Glass. Then take the trolley back into the Loop for the magical nightly Buckingham Fountain light show. Stick around until 9:30 p.m. for the Wednesday night fireworks at Navy Pier (watch them from the shore along Monroe Harbor) before heading home. (312) 595-PIER, www.navypier.com.
Summer is about ice cream. This year, plan a once-a-week ice cream safari. Take the family to one wonderful ice cream parlor in the Chicago area each week. There are many to choose from, such as the Brown Cow Ice Cream Parlor in Forest Park, www.browncowicecream.com, or Zephyr Cafe in Chicago, www.zephyricecream.com. Order several different things and share.
A ‘Wicked’ pleasure
We have both great live theater and wonderful children’s productions. But nothing beats the big stage. OK, this will cost you, but you are building memories here. Take the kids to see “Wicked” at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, also known as the old Oriental Theatre. This is the story of the other women of Oz, who went on to be the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda, the Good Witch. There are lessons to be learned. Among them: It’s not easy being green. But mostly, things are not what they seem. This is not for little kids—no one under 5 is admitted. Take younger ones to see “The Princess and the Pea” at the Shakespeare Theater instead (see Short Stuff.
Love the lakefront
This is our body (of water) and you need to use it. You could spend days just walking the beaches, which are free and do not close until Labor Day—unless, of course, they are closed due to E. coli. But you can have fun without going into the water. On a clear day, park your car and start at the Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Dr. Walk north on the jogging path to the 18-hole mini golf course at Diversey Parkway. After a round of golf, continue walking north to Montrose Avenue, where you’ll find playgrounds inland and fisherman at the lakefront. At 3600 N. Recreation Dr., stop at the Clock Tower restaurant.
Blink and you will miss them
Fireflies light up the sky and make summer magical. So, watch them. Sit on the grass and enjoy them with your kids. Count them in the sky. If you want to get an old jar, put a few holes in the lid and can catch a few together. Look at them light up the jar. Study these beetles. But don’t keep them too long, or the magic is gone.
Picnic with a book
Take a blanket, sandwiches, water and a few books for your kids and find a park you love. Have a reading picnic. Reading is so important, it deserves a party all to itself.
Dig through Chinatown
If a trip to China exceeds the family budget this year, a tour of Chinatown is the next best thing. Z.J. Tong offers one-hour walking tours for $20 per person. They include lunch at Three Happiness Restaurant. Backpacks or strollers for kids under 5 are recommended. The next tour dates are Aug. 13 and Sept. 10. To reserve a spot, call (312) 842-1988. Or save the money and venture out on your own. Be sure to sample wall-to-wall Asian candy at Aji Ichiban, 2117 S. China Pl., and get a bubble tea—the perfect fruit shake for a hot day—at Joy Yee’s Noodle Shop, 2159 S. China Pl. And learn about a traditional Chinese tea ceremony with tea master Frank Fine at Ten Ren Tea & Ginseng Co., 2447 S. Wentworth Ave., (312) 842-1171.
Starry movie nights
There’s something magical about watching a movie under a ceiling of stars. Free admission is quite magical, too. The Chicago Outdoor Film Festival is showing “E.T.” and “Star Wars” (episode 4) at Butler Field in Grant Park, Monroe Street and Lake Shore Drive. And, to our delight, “Reel History,” an outdoor film festival, is showing “Moby Dick,” “Little Women,” “Oliver Twist,” “David Copperfield” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” at the Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens, 1827 S. Indiana St. Bring a blanket and popcorn and soak up the summer evenings with these classics. See our calendar for dates and times.
Make the fun last
Need a new playground in your neighborhood? The Home Depot and KaBOOM! want to help. The home improvement chain is donating $25 million and scores of volunteer hours to help KaBOOM! build 1,000 playgrounds in 1,000 days. To tell them why one should be in your neighborhood, visit www.kaboom.org.
Susy Schultz is associate publisher and editor of Chicago Parent. Cindy Richards is senior editor and travel editor. Beverly Mendoza is the calendar editor.