“Sorry, we can’t.”
“Not yet, but maybe when…”
“No, honey, it’s just not safe.”
The past two years of the pandemic were exhausting for nearly everyone, but for parents, the added layer of having to say some version of “no” multiple times a day to pleading kiddos has felt particularly repetitive — and exponentially tiresome.
That is, until now?
Although the promise of a post-pandemic summer isn’t guaranteed — the risk of a potential new variant could rattle our plans at any time — things are certainly looking up. As COVID-19 cases have plummeted and safety protocols have relaxed, this might be the first season families are able to finally breathe a mask-optional sigh of relief and give their kiddos a long-overdue “yes.”
Still, coming off of two summers that had more rules than Monopoly, parents may have a hard time relearning how to let loose.
From a checklist of must-experience moments, to expert-backed tips to navigate your family’s re-entry, to how packing for a day out may look a little different with little ones, we’ve got your guide to your most carefree summer yet. (Or, you know, your most carefree summer of the past few summers …)
Chicago Summer Bucket List
After a few straight summers without much need for schedule keeping, this one promises to be action packed. New attractions are arriving and previously shuttered festivals are back to their pre-pandemic size and scope. Before it fills up, consider adding these family-friendly delights to your calendar.
Play catch on game day at Gallagher Way. Whenever the Cubs are playing at home, Gallagher Way allows ticket holders to stop by before or after the ballgame at no extra charge. It’s the perfect time to sip local brews, play a game of catch in the plaza with your kids, and pay a visit to the 2016 World Series Trophy on display seven days a week.
Get a sugar rush at the Original Rainbow Cone. A rare line worth waiting in these days is the one wrapped around this iconic South Side shop with the pink stucco exterior. That’s because it gets you the namesake Rainbow Cone, a classic sugar cone topped with colorful layers of chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (that’s New York vanilla with cherries and walnuts), pistachio and orange sherbet.
Reach new heights at ClimbZone. In need of a little indoor (air-conditioned) action? The recently opened ClimbZone — the first in Illinois — lets your kids climb Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and, well, a giant computer keyboard. The sky quite literally is the limit at this imaginative facility, which features 68 themed walls, a soft, toddler-friendly play space, rope courses and a laser tag arena.
Dive into the Museum of Ice Cream.
The interactive art installation that started a trend of Instagram-ready “museums” back in 2016 will have a permanent home in the Tribune Tower. Known for its ball pit-style pool of oversized sprinkles, which may have felt a touch risky at the height of the pandemic, it’s sure to provide sweet photo opps — and free samples! Photo courtesy of Museum of Ice Cream
Get to know Chicago’s neighborhoods better than your own. There’s nothing quite like summer and all of the neighborhood fests that come with all the flavors and sounds of the neighborhood to really feel one with the Windy City. Most offer kid-friendly activities and music. Add in all the happenings in the suburbs and you could have something unique to do nearly every weekend this summer. (No one will judge any added pounds from tasty treats.)
Cross the finish line at Kids Run This City. After its inaugural races in 2019, the children’s running series switched to virtual in 2020 and went on hiatus in 2021, which means its return to Lincoln Park this May is hotly anticipated by the 12-and-under crowd determined to medal in either the 1K, 2K or 3K event. (Spoiler alert: every participant walks — or runs — away with a medal!)
Stay up late for the fireworks at Navy Pier.
In Chicago, you don’t have to wait until the Fourth of July to watch a fireworks display. If you’re willing to delay bedtime by a few hours, you can enjoy a free, 15-minute spectacle over Lake Michigan. The shows take place twice a week, with two showings a night — all summer long at Navy Pier!
Show your support at the Chicago Pride Parade. Be sure to claim your spot early to see the rainbow-bedecked floats! The popular pride parade, which celebrates the LGBTQ+ community, returns to its usual path —starting in Uptown and ending in Lincoln Park — after being canceled the past two years. Similarly, Chicago Pride Fest, the annual all-ages street festival, makes a welcome comeback in Northalsted.
Come hungry to the Taste of Chicago. It feels like forever since the world’s largest free-admission outdoor food festival graced Grant Park with all the deep dish, Italian beef and Portillo’s hot dogs your kids could eat. Although only a bite-sized version of the lakefront extravaganza will return this year — with 30 to 40 eateries and food trucks over a three-day span — the event will also sponsor pop-ups throughout June in select neighborhoods.
Be one of the cool kids. Lollapalooza and its kid-friendly sibling Kidzapalooza are back and ready to rock your world this summer. Tickets are already on sale so best hurry to make this huge music fest a memory for the kids.
Look to the sky at the Chicago Air and Water Show.
After being canceled in 2020 and showcasing a singular performance by the US Navy Blue Angels in 2021, the beloved event will return for a two-day spectacle, complete with low-flying supersonic stunts that are sure to wow audiences of all ages — and warrant the purchase of some pint-sized noise-canceling headphones.
Your Day Trip Packing List: Then Vs. Now
A wallet with your ID and credit card.
A wallet with your ID, credit card, health insurance card, COVID vaccination cards for you and the kids, three different library cards, a membership card to a museum you are determined to use once this year, a buy-10-get-1-free punch card you never remember to use at the frozen yogurt shop you’ve gone to dozens of times this month.
An extra pair of sunglasses
Spare diapers (at least one for every two hours away from home!), wipes, burp cloths, and, once potty trained, an extra pair of underpants, socks and pants.
A bottle of sunscreen
Six bottles of sunscreen — the mineral-based one they always refuse but you’re determined to try every single time, the stick version of that mineral-based one, the one where the cap turns blue in the sun, and the one they will actually just-barely tolerate in varying SPFs: 30, 75, and 100. (You forgot your fancy $65 facial sunscreen on the bathroom counter.)
A protein bar
An assortment of fruit pouches, a baggie of half-crushed Goldfish crackers, a not-quite-leak-proof sippy cup, a banana with a single brown spot that makes it entirely inedible, and a few loose, stale Cheerios hiding out at the bottom of your bag.
How to navigate your family’s return to normalcy
Even for the most COVID-fatigued family, the return of a “normal” summer — ahem, packed crowds, long lines and high temps — may be trickier to traverse than expected. Whether you’re ready to go big or inclined to go straight home, Dawn Livorsi, a staff therapist with The Family Institute at Northwestern University, has advice to keep your cool in every scenario.
Start off simple.
You might think your kids are ready to jump feet first into a freewheeling summer, but keep in mind: COVID has been a factor in nearly every decision concerning them — at home and at school — for years.
“I’d recommend small steps to reintegrate,” Livorsi says. “As opposed to jumping into a multiday summer camp or a pool party, start with an afternoon playdate that feels manageable, especially if they need to acclimate to the experience of being away from home or away from parents.”
Ease gradually into one experience before piling on another, and be OK with backtracking as needed.
In fact, it’s normal for even the calmest of kids to be nervous about new activities, Livorsi says, “considering all the starts and stops we’ve had.” Sure, it may be disappointing to realize even preschoolers aren’t as uninhibited as they might have been if not for the past two years. “But listening to their concerns and then normalizing and validating them as a universal experience that we’re all managing is important,” she says.
Make a plan –– but be flexible.
Even for those families who’ve hit up masked museums and events, most venues had limited occupancy to account for social distancing. Now, with spaces at maximum capacity, it’s important to prepare kids for what that means in practice.
“Some kids have never been out to experience these things,” says Livorsi. “It’s an opportunity for families to do some creative problem-solving, to think through what could come up.” Do they have fears about getting lost? Being jostled or pushed? Discuss each scenario.
Eating inside a restaurant, waiting in a long line for a public restroom, or changing up a routine (a skipped nap, for instance) all come with a learning curve if you haven’t done it in awhile. Teaching kids age-appropriate ways to regulate their emotions — like taking deep breaths or even a sip of water — can help them to redirect distressing feelings and soothe themselves if ever these experiences start to feel like too much.
Life rarely goes as planned even without the ebbs and flows of an ongoing pandemic, so Livorsi suggests parents set realistic expectations and help prepare kids for all possibilities — including the bummer of a canceled event or the reversal of a mask mandate. “We need to give them some sense of predictability, but in the times that we’re in, we still have to be flexible.”
Expect resistance –– but watch for red flags.
Parents should expect to see some common symptoms as kids transition back to more typical gatherings. They may be clingy or show separation anxiety, they may be irritable, they may exhibit different eating habits or they may experience regressions — like accidents after being successfully potty trained or the return of a kicked thumb-sucking habit.
“Much of that is going to be managed with some experience,” Livorsi says. “They go out, they do it a few times and they get more comfortable.” Patience is paramount, as is allowing every member of the family to go at the pace that’s right for them: “For some kids, the best thing for them might be to sit in the discomfort of it and realize that they can do it, while some may just not be there yet. In that case, take a step back and figure out how to better prepare them for next time.”
If, however, worry is eliciting outbursts or impacting their ability to function in day-to-day tasks, it might be time to seek additional support, such as counseling.
“They’ve missed a lot already, so if they’re now missing birthday parties or day camps at the local park, we should address it,” she says. “We don’t want them to miss out on anything else.”
Acknowledge your own anxieties, too.
Just as parents need to support their children’s re-emergence, they need to do the same for themselves. “They’re going to have to figure out how to manage their anxiety so that it doesn’t impair their kids’ experiences,” Livorsi says. “If you send your kid out the door biting your nails, your kid is going to feel nervous, too.”
It might feel like an act of treason to watch your child sneeze (into their elbow, of course!) in public and not turn six shades of red and apologize to everyone in a quarter-mile radius, but letting go of some of those knee-jerk responses is a good starting place.
Her key advice? Focus only on what you can control. “You can’t control what others do,” she says. “But you can make decisions for your family based on your best judgment.”
And, Livorsi says, it bears repeating: “Remember to give yourself permission to have fun.”
A special note to ...
Those who became parents during the pandemic:
Although they’re new to parenting, Livorsi advises parents of pandemic babies — or, now, pandemic toddlers — to trust themselves. “There’s going to be a lot of people who’ve missed you and are clamoring to see your baby, but be sure to take it slower,” she says. “Don’t succumb to the pressure to go back to normal — because there has been no normal for you to go back to.”
A special note to ...
Those who lost the last years with “kids” at home:
Many parents are mourning the loss of two crucial years with their growing kids, who’ve since graduated into tweens or teens no longer interested in participating in family outings. “What’s unfortunate is we can’t go back and try to force it — that would be a mistake,” Livorsi says. “There’s some grief in that, in knowing they’ve surpassed this developmental stage of your collective lives.” Instead of dragging your kids to some version of forced family fun, she suggests a collaboration. “Ask them what they’d suggest doing that everyone would like.”
You Can Stay:
Pandemic-Era Pastimes We Don’t Want to Go Away
Not everything that came about as a consequence of COVID was a bad thing. A short list of what we hope will stick around for good:
Park picnics. Meeting up with friends for lunch al fresco doesn’t have to require a 45-minute wait for the next available patio table. An oversized blanket on a shady patch of grass works just fine. And, now it’s safe enough to go potluck! Just no double-dipping in the hummus, mkay?
Nature preserve playdates. There’s no need to turn your playroom into a disaster area when you can coax your kiddos to meet up in the great outdoors. With nearly 69,000 acres of natural areas in Chicagoland, there’s no shortage of space to explore.
A ‘rain or shine’ attitude. Eight seasons of being forced to socialize outside has taught most families how to make due with inconvenient weather. Raining? Just grab the galoshes and go!
Prefer to Get a Bit
Heading to the airport with kids was stressful pre-pandemic. Consider this advice before booking your flight.
Summer is the busiest travel season, and Fridays are, year-round, the busiest travel day of the week. You’re sure to face excessive crowds, and if you add the occasional weather delay, you run the risk of a longer-than-expected stay at your departure gate.
Check the requirements at your destination.
Particularly if you are traveling internationally, you’ll want to be sure you have the most up-to-date intel on rules surrounding COVID testing and possible quarantine procedures. If any step is confusing, call your airline and ask to connect with its official testing hotline.
Pack extra masks.
If the TSA’s mask mandate remains in place, you’ll want to be sure you have extras of the style your children prefer in case they get wet or dirty.
Board the plane first.
Normally, it’s nice to let kids run around the gate as long as possible before they are saddled into cramped airplane seats, but extra time (and space!) to wipe down surfaces is worth the request for early boarding.
Many airlines have paused snack and beverage service, so be sure to have enough granola bars and trail mix to go around. Also, don’t forget about you! A hangry parent doesn’t stand a chance.