Chicago is full of play spaces and children’s museums, so why head all the way to the Hoosier State to find another one? Because it has Bellaboo’s Play and Discovery Center — and there’s nothing else quite like it. The ginormous romper room is located in a state park just 45 minutes from downtown Chicago. It has all the usual faves (train table, dressup corner, building area) but also other bells and whistles you can’t find just anywhere, including a water playroom, ball pit and cooking lessons. Read on and take a field trip.
Get Your Bearings
Every aspect of Bellaboo’s is open ended, play based and unstructured, which means your kiddo really gets to use his or her imagination. Even the layout of the space is fun and engaging; it’s laid out in a circle, with cafe seating in the middle (yep, you can eat there, too). As you go around the arc, you’ll discover different themed rooms. There’s also an outdoor play area, open weather permitting.
photo: TK Photography
Play, Play Play!
All the usual play space activities your little explorer loves are not only present at Bellaboo’s, but there are entire rooms dedicated to them. The train room draws little engineers in with a massive choo-choo table and all the fixings you need to chug the day away. Meander to the block play room to toy with jumbo LEGOs, soft blocks and classic wood bricks — but not before putting on a construction hat and laying down some play cones. In the “Pretend Village,” you can step into just about any role you want at a faux grocery store, dress-up house and pizzeria (the mini pretend oven is a little chef’s dream). When you want quiet time, the reading room is the perfect place to wind down, snuggle and share a story.
photo: TK Photography
Water Play & A Ball Pit
A water play area is something you usually only find at children’s museums with pricier admission fees, but Bellaboo’s has one (and did we mention its admission is less than $10?). The room where the splish-splash happens is fantastic because it’s so simple — even small children will be able to enjoy the low-slung water tables filled with toys, gears and balls.
Nearby, the soft playroom welcomes active tots with stairs, slides and a ball pit. The ball pit is extra-popular and has tubes and holes for exploring. If you have an itty-bitty explorer (under age two) you can explore the infant/toddler room, featuring a padded floor, an abundance of soft toys and no distractions from older children.
Cooking Lessons for Littles
One of the most unique aspects of Bellaboo’s is the children’s cooking area. No plastic faux stoves here: This is an actual kitchen set into the floor, with pint-sized bar stools and counters around the perimeter. Every week there’s a new food project and kids can learn to make their own treat, often themed around holidays and the season. Cooking times are noon and 3:45 p.m. daily (plus at 5:45 p.m. on Friday and Saturday).
Other Scheduled Events & Activities
Daily: Stick around for story time at 3 p.m. (plus 6:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday). Story are usually focused on topics of wellbeing and physical activity.
Monday: At yoga classes, kids can stretch, relax and flex.
Tuesday: A special story time revolves around “Stuffee,” a giant doll showcased next to the performance room. The inside of Stuffee mimics the inside of the human body and stories helps kids get familiar with anatomy and health.
Wednesday: At Bellaboo’s Bouncers, kids participate in songs and movement in a circle-time environment.
Thursday: Go on Art Adventures, which encourage kids to create and take home their own masterpieces, from drawings to finger paintings.
Friday: Explore Eco-Loco, fun lessons in eco-consciousness with age-appropriate lessons on the earth and how we can take care of it.
There are also year-round activities outside. Weather permitting, you can climb boulders, participate in a Dino Dig, or ride trikes along Busy Boo Avenue, a private mini road.
Break for Lunch
The cafe is large and offers a wide range of nibbles, from grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken nuggets to Reubens and grilled chicken Caesar salad. Along with food, there are traditional cafe items such as coffee, espresso and smoothies. With seating in the middle of the building, it’s ideal for parents to relax while keeping an eye on all the different play areas.
Bellaboo’s Play and Discovery Center is operated by the Lake County Park District in Indiana. Parking is free. Admission is $5.95-$9.95 for children 1-9 years old, and $3.95-$4.95 for adults; children under 1 are free.
Find it at Three Rivers County Park at the intersection of 28th Avenue and Colorado Street in Lake Station, Indiana. For directions, click here. And get more info by calling 219-963-2070 or go online to mybellaboos.com.
Have fun! And let us know what you think of this hidden gem in the Comments section below!
— Tiana Kubik