For a big city, Chicago and its surrounding suburbs offer an incredible amount of open space, trails and forest preserves. The latest trend is nature play places where kids are encouraged to play and explore nature. The motto “No child left inside” is perfect.
“I think people are interested in getting kids outside,” says Susan Dombro, assistant director at the Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington Hills. Before Crabtree created its outdoor nature play area, kids often played inside the nature center.
She remembers one child throwing a tantrum when her parents suggested they go for a hike on the trails. “The little girl screamed ‘No. I don’t want to walk outside. I want to play!’” That moment stuck with Dombro and convinced her that kids should be encouraged to play outside, too. Nature should be appealing and fun to kids, Dombro says.
And nature should also be a place where parents and children can learn together, says Lesley Kolaya, manager of youth and family programs at Morton Arboretum in Lisle.
“We really stress the importance of being your child’s partner in learning. Connect with nature and your family,” Kolaya says. “We encourage kids to explore all different habitats and not be inhibited by feeling like they’re going to get wet or dirty.”
Crabtree and Morton are just a couple of at least a dozen nature play centers in Chicagoland. This spring, my 5-year-old son Johnny and I explored different nature play centers around the Chicago area. My little guy is always up for an adventure, and he loves getting dirty—which is usually encouraged at the nature play places. So we were the perfect team for this mission.
We had a blast on our weekly adventures. Here are a handful of places we really loved.
Crabtree Nature Center
- Barrington Hills
We visited Crabtree Nature Center in early spring, so many of the trees and plants weren’t blooming and the trails were muddy. But this did not lessen our fun. Inside the nature center are reptiles and rescued animals, and along the trails are rescued birds in cages. The owl and turtles were our favorites.
When we found the children’s section of the trail, Johnny was ecstatic to build a “Batman” fort and scale a spider web like Spider-Man. We climbed a huge pile of woodchips, then followed a little trail with a wooden bridge. In the summer, there are sprinklers and spray cans children can use to water the flowers and plants.
Playing at Crabtree is a magical adventure. I’m sure it’s different for every kid. It’s a place to play, imagine and create your own storyline.
Hal Tyrell Trailside Museum
- River Forest
The trails at this nature center pass by rescued birds, but the real fun happens in back of the museum. A large fenced-in yard is filled with twigs, logs, stumps, stones, leaves and plenty of fort-making materials. We balanced on logs, covered ourselves in leaves, navigated self-made obstacle courses and told stories inside a fort. On certain nights, the museum hosts outdoor story times and events are planned throughout the summer.
Peck Farm Park
The butterfly house alone is reason to visit this little Geneva gem. We were a month early for the butterflies, which are available for viewing through Sept. 20. But there was plenty more to see at the Hawk’s Hollow Nature Playground. On warm days, the water play is perfect for kids of all ages—with a small splash area, a waterfall and a hand pump for them to pour water into buckets.
Johnny spent most of his time at the bottom of the pulley system. Stuffing pinecones and woodchips in a basket, he pulled the rope until the basket reached the top where I was waiting. I, then, dropped the contents of the basket down a series of rain spouts, which fell into a large bucket. Johnny easily could have spent hours with this contraption. The multi-level tree house with spiral slide, climbing ropes and overlook also was entertaining.
Playing at Morton is a full-day adventure. Wear play clothes and sneakers, and it’s probably a good idea to bring extra clothes. The children’s garden is full of opportunities to explore and get wet and dirty. The four-acre gardens are divided into sections by age, though everyone is encouraged to play throughout the entire garden. Backyard Discovery Gardens, the lower half of the garden, is targeted to younger kids. This is where Johnny delighted in splashing his hands in a pond, and he was amazed how water spurted from a hand pump. Sliding down gigantic tree roots was a highlight. At Adventure Woods, the section targeted to older kids, we climbed ropes courses and ran across wooden bridges. The children’s garden can easily occupy children for hours, but the trail around the pond (about a mile) is fun for families. On Thursday evenings in the summer, there are family nights with live entertainment and activities. Admission on those nights is per person or free for members. Regular admission is for adults and for children.
The new Nature Play Area is designed with the child’s imagination in mind. The materials themselves are simple objects found in nature: logs, tree stumps, sticks and rocks. Intentionally, there aren’t many instructions for participants.
The area is open for free play whenever the zoo is open, but a more structured program, Zoo Investigators, is available for kids 5-7.