The preschool parents’ guide to Chicago museums

When you have preschoolers (or toddlers), a trip to a museum may seem like a daunting task! Will they get anything out of it? Is it worth the drive, the cost, the hassle? My answer is a resounding YES! Even coming from the far suburbs, our museum trips are some of my favorite outings and ones that my 3-year-old talks about constantly. So pick something your kid loves from the list below and see which museum is the best fit.

If your kid wants to be Buzz LightYear …

Field Museum’s Sue


Head to: Adler Planetarium

If you haven’t been to the Planetarium since your schools days, a lot has changed and it’s a great place for kids! The first place you must go is Planet Explorers, the hands-on learn-through-play area that was created for the littlest visitors. If your kids can handle IMAX movies check out the ‘One World One Sky’ show which features their favorite characters from Sesame Street.

Free days: Feb. 20 (President’s Day), Feb. 21–24

Don’t miss: Young Explorers’ Mondays, where children and their families can try stellar hands-on activities.

If under the sea is where your kids want to be …

Head to: Shedd Aquarium

The Shedd Aquarium is an amazing site for little ones that love water. Whether your child wants to find Dory, is obsessed with dolphins or dreams of being a mermaid, they will be awed and enchanted here. If you have younger kids that are content being in a stroller or walking then skip all the add ons and just get basic admission to the main galleries. There is more than enough on the main floor to fill a day with wonder. If your child is a runner, you will want to add on the Oceanarium and head to the Polar Play Zone. Here kids can waddle and slide like penguins, explore caves and watch the whales in the underwater viewing area.

Free days: Feb. 10-14, 21, 27-28

Don’t miss: Feeding time in the Caribbean Reef. Stake out a spot early and watch divers swim among the fish and answer your questions.

If dinosaurs are the only things your kid talks about …

Head to: The Field Museum

Yes, there is so much more to the Field Museum than dinosaurs, BUT the dinosaurs are pretty awesome. Here’s a trick to make it work best for the under five crowd, park at Soldier Field and go in the East Entrance (It looks like you’re entering through a back door.). The Crown Family PlayLab is just steps inside that entrance. When my son was very young we would come in, visit the PlayLab and leave. He had no idea how big the museum was. The PlayLab is included with general admission and is geared for ages 2-6, although there are areas where crawlers can play.

Free days: All of February

Don’t miss: The Discovery Squad and Meet a Scientist. Located on the main level, these kiosks give kids some hands-on fun and learning. On our last visit we got to see cool bugs and weird creatures that movie monsters were based on.

If your child’s imaginary friends are fairies or they are obsessed with engines …

Head to: The Museum of Science and Industry

MSI is unabashedly my favorite museum. I could visit monthly. It helps it’s the only museum that all four of my children–boys, girls, young and old–can agree on and find something they want to do and enjoy. Your little fairy lovers need to see the newly restored Colleen Moore Fairy Castle. It’s a feast for the eyes and the ultimate game of I spy. If your children are into motors, whether that be cars, planes or boats, there is something here to inspire and entertain them and it’s all included in general admission!

Don’t miss: The Idea Factory, located on the lower level. It includes soft play for crawlers and water play and science fun for children 10 and under. It’s free with admission but capacity is limited so a wait time may be involved. *Pro-tip: If there is a wait list, leave one parent in line and go check out the circus exhibit that is right next to it. If you are willing to splurge, see Brick by Brick. There is lots to learn about architecture and tons of fun and hands-on activities for kids, plus Legos.

If your child is a Junior Eco Warrior …

Head to: Notebaert Nature Museum

Little explorers will love climbing about the Hands on Habitat or playing with water in the River Works. You will love the Butterfly Sanctuary that features waterfalls, birds and, of course, hundreds of butterflies. My nature explorer didn’t want to leave.

Free days: Thursdays

Don’t miss: Toddler Time on Thursdays in February. Visitors with strollers can enjoy early admission at 8:30 a.m., complimentary coffee and early-childhood-focused programming. With a new theme each week, young visitors will interact with favorite exhibits in new ways, and enjoy play and story time.

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