Even before the PBS show Wild Kratts became an obsession in our house, my kids have loved animals. They would be thrilled if we went to the zoo every weekend. To keep them from putting costumes on our cat to make him more interesting (“Look mom, it’s a stegameowus; a very rare cat dinosaur!”), I have found a few places where they can see animals year round without having to pack up for a day at the zoo (or brave the low temperatures!). An added bonus is that these animals are all native so they get to learn about our local natural areas in the process.
Prairie Grass Nature Museum
860 Hart Road, Round Lake
Located in the Aquatics Center building this small free museum is perfect for little ones who like to see animals, but don’t have the stamina for a long drive or a day at a large museum. It focuses on the ecology of Lake County, and Illinois prairie and wetlands. Every month they have a free activity to do while at the museum, as well as live animals and realistic habitats. Classes and special events are a part of the Round Lake Area Park District. The museum is open Tues.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-4p.m. and Sat., 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Be sure to follow them on Facebook for special events and classes.
Wildlife Discovery Center at Elawa Farm
1401 Middlefork Drive, Lake Forest
This is another free museum that is a hidden gem. Located at the historic Elawa Farm, you wouldn’t guess when you see it from the outside that inside is about 85 different species of animals! While this is a must-visit location in the warm weather because of its outdoor areas and great hiking trails, you can still learn a lot in the winter.
If your children love reptiles, this is the place to go as they have large number of snakes including one of the best collections of venomous snakes in Illinois. They also have alligators, lizards and turtles. The Discovery Center is open Tues., Fri., and weekends from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Follow them on facebook for special events like crocodile feedings, and pictures of the animals.
Heller Nature Center
2821 Ridge Road, Highland Park
While the only live animals you will see in this nature center are fish, it’s still worth the trip! The interpretive center is like an indoor natural playground where children can explore woodlands, flatwoods and prairies, which are all areas you can explore on the grounds! There is also a bird watching station that is a mighty nice place to warm up after walking around outside. If you’re up for the weather and don’t mind the snow you can rent cross-country skis and check-out the trails.
Volo Bog State Natural Area
28478 W. Brandenburg Road, Ingelside
Volo Bog is really some place you want to make sure to visit in the spring and or summer, especially if you have never walked on a bog! The grounds are beautiful and it’s a really interesting natural area that most people haven’t experienced before. The visitor center has hands-on exhibits and displays that older children will probably enjoy the most.