Beat back summer brain drain at these Chicago hot spots


We're midway through summer and you can already see everything your kids learned in school slipping away like the waterdrops off their swimsuits. It's time to start thinking about heading off complete summer brain drain.

Luckily, the Chicago area offers plenty of opportunities to have some fun while sneaking in a little learning about history, art and geography.

Here are a few ideas to make sure little brains stay engaged the rest of the summer.

Family outings can be easily adapted depending on the age of the child, and activities before or after a visit to a local landmark can supplement what you've learned.


Celebrate history

Chicago and its suburbs offer hands-on opportunities to learn about the history of those who settled the land. Step back into life on a farm in the 1890s at Kline Creek Farm in West Chicago. One of the kid favorites (this will surprise most moms and dads) is the farm chores programs, says Keith McClow, education site manager for Kline Creek.

"One of our biggest ones is the laundry process. They want to do it again and again with the scrub board and the soap," McClow says. Mom's farm chores are highlighted on Mondays; dad's are featured on Thursdays. During dad's farm chores programs, kids erect a scaled-down version of a timber-framed farmhouse.

"It's small enough for kids to lift the pieces and assemble, and then they can climb up on it and see how sturdy it is," McClow says. Kids also like collecting the eggs from the chicken coop or listening to stories from that time period.

To supplement the learning, visit your library for books by Laura Ingalls Wilder or Elsie Dinsmore, two young girls who wrote about life in pioneer times, McClow says.


Take a walk on the wild side

An African safari isn't in the cards for this summer, but luckily we have two world-class zoos filled with animals from around the world. Instead of just dragging kids from ape house to reptile house to the way-too-expensive gift shop, try taking shorter trips focused on a single animal. Kids can study animal behavior or use field guides to identify the animals in a specific exhibit.

"This might be a great activity for parents and kids this summer to learn about the science of animal behavior and then try out some of the things they learned when they visit the zoo," says Leah Melber, the Lincoln Park Zoo's director of student and teacher programs.

  • Take our interactive Lincoln Park Zoo for Little Feet tour
  • Check out zoos' online educational guides (Brookfield's is here and Lincoln Park's is here). Lincoln Park Zoo has "Zoo Tracks" on a number of different themes. Each guide highlights five species of animals living in various locations around the zoo. Pull up fact sheets about different animals on the website, then visit the zoo. Zoo Tracks offer questions to consider when you see the animal.
  • Or, print out the "Species Safari" field guides that focus on either the Regenstein African Journey or the Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House. To gear up for the visit, parents and kids can research the animals they'll be seeking out and learn about them from the fact sheets on the website, Melber says.
  • For older kids, visit Ethograms are a list of possible behaviors an animal might exhibit, and researchers use this list when conducting studies, Melber says. Kids can print out ethogram data sheets for different species, not only those at the zoo but ones found at home such as squirrels, cats and dogs.

Get artsy

Chicago's art museums give kids a chance to learn about artists and create a little art of their own.

The Elmhurst Art Museum offers summertime drop-in programs that are free with admission. The museum's staff teaches classes about one of the exhibitions and guides children as they create a project based on this artistic influence. The drop-in programs are from 10 a.m.-noon Wednesdays and Fridays. Fridays are also free admission days, so you can do the whole morning without opening your wallet. The drop-in programs are for all ages, even the very young.

The Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art also offer programs throughout the summer for kids to learn about artists and create a piece of their own to take home.


Go ethnic

Chicago has a wealth of opportunities for learning about other countries and cultures.

Chinatown is one of the few ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago that's more than just a commercial district-families make their home here, so visitors are truly immersed in the language, colors and customs of the Far East. Visit one of the many stores for trinkets, snag a large bag of fortune cookies for a bargain at a bakery, or grab a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants. If the weather's nice, pack a picnic and sit along the river at Ping Tom Memorial Park.

Tour: Chicago for Little Feet tour

To learn about our country's Mexican heritage, visit the National Museum of Mexican Art, a free museum in the heart of the Pilsen neighborhood whose brightly colored artwork will even appeal to young children. Follow up the museum by trying out some traditional Mexican dishes at nearby Nuevo Leon (1515 W. 18th St.), where food is cheap and portion sizes are huge (cash only). On nice summer days, street vendors sell mangos and traditional Mexican popsicles. Pilsen is by the Chicago River, 16th Street, Western Avenue and Canal Street

Tour: Pilsen


Hit the beaches

With the miles and miles of Lake Michigan shoreline in the city and the suburbs, consider doing a little beachcombing when you visit. While we don't have the exotic starfish and seashells found near the ocean, there's plenty here to interest kids while encouraging a little learning.

Related: The 10 kid-friendliest beaches in Chicago

At Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, north of the city, little beachcombers will find almost two miles of unspoiled shoreline to explore. In addition to beach glass and driftwood of all shapes and sizes, kids can look for impressions of coral or other ancient animals and plants.

"There are large white outcroppings, like a sea wall, and if you're climbing on them you can see that quite a few have fossils embedded in them," says Jamie Zaplatosch, education director for Openlands.

Consider bringing a sketch book and having kids make drawings or rubbings of what they find, says Charles Mutschuller, Openlands' communication director. Capture it with a photograph or video.

Or find a nature center closer to home to look for plants, trees and rocks. Consider packing a Peterson guide to help identify what you see. Or take photos of the plant life or fossils and identify them at home, using books from the library.


5 more ways to stay sharp

Get tips from the experts! We asked five Chicago Public School teachers how to keep kids sharp over the summer at home - read what they said!

Kids Eat Chicago

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