Forays into nature tend to produce some of my family's happiest
"remember forever" moments. Whether hiking trails, exploring nature
centers, bird-watching or leaf-collecting, these interactions with
nature seem to draw us closer together, reinforcing our bond while
having a whole lot of fun.
It turns out that despite the hustle and bustle, Chicago and
surrounding communities contain one of the most extensive systems
of urban open space around. Cook County alone boasts 68,000 acres
of forest preserves, and the city and suburbs abound with
opportunities to get out into nature.
Research shows that amazing benefits flow from exploring nature
as a family. According to the Children and Nature Network,
connecting with nature not only provides physical and mental health
benefits, but it also nurtures family bonds and encourages kids to
respect and protect the earth.
However, a recent study by the Outdoor Foundation found that
children's interest and experience with the outdoors is on the
decline, and a Nature Conservancy poll found only 10 percent of
kids report daily outdoor activity.
So what can we do and where can we go to buck the trend and
nurture a love of the wild in our kids? Nature centers are a
fantastic place to start, with their hands-on experiences as well
as trails for hiking and sometimes even live animal exhibits.
Some of our favorite "don't miss" spots include:
Features a large nature center with an extensive collection of
animals (turtles, fish, frogs, snakes, birds, rodents, even a
skunk!), as well as the artifact collection of pioneer naturalist
and explorer James Kennicott. Hiking trails and a pioneer village
surround the nature center. Free admission.
Offers a wide collection of animals to observe (snakes, lizards,
raptors, turtles and a bobcat, among others) and is adjacent to the
breathtaking Middlefork Savanna Interpretive Trail, a historic
farm, and a playground. Free admission.
Glencoe and Lisle
If you're looking for a more cultivated, less "wild"
nature experience, look no farther than the Chicago
Botanic Garden or the Morton
Arboretum where families can wander the paths,
enjoying breathtaking landscapes, blooms, birds and more. Both
gardens offer specialized programming for children and
As the name implies, this gem features an historic schoolhouse,
as well as hiking trails and a visitor center complete with
children's activities, exhibits and live animals (turtles, frogs,
snakes, birds, lizards, etc.). Free admission.