Three Chicagoland play places with a bigger purpose

In the Chicagoland area, there’s no shortage of fun indoor play places to spend a rainy morning or scorching afternoon. But we’re always on the lookout for some new and different spots, so we were excited to discover three play places that have a bigger purpose than simply killing a few hours.

Sod Room: Love the Earth

The conscious parenting movement reaches new heights at this bright, airy spot. The emphasis at Sod Room (1454 S. Michigan Ave., 2nd Floor, Chicago; is on eco-friendly design, from the train table repurposed from a shipping crate to the low-VOC paint and recycled cork flooring. All the toys, from the kitchen set to the ride-on bikes, are from Plan Toys, and the treehouse—combined with the plentiful natural light—brings the outdoors in. I loved the creative touches, like the custom-made pegboard that uses corks from partner Francesca’s on Taylor, the locally made capes and dress-up, and the strikingly pretty fabric strips hanging from the ceiling (and the complimentary coffee!).

The mission of being “very conscious” extends to Sod Room’s other offerings, such as cloth diapering classes, infant massage and a lactation consultant (there’s also a cozy nursing chair strategically situated in the play area). Birthday parties use eco-friendly party ware, and even the music played in the background comes from local artists. It all fits together to create a warm atmosphere for kids and their parents. Owner Cynthia Valenciana says that’s the greatest compliment she can receive: “I felt like I was at home.”

C.A.K.E.: A taste of Africa

The northwest suburbs probably aren’t where you’d expect to find grass-roofed huts, freshly woven kente cloth or noisy gourd shakers. But these unique offerings come to life at The C.A.K.E. Village (611 E. Main St., East Dundee;, which was started for the purpose of introducing kids to African culture (C.A.K.E. stands for Culture of Africa for Kids Everywhere). The play room is set up like an African village, complete with a kitchen, doll hair-braiding and a stage area called the King’s Court. My favorite was the authentic dress-up clothes that help kids really look the part.

Owner Lande Sanusi hails from Nigeria, so the focus for now is on West Africa, although the large number of children in the area who have been adopted from Ethiopia is leading her to move East. The Village offers everything from language classes (Yoruba and Igbo) to an art studio with African-inspired painting and pottery. Kids will enjoy the dance/music room, full of those noisy instruments they can’t resist.

It’s all part of an effort to give kids a positive relationship with the continent of Africa—and maybe someday they can visit in person.

Kidstreet: Hope through fun

Most play places are out to make a buck or two, but that’s not the case at Kidstreet (2701 Maple Ave., Lisle; Admission used to be free, but to avoid overcrowding it’s been raised to $5 a family. That’s because the play place is a ministry of Trinity Lutheran Church as a way to welcome the community—not a money-making venture.

The three-story climbing playhouse is perfect for kids and their coffee-loving parents (The Grounds for Hope Café shares the space and serves handcrafted drinks, savory treats and meals). But behind the school bus-decorated doors is the real surprise: three themed rooms with a tunnel, a treehouse—and even a Mini-Cooper. There’s also a spot just for the little ones, with toys situated under a rainbow. Kidstreet also offers occasional story times, as well as music and art programs.

All proceeds from Kidstreet and Grounds for Hope go to Feed My Starving Children, which gives food to people around the world, and Living Water International, which builds wells in developing countries. It feeds into the center’s mission: To be a loving part of the community and bring hope through food and fun.

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