Nature centers are a family’s best friend. For one, it allows kids (and adults) to interact with nature first-hand by actually getting out experiencing it. Not only is it a great opportunity to get one with nature, but it is also an educational experience by providing interactive exhibits and learning opportunities through programs. Read on to find the best nature centers for kids in the Chicagoland area.
NOTE: Due to COVID-19 concerns, the following nature centers may be closed or only offer limited access due to the Illinois’ stay-at-home order. Please see each nature center’s website for more information and practice social distancing when visiting.
Hike through Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve with trails for all levels. Try to make a stop at the Graue Mill and Museum, one of the area’s remaining authenticated Underground Railroad “stations” and the only operating waterwheel gristmill in Illinois. If you make the trek to the mill, nearby you’ll find a dam and small waterfall. At McKee Marsh in Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville, get up close and personal with the 13,000-year-old skeleton of a woolly mammoth originally dug up.
3609 Spring Road, Oak Brook
Families can enjoy interactive exhibits on sounds in nature, explore all the different plants and animals that live in a burr oak tree or have fun with touch boxes. Scavenger hunts are also available. Enjoy a meal or snack at the new pavilion on the grounds or at the tables on the rooftop garden. Hidden Oaks is home to three beehives and the locally grown honey is available for sale at the front desk. Although the staff says that honeybees are not aggressive unless provoked, visitors sensitive or allergic to bee stings should exercise caution.
419 Trout Farm Road, Bolingbrook
There’s a great playground adjacent to the building that houses the nature center with sections for kids ages 2-5 and 5-12. There are also several hiking and biking trails, as well as an 18-hole disc golf course. After some gross motor movement, kids can focus on the exhibits indoors, which highlights the confluence of the East Branch and West Branch of the DuPage River, the area’s first inhabitants and how the river has influenced the area for hundreds of year. Don’t miss the 900-gallon freshwater fish tank in the center that gives you a glimpse at what the DuPage River looks like underwater. Keep an eye out for turtles in the pond.
320 Knoch Knolls Road, Naperville
Take a stroll on the mulched 1-mile trail around the lake. If you (or those little feet) need a break, kids will love the nature play areas and the Children’s Forest featuring wetlands, a spider maze, the schoolhouse arch, and a salamander mound about halfway through the loop. The trail also offers access to Cal Sag Trail for biking or longer walks. Check out the butterfly, herb, and heritage gardens which are meticulously cared for by volunteers. Don’t forget to snap a pic by the gorgeous waterfall! Encourage younger kids to appreciate nature with Little Explorers, an hour class focusing on a different topic.
7402 W Lake Katherine Drive, Palos Heights
Learn about the geological history of the area and see live animals such as turtles, snakes, and frogs at the spacious nature center. Kids can keep themselves occupied at the indoor and outdoor nature-themed play area. Visit the historical schoolhouse built in 1886. Kids can take a seat in the antique desks and can imagine how school life was like during those days. Explore any of the three trails on property ranging from .4 miles to 1.3 miles. Each month, the center offers “Mother Nature and Me” where kids 3-5 learn about a different topic of nature through exploration and outdoor activities. Families can view the stars through telescopes during the Night Sky Programs.
9800 Willow Springs Road, Willow Springs
Visitors marvel that they are still in the city because it seems worlds away when wandering through this 46-acre nature preserve. North Park Village Nature Center features a variety of different environments, including woodland, wetland, prairie and savanna. The educational facility has several activities for little ones, including bones they can touch and identify. If you have questions, the friendly staff is more than happy to help. The Turtle Club of the Chicago Herpetological Society also holds a meeting at North Park Nature Center each month and it’s open to kids 3 and older. No registration is required, nor is a turtle, although if you have one you are welcome to bring it.
5801 N. Pulaski Road, Chicago
There’s so much to do at this nature museum! Younger kids can play and explore different animal homes at Hands-on Habitat. The treehouse with slide and climbing net is always a big hit. Take it outside and take a stroll on their 1/3 mile trail with native prairie plants and a pond. If you head to the third level, you’ll have access to the Micole Birdwalk. Take advantage of the daily programs included with admission. These include nature-themed story time, Critter Connections (where you can meet some of our live collections up close), live animal feedings, and the first flight butterfly release in the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven.
2430 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago
Peek inside Red Oak Nature Center’s Wildlife Room to get up close with more than 45 animals native to the Fox River area like rabbits, snakes, and salamanders, as well as the turtles in the 500 gallon tank. Take it indoors at the center where you can learn through hands-on exhibits on how the seasons change and the changes that can be seen in nature. For outdoor fun, grab a map to take your newfound naturalist skills outside and hike any of their 5 hiking trails along the Fox River. One of the trails leads to a cave – the only one found in Chicagoland! If your kids still have energy to burn, walk over to the nature-based playground at Lippold Park or take a walk on the boardwalk across the pond.
2343 S. River St., Batavia
Explore the entire newly renovated and reimagined Interpretive Center. They tried to keep the familiar feel of a 19th century museum, while bringing it into the modern day with interactive exhibits. Find your favorite fish at the new 1,600-gallon aquarium filled with native Illinois fish species. Learn more about fascinating life and achievements of 19th Century Glenview native and naturalist Robert Kennicott through letters, artifacts, and interactive exhibits. See a giant life-size skeleton of the Harlan’s Ground Sloth. Did you know these giants sloths were once native to the Midwest before dying out following the last ice age? The Grove offers a variety of nature and history programs through the Glenview Park District.
1421 Milwaukee Ave., Glenview
Volkening Heritage Farm at Spring Valley Nature Center
In addition to 135 acres of fields, forests, marshes and streams, Spring Valley also features Volkening Heritage Farm, an 1880s living history farm that gives guests an idea of what Schaumburg was like as a rural German farm community. Little ones can visit the livestock and assist the authentically dressed interpreters with seasonal farm chores. Three miles of handicapped-accessible hiking trails are great for walks. The log cabin is home to special programs each season and can also be rented for private parties of up to 30 people.
1111 E. Schaumburg Road, Schaumburg
A wildlife rehabilitation facility that provides care and medical treatment for injured and orphaned animals native to northeastern Illinois, Willowbrook Wildlife Center is part of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. Permanently disabled eagles, songbirds, owls, raccoons and foxes are just a few of the 80 native Illinois animals on display here. Visitors can peek into the kitchen where food is prepared for the animals. If you’re lucky, it may be feeding time and you can see one of the staff members or volunteers feeding animals in the nursery.
525 S. Park Boulevard, Glen Ellyn
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This article originally published on April 13, 2016. It has been updated with the most recent information.