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 families.
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.