Playing with sticks and hopping across tree stumps among filtered sunlight under a canopy of leaves feels like an idyllic, essential part of childhood–at least it was when we were growing up.
Lately, nature play spaces are popping up all over to create just such unstructured and unplugged moments for our kids. With no walls or ceilings, kids can let their imaginations run wild.
Here are some great nature play spaces around Chicago. Find a new family favorite to frequent or visit them all over the course of the summer.
Think city kids don’t spend time in nature? Think again. This organic space in a shaded corner of the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo encourages budding naturalists to get hands-on, literally.
There are dig pits filled with finely grained dirt, sensory panels, a log tower and a tunnel made of metal vines. Kids can also zig-zag across a balance beam of boards placed between tree stumps. Don’t forget to visit the bears next door.
Lincoln Park Zoo, 2001 N. Clark St., Chicago
Little ones are encouraged to play with toys that are actually plant parts scattered around this fun space. They can also work on balance and strength on the stump obstacle course or use fine motor skills while playing with pebbles. Those activities will have kids feeling good about both themselves and the natural world.
It’s all outdoors, but if a storm pops up, there’s plenty inside the conservatory to keep families busy.
Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 N. Central Park Ave., Chicago
Mini-houses make great laboratories, forts, castles or whatever your kids want them to be. Opportunities to touch and explore texture abound. There are other options for interacting with nature around the park, whether kids want to search the prairie garden for bugs and butterflies, find frogs in the wetlands or spy surfacing turtles in the pond.
2500 W. Lunt Ave., Chicago
The Morton Arboretum has added not one but two nature play spaces. Mud pies and other dirt-based delicacies can be concocted in the Mud Kitchen, located near Parking Lot 20. It offers kids pots, pans and a tree stump stove. At the Word Garden, near Parking Lot 13, families will discover rocks painted with letters, words and images. Kids can express themselves and create stories inspired by nature.
Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle
This space, named for a bird, is a great destination for bitty builders with a fort building area stocked with sticks, hay bales, loose stones and small branches. Kids will also find rock climbing features and trails.
It is located behind the Dundee Library so you can have a mix of both outdoor and indoor fun in one outing, but it’s best to hit the library first, then go get dirty.
555 Barrington Ave., East Dundee
Whether it’s climbing the multi-tiered tree house, making music with chimes or investigating the beaver dam, kids will find lots of options for open-ended play that will help develop both agility and creativity in this Schaumburg Park District space. The water features, including a stream, are popular, so consider bringing water shoes and/or a change of clothes.
And if it’s an abundance of nature you seek, Bison’s Bluff is located in Spring Valley, which has three miles of trails as well as the Vera Meineke Nature Center.
1111 E. Schaumburg Road, Schaumburg
This brand-new area is located on 2.8 acres in the southwest corner of popular Welles Park, near the Lincoln Square neighborhood. It features natural play features and native plants.
If the time in the great outdoors builds up an appetite, head to the other end of the park and grab some crepes at the Crepes in the Park stand.
2333 W. Sunnyside Ave., Chicago
This new area was designed to promote a child’s sense of wonder and interest in discovery and built-in cooperation with the Chicago Wilderness organization. It is intended to be child-led and offers gentle nudges if necessary in the form of one-word suggestions and basic tools such as water, mud, sticks, wheelbarrows and shovels sprinkled among the trees.
Heller Nature Center, 2821 Ridge Road, Highland Park
This space, with rolling hills that seem straight out of a storybook, and a multi-sensory garden in the Regenstein Learning Campus, is set to really shine this summer. There are places for climbing, hiding, resting and more. The willow tunnel is a great place for kids to explore (and a cute spot for photos). There are “rooms” defined by walls of arborvitae and hornbeams and water features like a runnel and boulder bubbler.
Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe
This story originally published on June 19, 2018. It has been updated with the most recent information.