Nature Centers Are the Perfect Place for Play and Learning

Kids discover the wonders of their local environments at the Forest Preserves of Cook County Nature Centers.

It’s summertime and you’ve heard the dreaded words: “I’m bored.” Time to get your kids outside!

If you’re looking for a fun few hours or even a whole day out with the family, put the Forest Preserves of Cook County Nature Centers at the top of your list. Each Nature Center offers year-round events, activities for all ages and classes designed for families. And if you’re looking for affordability, visiting the Nature Centers is free!

“We combine hands-on activities, sensory experiences and play-based learning to engage children’s curiosity and imagination,” says Michele Mottlowitz, Director of the River Trail Nature Center in Northbrook. “We want families to have an incredible time and make visiting the Nature Centers not a one-time outing, but something that becomes a tradition for the family.”

Mottlowitz says that in her 32 years with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, she has seen generational visitors to the Nature Centers. “I often hear from guests who used to come here as a child and now they bring their own children or even their grandchildren!”

Learning through nature play

Nature play allows kids to observe their environments and understand how they are a part of them.

For example, at River Trail, a program for younger children called Small Serendipity includes nature stories and crafts. “These activities center around seasonal themes and provide a great introduction to the natural world,” Mottlowitz says. 

Additional Nature Center programs offer a variety of themes like butterflies, bird migration, water systems and plant ecosystems.

A skilled and enthusiastic staff engages kids by talking about plants and animals they see daily. “We don’t talk about things in other parts of the world like you may find at the zoo. We talk about what is local to Cook County,” says Mottlowitz. Focusing on local habitats and ecosystems helps build kids’ interest in their environment. Plus, it can encourage kids’ feelings of stewardship for their natural surroundings.

“Sometimes minute details are the most fascinating to children,” she adds. “When I’m on a trail walk I like to focus on the smallest possible insect and have the children observe it. This helps show them how exciting and complex nature is. Often these tiny details are what inspires a child’s passion for nature and the outdoors.”

Mottlowitz points out that each of the Nature Centers offers unique outdoor play areas. “We have nature play spaces, including safe climbing areas and other one-of-a-kind spaces. We offer more than a structured playground down the street or even in their backyard.”

Interactive and inclusive activities

Each Nature Center hosts activities in the indoor areas as well as outdoor spaces. Bring your child to the space that resonates most with them, Mottlowitz suggests, and that will be a gateway to wanting to learn more.

“Getting children involved in exploring Nature Center activities indoors is a way to get them interested in exploring the outdoors,” says Mottlowitz. “It’s a natural progression.”

People who have never set foot inside one of the Nature Centers are surprised by how much they offer. You’ll find all types of exhibits, and activities, plus a space to sit and observe the beautiful outdoor spaces. Most sites even have live animal exhibits featuring local creatures for kids to observe. “We are some of the only Nature Centers in the country with live animal exhibits,” says Mottlowitz.

Additionally, Nature Centers host events that showcase diverse cultures and promote community engagement. This helps kids to understand how nature, health and culture are all interconnected, says Mottlowitz. “We’ve got events happening all year long at each site,” Mottlowitz adds.

Inclusivity and accessibility are important parts of the programming, too. “Our Little Red Schoolhouse center hosts an entire event that teaches how nature is accessible,” says Mottlowitz. “This site also features a 6,000-square-foot garden with an accessible trail.” All sites offer accommodations.

“We strive to create a supportive and inclusive environment where all children can take part,” says Mottlowitz. You can learn more about accessibility at the Forest Preserves of Cook County website.

Visit all six Forest Preserve of Cook County Nature Centers

“Each of our Nature Centers has a different landscape, activities, trails and a unique water feature. We invite you to visit them all,” says Mottlowitz.

Whatever your child’s interests, Forest Preserves of Cook County Nature Centers can engage them. A simple walk on one of the Nature Center trails is a great place to start, explains Mottlowitz. 

“One of the best things about our Nature Centers is that we have the most magical resource of all – nature itself.”

Crabtree Nature Center Barrington, IL

Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center Willow Springs, IL

River Trail Nature Center Northbrook, IL

Sagawau Environmental Learning Center Lemont, IL

Sand Ridge Nature Center South Holland, IL

Trailside Museum of Natural History River Forest, IL

Discover all that Forest Preserves of Cook County Nature Centers have to offer at

Jennifer Kales
Jennifer Kales
Content editor Jennifer Kales has been in the business of writing for more than 20 years creating advertising copy, blogs, books and everything in between. She loves helping Chicago Parent clients tell their stories in a way that resonates with audiences.


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