10 secretly educational things to do this summer in Chicago

Educational experts say kids lose as much as six months of school-year progress during the summer break. And until America eventually caves and starts year-round schooling, it doesn’t look like that three-month hiatus that is as magical as it can be maddening is going anywhere. So when it comes to summer learning, we’re going with the puree-the-vegetables-in-the-pudding trick with these 10 things that are so much fun, your kids won’t even realize they’re educational.

See the rest of our “100 Things To Do This Summer” series

When it comes to summer learning, we’re going with the puree-the-vegetables-in-the-pudding trick with these 10 things that are so much fun, your kids won’t even realize they’re educational.

Families can get outside, be active and learn about differentcultures at this year’s Family Fun Festival held June 13 – Aug. 21at Millenium Park. Everyday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. kids and parentscan enjoy music from the Wiggleworms of the Old Town School of FolkMusic, a reading circle and family performances at the Family FunPerformance Stage. Then visit the Family Fun Activity Zone, whereeach week has a new cultural theme so kids can learn more aboutChicago and the world.

Family Fun Festival


Since it opened more than a year ago, Adler’s Planet Explorersexhibit has set a new standard in kid-friendly science. Kids ages3-8 can travel around earth, space and Planet X while usingtelescopes, experiencing a simulated rocket launch and driving minivehicles in search of life on other planets. Readour full review

Planet Explorers

Hands-on exhibition will allow kids 3-8 to climb, crawl,control, fly, land, explore and excavate as they role-play spacescientists, astronauts, and space explorers. Three exhibit playareas feature activities such as backyard stargazing, a rocket andspace station, and exploring Planet X. The Crater Crawl provides aplay area for toddlers. Most of the exhibition is stroller andwheelchair accessible, and the interactive elements are designed toaccommodate kids with varying levels of abilities.


There is so much to do at the Crown Family Play Lab your childwill have a new adventure every time you visit. Kids can learnabout different cultures and time periods as they play differentintruments and walk through a pueblo home. Your child will alsofind themselves exploring nature by examining insects and diggingfor dinosaur bones.

The Field Museum’s Crown Family Play Lab is free with basicadmission.

Crown Family Play Lab at the Field Museum

The Field Museum


Sometimes summer can be just as crazy as the school year, makinga movie the perfect way to relax. Spend a day at Navy Pier’s IMAXTheatre learning about the fight to save endangered species. Watchas doctors and their teams work with orangutans from Borneo andelephants in Kenya and return them to the wild. This film is ratedG, so it’s perfect for the entire family. Tickets and schedule information

Born to be Wild


With the help of some hundred-year-old specimens and 11 livespecies, Notebaert’s “Nature’s Architects” shines as it bridges thegap between the animal world and our own.

“Nature’s Architects” runs through Aug. 7 at Peggy NotebaertNature Museum and is free with museum admission ($9, $7 seniors andstudents, $6 kids 3-12, free kids under 3, Thursday suggesteddonation)

Notebaert’s “Nature’s Architects” puts animal architects on display

Take in a concert at the Pritzker Pavilion, crane your neck upat the Willis Tower, or amble along the Riverwalk, and there’s noescaping it: Chicago is an architecture town. We pioneered theskyscraper, built the largest indoor structure in the world(Merchandise Mart) and our trains run above ground.

But the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum’s newest exhibitcelebrates a different type of architect: animals.

“Nature’s Architects,” which opens
April 1 at the Lincoln Park museum, focuses on natural works of
construction, from beaver dams to spider webs to one massive
termite mound. There are 11 live species, seamlessly integrated
with animals from the museum’s more traditional (taxidermied)
collection, and the result is a solid exhibit that kids will adore
and parents will appreciate.

Visitors will pick up some new trivia – spider’s silk isreally strong and aardvarks can move a lot of dirt
really quickly – but the exhibit’s real achievement is the
way it bridges the gap between the animal world and our own.

“Nature’s Architects” is full of small touches that remind youthat you’re not just in a world-class nature museum; you’re in aworld-class nature museum smack dab in the middle of a world-classcity.

One corner shows how Marina City, the pair of “honeycomb”buildings along the Chicago River, are like the structures built bypaper wasps. The parakeet exhibit includes information about thebirds’ quirky history in Hyde Park. And a partnership with theFrank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust draw parallels betweenChicago’s most famous architect and the shapes he borrowed fromnature.

“Nature’s Architects” is also a real step forward for Notebaert.It’s not a traveling exhibit making a pit stop in Chicago, like”Exploring Trees Inside and Out,” which occupied this space untillast December. “Nature’s Architects” was built entirely atNotebaert, in a massive toolshop on the lower level, and makes gooduse of the extensive collection of specimens, many of which dateback to the early 20th century, without feeling dusty oracademic.

Alvaro Ramos, vice president of museum experience, says the newexhibit is something of a debutante moment for Notebaert.

“It’s a chance for us to get back to our roots in a new way, tomix our core collections with our core audience, which is youngfamilies,” Ramos says.

And there’s plenty of attention paid to knee-high visitors. Kidscan crawl through a prairie dog tunnel, peek in on the queen ant,and crouch to examine a cutaway from the 15-foot-tall replica of amassive termite mound (complete with unnervingly realistic bugnoises). The exhibit is open and well-lit, perfect for lettinglittle ones roam while still keeping them in sight.

The last museum exhibit developed entirely by museum staff wasLawn Nation, back in 2008. Museum CEO Deborah Lahey says she hopes”Nature’s Architects” will travel to other museums when its run atNotebaert ends in September.

“We’re really proud of this one, and we’d love to see it beshared,” she says.

“Nature’s Architects” runs April 1 – Sept. 11 at the PeggyNotebaert Nature Museum. For admission, hours and more information,visit naturemuseum.org


At the newly opened C&A Robot Factory in Libertyville, kidsin grades 5-8 not only make robots, but program them to makesounds, turn away from hazards and detect motion.And whilekids are messing around with LEGOs and building robots, they’realso learning math, physics, engineering and science.

I, Robot

While many children are fascinated with the idea ofrobots, it’s not often they actually get a chance to build theirown. But at the newly opened C&A Robot Factory in Libertyville,kids in grades 5-8 not only make robots, but program them to makesounds, turn away from hazards and detect motion.

The Robot Factory has two classes. Younger students buildmodels out of LEGOs, says owner Lidia Voelker. Once it’s built,they install a motor and motion sensor, connecting the model to acomputer where they’ll program it.

“They can program it to open and close its mouth. They canprogram it with different speeds and sounds,” Voelkersays.

“It’s really not as much about building as about testingand learning through building, especially for the older kids,” shesays. “They’re actually programming, so most of their work is onthe computer.”

In the second, more complex class, kids build a robot witha variety of sensors they program. The programming is based ontheir own ideas and calculations.

“We have a sensor that is a touch sensor, so they canprogram it to stop at a touch or at a distance from something,”Voelker explains. “They have to figure out the threshold (forsensing something). They have to do it on their own and thenprogram the robots to do that. Or for turning, they have to figureout what degree of turning they want to use, and then calculate andtranslate that into the programming software.”

While kids are messing around with LEGOs and buildingrobots, they’re also learning math, physics, engineering andscience, Voelker says.

Kids can sign up for a class to learn about robotics, orthey can stop in during open play times to just explore and create.During the day, the store is open for children 2 and older toplay.


Become a scientist as you explore this laboratory opening July19. Kids will discover what keeps them healthy as they create theirown (pretend) soup, guide antibodies through the bloodstream andsolve math problems using glove boxes, just like a real scientist!And of course, when you are done there check out Kohl’s otherpermanent exhibits. Details

Science + You

Science + You

Exhibit features a child-sized laboratory where kids can explore how scientists impact health and wellness through hands-on, interactive machinery, processes and technology. A demonstration area of the exhibit will allow guest scientists and educators to perform fun and interactive scientific experiments appropriate for young children.


This year is the sesquecentennial (that’s 150 years, folks) ofthe beginning of the Civil War, so step back in time for a historylesson. Civil War Days at The Grove in Glenview is an annualre-enactment held July 23 – 24. Families can visit authenticencampments and the field hospital to discover what life was likefor soldiers during the war. President Lincoln, General Grant andJefferson Davis will also be in attendance.

Civil War Days at The Grove

Civil War Days

See large scale battle reenactments, explore camps and shops and meet various characters.


The museum’s History a la Cart includes hands-on
activity stations on the Great Fire, Chicago’s skyscrapers, the
city’s prairie past, and more, and itsSensingChicago exhibit lets kids experience their city through all
five senses (check out the smell map, which includes the wild
onions that gave Chicago its name, cinders from the Great Fire,
steel mills and the famous Chicago-style hot dog). To round out the
visit, check out the dress-up station, where your little one can
wriggle into a weiner suit for a true Chicago photo op.

Chicago History Museum


Check out more of our 100 Things To Do This Summer list:


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