Passport to America

Museum lets kids experience life

Immigration isn’t really a kid word. But through hands-on exhibits—including a milk-able cow—the Children’s Museum of Immigration on the third floor of the Swedish American Museum helps children understand a complicated concept.

"We want kids to think about where they’re from," explains Kerstin Lane, the museum’s executive director. "It starts discussion. Everyone comes from some place."

When they enter, kids are handed a passport and a boat ticket—both paper copies of original 19th century immigration documents from the museum’s archives—that people coming from Sweden to America would have received.

Tickets in hand, kids board a miniature steamer and go into a cabin with low-slung ceiling, giving them a good feel for how tight and crowded ships’ quarters were.

When they arrive in America, kids can explore a log cabin and garden, complete with vegetables for making Swedish stew. They can practice milking a small wooden cow—water even comes out when they tug on the cow’s udders. Kids can also don aprons before heading into a kitchen.

"It’s a great place for kids. They can really pretend here," says mom Halie Gordon, who brought her children, Finn, 3, and Sadie, 19 months, to the museum on a Friday afternoon.

"It depends on the age, but they can imagine people used to live in a place like this, that this was their livelihood," she says. "It gives kids a sense of appreciation."

Beyond immigration

Though the journey to America and the life of early immigrants dominates this Andersonville neighborhood museum, the colorful space is also peppered with Swedish heritage exhibits, including a Viking ship and tributes to U.S. astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who is Swedish.

Kids can board the ship, move the oars and draw up a sail. Lane says the museum is looking to add more Viking exhibits in the future, as well a model of Aldrin’s lunar module.

The children’s exhibits are geared for kids ages 3 to 12, but the museum’s lessons on the immigrant experience, Swedish history and culture and the spirit of exploration are more likely to hit home with older kids, says Gordon.

The museum, located at 5211 N. Clark St., is open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Admission to both the main and children’s museums is $4 for adults, $3 for children, students and seniors, and free for children under 1. Admission is free on the second Tuesday of every month. For more information, call (773) 728-8111 or visit

Katharine Grayson

Kids Eat Chicago

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