Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Make hay while the sun shines. This is the unofficial motto of Chicago families. From the first warm day of spring to the last glorious day of Indian summer, we practically live at our outdoor institutions. It is as if we are trying to pack a whole year’s worth of visits into four months. But is that really necessary?
Why can’t you take your kids to the zoo or the Botanic Garden or Millennium Park during winter? In fact, you can.
There is a particular charm to visiting a beloved outdoor spot in the cold weather months. Without the crowds and in the thin, gray February light, familiar outdoor landmarks-many of which have at least some indoor component-reveal a new side.
Emily Paster is an attorney and freelance writer who blogs at westoftheloop.com. She lives with her husband and two kids in River Forest.
The places you go to in the summer can also be fun in the winter. From snowshoeing to skating to the zoo, Chicago has a lot to offer when it’s cold outside.
Brookfield Zoo may seem like a warm-weather destination, but itis open 365 days a year. And winter is not a bad time to visit.Most of the zoo’s animals live indoors, and while the walks frombuilding to building can feel a little longer on freezing days,there are plenty of great spaces in which to warm up and learnabout animals and conservation.
One of the largest buildings is Tropic World, which has threedifferent tropical settings from South America, Asia and Africa.While a range of primates, including gorillas, is the starattraction, the habitats are large and feature many other tropicalanimals. Right next door is the Swamp, which has two alligators,some active turtles and a frisky river otter that children love towatch. The Hamill Family Play Zoo, which offers do-it-yourself facepainting and other activities to give children a hands-onexperience, is nearby as well.
While these three enclosures in the south central part of thezoo are favorites, the west side also has a lot of great indoorspots, including Habitat Africa! The Savannah, where the giraffesspend the winter, and The Living Coast with its underwater exhibitsand penguins. Near the north entrance are the pachyderms andAustralia House (which you should only visit if you are comfortablearound free-flying bats), and in the northeast are the small butworthwhile Fragile Desert and Fragile Rain Forest exhibits, bothhome to many unusual animals.
If your kids are familiar with Brookfield Zoo, you may want towarn them in advance that the carousel is closed in winter. But nothaving to fight the summer crowds or search for a parking spot is aplus. Admission and parking are pricey, so if you think that youwill visit the Brookfield Zoo more than once in the coming year,invest in a membership.
The Brookfield Zoo
The Chicago Botanic Garden in north suburban Glencoe is one ofthe most picturesque spots in the area. Its wide open spaces andelaborate Model Railroad Garden make it a family favorite fromspring through Halloween. But not content to be a three-seasondestination, the Botanic Garden offers special classes and familyevents to attract visitors in the quiet winter months.
From January through April, it offers weekly Little Diggersclasses on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays for preschool-agedkids. All classes include digging in the dirt and walking eitheroutdoors or through the greenhouse if the weather is prohibitive.($64 for a four-class series.) For older kids, there are familyclasses on Saturdays. Each hands-on class exposes kids to importantideas about science and how plants connect to art, history andculture. ($22 per child.) Lastly, the Botanic Garden offers freedrop-in nature-themed story times at 10 a.m. Mondays. Afterward,kids can pick up a Bingo Card and take a walk through the garden orgreenhouse to find the plants featured on their card.
Even if your family just needs some warmth and greenery duringthe long cold winter, the Botanic Garden’s three displaygreenhouses are just what the doctor ordered. The Desert, Tropicaland Semi-Tropical Greenhouses display unusual and fragrant plantsfrom around the world in a temperate atmosphere. And when you smellthe flowers and see the sun shining through the greenhouse glasspanes, you almost believe that it’s summer again.
Until you walk outside into a foot of snow, that is.
Chicago Botanic Garden
In spring and summer, Millennium Park is a giant playground inthe heart of downtown. Who doesn’t love splashing in Crown Fountainon a hot day or listening to a concert at Pritzker Pavilion on asummer evening? But this favorite of locals and visitors alike hasplenty to offer in the winter months. The free McCormick TribuneIce Rink, which is open from November through March, is a huge drawfor couples and families. What could be more fun on a winterevening than skating alongside the lights of Michigan Avenue underthe Bean’s reflective gaze? (Skate rentals available for $10.)
During the month of February, as part of the citywide ChicagoWinter Dance festival, the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink hosts icedancing parties and demonstrations on Friday and Saturday evenings.Saturday and Sunday mornings see free ice skating lessons and icesport demonstrations-curling anyone?-that are perfect for familieswith early-rising kids.
But the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink isn’t the only spot inMillennium Park for winter family fun. The beautiful Lurie Gardenis surprisingly alive this time of year. The staff even offerspecial family workshops with a winter theme. For example, you cansign up for a Winter Walk to learn about the season’sbest-performing plants and why tending the garden is a year-roundaffair. (Feb. 4 at 10 a.m. Free, but pre-registration isrequired.)