Oak Lawn Children’s Museum shines in new space

The Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn has always been a wonderful place for children to play in and explore. Even when it was located in a tiny park district outbuilding, the staff and exhibits made it a worthwhile destination. Memories of my young boys in that small space were so sweet, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the greatly expanded museum.

It turns out all that creative energy has been set loose in a beautiful state-of-the-art facility with stunning results.

And if you think your second- or third-grader is too old for that, think again. It’s rewarding to watch these “big” kids release their inner toddler as they pour sand and splash around.

As much fun as my kids had for the first half hour on the first floor, the second floor is where they discovered the true glories of this museum. It’s like entering another world, where everything is built to child-size scale. My boys stopped immediately at the Safe Haven Animal Shelter, complete with a variety of stuffed animals from large dogs to tiny horses. They weighed, measured, treated and shampooed to their hearts’ content.

The museum also houses a Build It! woodworking shop complete with real saws, hammers and hand drills. Because adult supervision is required, its hours are limited, as are the number of kids welcome at any one time. But it’s worth the wait if you find it open.

There’s nothing like really sawing through a piece of wood or connecting pieces with nails to give kids a sense of satisfaction. Plus, they can keep what they make. My 7-year-old proudly showed his creation to Dad that night and declared himself a “real builder.”

The same “make-and-take” policy goes for the museum’s art studio, which was well stocked with more than just paint and paper. Although most kids took advantage of the paint-filled spray bottles for an activity, the studio offers plenty of cutting, gluing and modeling options. I could have easily spent an hour in there if there weren’t so many other things to see.

Surprisingly, my kids were drawn to a dental exhibit complete with a dentist’s chair and smocks. My 5-year-old patiently played patient while his older brother used a gigantic set of teeth to model good tooth-brushing practices. It was part of a Health Quest section in the museum that has a large Teddy bear with removable organs for operating and a really cool drum that beats along to individual heartbeats.

It was really fun to see my sons let their imaginations take over in the museum’s play-based exhibits. They shopped the well-stocked grocery and then prepared, served and cleaned up after a delicious home-cooked dinner. After watching other kids put on a puppet show, they invaded the stage and performed a medieval skit, complete with knight costumes, battles, a dragon and a court magician.

After the show, they discovered the Treemendous Tunes Treehouse, a combination nature and music exhibit. A rock band was instantly formed with kids of all ages, jamming, singing and dancing. This is also where I discovered parents taking advantage of well-placed benches to enjoy not only their children at play, but the light and warmth from the museum’s large windows.

Exhibit designers did an excellent job of finding ways to engage children’s curiosity. Colors are bright without being garish. Each exhibit feels fresh and inviting, allowing kids to maximize the idea of playtime while still imparting lessons in science, health, art and manners. The museum is large enough to occupy kids for a few hours, but small enough that parents with multiple kids don’t feel like anyone will get lost.

Alena Murguia is a contributing writer at Chicago Parent and mom of three boys.

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