78 free things

To do with your kids before summer is officially over


Jennifer Gilbert, Susy Schultz and Cindy Richards

The school registration packets may be sitting on our dining room tables, but we refuse to accept that summer is over. There's still plenty of time to have fun as a family. Keeping that in mind-along with rising gas prices and tight family budgets-Chicago Parent editors compiled this list of fun stuff to do this month. All for free.

We've thrown in places we know are great, things we want to do and a few creative ideas that have worked for us in the past. We are mixing it all with one piece of sound advice someone gave us along the road to parenthood: Your kids won't remember the great amounts of money you spent on them, but, rather, the great amounts of time you spent with them.

So get out there and enjoy the waning days of summer.

Get out in the 'hoods

Chicago neighborhoods allow you to travel the world without getting on a plane. You and your kids can get a taste of another country just by venturing to another street.

Sample China's culture by browsing through gift shops, peering in the windows or walking through the Chinatown Square Sculpture Garden in Ping Tom Memorial Park. (312) 326-5320, www.chicagochinatown.org.

The streets of New Dehli are as close as walking along Devon Avenue, which offers a unique mix of Indian, Pakistani, Jewish and Russian cultures. The Indian part of Devon runs from 2500 to 2600 on West Devon Avenue. Although this area is full of restaurants, just looking in store windows at saris and glittering jewelry can keep you occupied for hours. Point out to kids the different languages on the signs.

The buildings in the Pilsen neighborhood along 18th and 19th streets are decorated with scores of colorful murals. There are also beautiful pictures inside the free Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. (312) 738-1503, www.mfacmchicago.org.

For the voracious readers in your life, how about Hyde Park? This South Side neighborhood allows you to enjoy historical homes and unique architecture and is littered with wonderful play lots and the great gargoyles at the University of Chicago. If your child has read local author Blue Balliett's books, Chasing Vermeer or The Write 3, spend a day wandering the neighborhood in search of the places featured in Balliett's novels. It will give the kids something to remember when the movie comes out next year.

Poindexter's picks

There are three floors of manageable exhibits at the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, free every Wednesday. It's great for younger kids, who can learn about geology, the environment, Native Americans and the kid-pleaser, dinosaurs. If the lab is open, you can even touch a fossil. (815) 965-3433, www.burpee.org.

For older kids, try the tour at the Chicago Fed Money Museum or the Chicago Main Post Office.

At the Chicago Fed, kids can see counterfeit bills and watch a video on the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. The best part: You get to take home a bag of shredded bills. (312) 322-5322, www.chicagofed.org.

The 90-to 120-minute tour at the Chicago Main Post Office shows visitors where the mail goes after it leaves the mailbox. The automated sorting machines are a big draw. (312) 983-7550.

The International Museum of Surgical Science is free every Tuesday. This may not be everyone's choice, but anytime you can teach kids about X-rays without a trip to the emergency room, it's a good thing. Besides, you get to explore one of the few remaining lakeshore mansions and the only one open to the public. 1524 N. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago. (312) 642-6502, www.imss.org.  

What kid wouldn't marvel at a size 35 shoe? And what adult for that matter? You have to go to the Dr. William M. Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine Museum in North Chicago. Call ahead and they can create a personalized tour with X-rays, foot printing and puppet shows. (847) 578-8417.

The true science enthusiast will enjoy the Lederman Science Center at Fermilab in Batavia, with hands-on exhibits about physics, cells and the galaxy. We like walking around the prairie preserve, which also includes live bison, woodchucks and hawks. (630) 840-8258, ed.fnal.gov.  

The lovely lakefront

The late great Daniel Burnham made sure we all could enjoy Chicago's Lake Michigan by setting up a plan for a construction-free shore. It is a great free place to visit whether you are playing in the water, which is finally not freezing in August, or building a sandcastle on the beach.

From the Kathy Osterman Beach on the North Side, to Calumet Park, which touches the Indiana state border, there's a lot of beach out there and even a connecting lakefront path of more than 18 miles.

And there is always much adventure to be found by just walking or biking. Come prepared with a chicken bone, a piece of string and a bucket, tie the bone to the string, drop it down through the rocks and try to catch a crawfish. If you have a kite, this is the place to fly it. Bring a picnic and a blanket, and just let the day evolve.

Navy Pier is an obvious stop. While you can spend a lot of money at the Pier, it doesn't cost anything to walk around and watch the many performers and people strolling around. Don't miss the fireworks on Wednesday and Saturday nights at sunset. (312) 595-7437, www.navypier.com.  

Our long-time favorite is Buckingham Fountain, which offers a 20-minute light, water and music show every hour until dusk. There are beautiful gardens to wander as well.

We have a new hearthrob, though, in Millennium Park. This amazing cityspace has The Bean (official name: Cloud Gate) sculpture for family photos, the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the site of numerous free summer concerts, the graceful BP Bridge and the fabulous Crown Fountain, perfect for cooling off on a hot summer day. www.millenniumpark.org.

The lakefront also hosts several great free family-friendly events. The Tall Ships cruise into town, docking Aug. 3-9. Looking costs nothing whether the boats are docked on the Chicago River, DuSable Harbor or Navy Pier, although going aboard costs $11 beforehand, $12 onsite.

The Air and Water Show zooms into Chicago Aug. 19 and 20. The U.S. Navy Blue Angels and U.S. Army Parachute Team Golden Knights headline this year. The water show begins at 9 a.m., the air show runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. both days. For the water show, head to North Avenue Beach. For the air show, avoid the crowds, find a spot along Monroe Harbor. www.cityofchicago.org/specialevents.  

Don't forget the stroller-friendly trail along the Chicago River. Start at the Michigan Avenue bridge and head north. Take the dog with you.

We heart art

Budding artists must be fertilized by absorbing the works of other artists. In Chicago, that's easy to do.

The grand dame, of course, is the Art Institute, which is free from 5-9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Head to the Kraft Education Center first. (312) 443-3600, www.artic.edu/aic.  

At The CenterSpace Gallery at Gallery 37, some of the artwork is by artists not much older than your dear ones. The gallery features professional artists and teens in art organizations throughout the city. (312) 744-8925, www.g37centerforthearts.org.

Looking at art keeps kids engaged for only so long. Sliding on art keeps them happy for hours. So don't miss the Picasso statue at the Daley Civic Center Plaza, which also has free entertainment every day at noon.

One of our favorites is the Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park. It features 72 sculptures on two miles of landscaped park. There is a real beauty in just wandering through the park and letting your imagination run wild. Bring a bottle of cold water; there's not much shade. (847) 679-4265, www.sculpturepark.org.  

Hurray for history

Walk through history in the Pullman neighborhood where you can be a part of the first planned model industrial town. (773) 785-8901.

Or go right to the Chicago Water Tower. Not the shopping center, but the real tower down the street on Michigan Avenue. The limestone building, finished in 1869, survived the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Then, walk down the Magnificent Mile. Yes, there are many shops to browse, but the summer garden areas along the street have lovely oversized butterflies.

Every child should hear the story of Jane Addams to learn how one person can make a difference. The Hull-House Museum is for older kids and focuses on Addams' work on juvenile justice, fair housing and wages. (312) 413-5353, www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull.  

Experience the life of a middle-class family before the Civil War at the Clarke House Museum free on Wednesdays. There are also five acres of gardens. (312) 745-0040.

To see the other side of life (in historical terms, at least), head to Cantigny in Wheaton and The Cuneo Museum in Vernon Hills.

Cantigny features a 35-room mansion owned by the McCormicks and Medills, owners of the Chicago Tribune, and hosts free concerts throughout the month, although you have to pay to park. (630) 668-5161, www.cantignypark.com.

The Cuneo offers kids a chance to visit one of the few surviving 20th century manor homes. The mansion is full of antiques, tapestries and paintings while the gardens feature a tropical plant conservatory, deer and peacocks. Admission is free, but tours and parking cost. (847) 362-3042, www.cuneomuseum.org.  

Or visit the Blackberry Harvest Dollhouse Museum and Shoppe in Homewood. Watch owner Collette Renfro make new miniatures while exploring her collection of doll-sized log cabins, barns, pueblos and farmhouses. (708) 957-4332.

For quiet beauty, visit the Baha'i House of Worship, Wilmette. Tours, daily 11 a.m.-4 p.m., explain the building's construction and the faith. (847) 853-2300, www.us.bahai.org.

To visit the shapers of Chicago history, try Graceland Cemetery in Chicago. It's been around since 1860, and you'll find Chicago stars such as Allan Pinkerton and Marshall Field. Free maps are available at the office. (773) 525-1105, www.gracelandcemetery.org.

We love a parade 

The city of Chicago hosts dozens of parades every year, including several this month. For details, visit the Mayor's Office of Special Events page, www.cityofchicago.org/specialevents.  

Aug. 6. OK, this is not a parade and it's not in Chicago. The Annual Car show starts at noon at McCarthy Park, Tinley Park. (708) 342-4200, www.tinleyparkdistrict.org.

Aug. 12. The Bud Biliken Day Parade kicks off at 10 a.m. running from Oakwood Boulevard to 55th Avenue. Stay for the party in Washington Park.

Aug. 13. The Independence of Ecuador Parade starts at noon from Montrose and California avenues and heads west on Montrose to Kimball Avenue.

Aug. 13. The Pakistan Independence Parade starts at 12:30 p.m. along Devon Avenue from Ridge to Western avenues with a festival following.

Aug. 19. The India Independence Parade starts at noon along Devon Avenue from Western to California avenues.

Aug. 26. The Englewood Back to School Parade begins at 11:30 a.m. at 83rd Street and Loomis Avenue to Loomis Park.

Out in the outdoors

Free on Thursdays, The Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago is a favorite for younger kids. There are exhibits on prehistoric animals, green technology, animal homes and an amazing butterfly habitat with up to 75 different species. (We admit to actually having spiritual moments here-no matter how silly it sounds.) The prairie grasses and ponds around the center are great for walks and talks. (773) 755-5100, www.chias.org.  

Some of our other outdoor favorites are The Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in Willow Springs-salamanders, snakes and falcons in a 19th century schoolhouse. It also has three miles of hikeable woodland, prairie and wetland trails. (708) 839-6897, www.fdpcc.com. There are another 3.5 miles of trail at the Lake Katherine Nature Center and Botanic Gardens, Palos Heights. (708) 361-1873. www.palosheights.org/lake. 

In Chicago, stop at the 46-acre wilderness oasis, North Park Village Nature Center, which includes a nature preserve and an educational facility. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, the center also accepts recycling. (312) 744-5472, www.chicagoparkdistrict.com.  

Don't forget the Lincoln Park Zoo with more than 1,100 animals, including the new Children's Zoo and the Farm-in-the-Zoo exhibit. But take public transportation, parking rates are astronomical. (312) 742-2000, www.lpzoo.org.  

The Indian Boundary Zoo is another gem. It has alpacas, cows and goats along with a children's spray pool, playground and picnic area. (312) 742-7862.

Or take a bike ride-wearing your helmet and other appropriate protective gear, of course.

The Tinley Creek Trail offers 20.5 miles of paved path and loops through the Tinley Creek Forest Preserve between 131st and 151st streets and Central and 80th avenues in Tinley Park. Visit www.dot.il.gov/bikemap/bikehome.htm to order a free map of regional bike trails.

You can't talk about nature in the Chicago area without talking fish. You might not be able to eat everything you catch, but you can sure have fun dropping in a line, which is free. Even the equipment is free from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' Access to Fishing Equipment loan program. Borrow rods with a tackle package at several Chicago and suburban locations. Visit www.dnr.state.il.us/fish/index.htm, and scroll down to the "Access to Fishing" links. Then click on Chicago or northeastern Illinois. Identification is required, so call ahead to find out what type of ID you need or call the Urban Fishing Program for a location near you. (847) 294-4134. Oops, fishing for the kids is free. Adult anglers need a license.

Stop for storytime

There's nothing like a story to get kids' attentions. Listen for free at most public libraries. Storytime at the Thomas Hughes Children's Library in the Harold Washington Library Center is 11 a.m. Thursday-registration required for groups of six or more. (312) 747-4200, www.chipublib.org.  

Or try your neighborhood children's bookstore for free storytime.

Most of the big chains offer them, as do your wonderful local independent bookstore, including Anderson's Bookshop in Downers Grove at 10 a.m. Saturday for ages 3-6, (630) 963-2665; Barbara's Bookstore at University of Illinois at Chicago, at 11 a.m. Saturdays, (312) 413-2665, www.barbarasbookstore.com; Crocodile Pie in Libertyville at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday-Friday for ages 2-6, (847) 362-8766, www.crocodilepie.com, and The Magic Tree Bookstore in Oak Park, at 11 a.m. Friday for preschoolers, (708) 848-0770, www.magictreebookstore.com.  

Noteworthy events

We've covered math, science, art and history, but no list would be complete without mentioning the free concerts throughout the city and suburbs. In addition to the Millennium Park concerts, Grant Park hosts two music events at the end of summer: 17th Annual Viva! Chicago Latin Music Festival, Aug. 26-27, and the 28th Annual Chicago Jazz Festival, which starts Aug. 31; www.cityofchicago.org/specialevents.  

In the suburbs, the Elgin Symphony Orchestra offers a free outdoor concert Aug. 4 at Elgin's Wing Park. (847) 888-4000, www.elginsymphony.org. Or hear the Tinley Park Jazz Band and Community Chorale at 6 p.m. Aug. 20. Bring your own chair to McCarthy Park. (708) 342-4200, www.tinleyparkdistrict.org.

Do you hear bells?

There's 72 of them in a 160-foot tower at the Naperville Millennium Carillon and a concert at 7 p.m. every Tuesday. The tower also has a TV monitor so kids can see the musicians. (630) 428-4239, www.napervillecarillon.org.

Rockefeller Memorial at the University of Chicago also offers carillon concerts at noon and 6 p.m. every weekday. Tours are offered 30 minutes before each concert. (773) 702-2100.

Kids Eat Chicago

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