Smile. Play. Repeat. Good — you’ve got the basics down. Now add a few highlights to your summer bucket list. It’s prime time to explore all that Chicago and the surrounding area has to offer, from soaking up beaches to cheering on dragon boats to hunting trolls. Here are our top to-dos this summer with kids.
1. Troll take-over at Morton Arboretum.
Something special is emerging from the woods, meadows and vast open spaces at The Morton Arboretum’s grounds . . . unusual creatures, each made of reclaimed wood and measuring 15- to 20-feet-tall. Danish artist Thomas Dambo and crews of woodworkers and volunteers are constructing the mammoth mythical creatures of Troll Hunt, a new exhibition debuting June 22. Watch these guardians of the forest, who are trying to make sense of the human world and make us think about our impacts on the planet, take shape during weekdays through June 21. (4100 IL Route 53, Lisle; mortonarb.org)
2. Join in on Nickelodeon’s giant party.
Nickelodeon is making the world a more playful place by bringing you Nickelodeon SlimeFest June 9 and 10 — part music festival, part Nickelodeon slime party! SlimeFest will feature live performances by Zedd, Liam Payne, Flo Rida and JoJo Siwa! Plus, fans will get the chance to meet their favorite Nick stars Ella Anderson, Riele Downs, Benjamin Flores Jr., Kel Mitchell, Daniella Perkins, Breana Yde and Owen Joyner. (Huntington Bank Pavilion Northerly Island, 300 S. Linn White Dr.; nickslimefest.com)
3. Watch a movie at Cascade Drive-In.
Turn your radio dial to 88.5, and re-live the glory days of drive-ins with the kids. Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, tickets are $10/adults; $5/ages 5-11; free for kids under 5. As for snacks, you can head over to the concession stand, or cook your own food on the barbecue grill (BYO charcoal) at the picnic area. (1100 E. North Ave.; West Chicago, cascadedrivein.com)
photo: Maggie Daley Park
4. Take a spin, ride the slides and climb the walls at Maggie Daley Park.
Grab the scooters and rollerblades because it’s time to take a spin on the Ribbon — without the ice! The slides are abundant and the rock climbing walls soar to staggering heights. The wall is divided into beginner and advanced, with three different types of climbing: bouldering, lead-harnessed and top rope. (337 E. Randolph St. ; chicagoparkdistrict.com)
5. Catch a Cubs, Sox or Chicago Dogs game.
Root, root for one of your hometown baseball teams either at Guaranteed Rate Field, Wrigley Field or the all-new Impact Field. It’s that simple. For Cubs info, click here. For White Sox info, click here. For Chicago Dogs info, click here.
6. Beat the heat at your local splash pad.
Lazy days at the pool are a summer must. Even better? Raging days at splash pads. Some we’ve uncovered are neighborhood gems while others are all-out amusement park-style destinations. Either way, you and your tot will be happy to cool off without taking a dunk or forking over much — most are free or $5 tops. Read our story to find your favorite, slip into your bathing suits and go!
7. Join the fun in Chinatown at the Dragon Boat Race for Literacy.
Watch a traditional Chinese Dragon Boat Race (for free) as 30 boats head down the Chicago River from Ping Tom Memorial Park on June 23. The roots of this ancient competition date back more than 2,000 years. This year’s event includes live music and dance performances, kid’s activities, booth vendors and special guests. (300 W. 19th St., Chinatown; chicagochinatown.org.)
8. Build sandcastles at Ohio Street Beach.
Located near Navy Pier, this right-sized kid-friendly beach provides the perfect atmosphere for a family outing. (Ohio St. & Lake Shore Dr.; chicagoparkdistrict.com)
9. Discover the magic of the Original Rainbow Cone.
The colors of the rainbow never tasted so good with five flavors in one scoop (chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House vanilla with cherries and walnuts, pistachio and orange sherbet). If you celebrate a summer birthday, check out the Rainbow ice cream cake. (9233 S. Western Ave. ; rainbowcone.com)
10. Cool off at Centennial Beach in Naperville.
Although it’s technically a quarry, it feels like one big pool with a zero-depth entry, water slide and diving boards. The sandy beach is a fun place to build sandcastles and the concession stand provides an easy refueling option — or you can bring your own grub. (320 W. Jackson Ave., Naperville; centennialbeach.org)
11. Play a round at miniature golf.
Mini golf. Putt-putt. Goofy golf. Adventure golf. Shorties. No matter what you call it, you have a blast playing it. Most of Chicago’s mini golf courses are pure, kitschy fun (we’re talking oversized dinosaur and Humpty Dumpty statues) and are only open for a limited time each year. So grab a short pencil and head to one of our city and suburban favorites.
12. Pick (and eat!) lots of berries.
Make your summer a whole lot sweeter by making the rounds at local u-pick berry farms. We’ve made it easy for you by rounding up a list of favorite go-tos.
photo: Chicago Botanic’s Kite Festival
13. Fly a kite at Chicago Botanic Garden’s Kite Festival.
Fly your own kite, have the kids participate in kite-making workshops and watch professional stunt-kite performances set to music at this annual event, Aug. 11 & 12. (1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe ; chicagobotanic.org)
14. Go retro at your local skating rink.
Chicago has a rich roller skating history rooted in the James Brown “JB” style, known for elaborate footwork. It’s also the birthplace of roller derby. While rinks are few and far between, you can still get your glide on at select retro-fun spots that have stood the test of time. Introduce your kids to this slick part of Chicago’s history and impress them with your 8-wheeled dance moves at these local hangouts prime for hiding from rainy days or too-hot days.
15. Spend your Summer Nights at Brookfield Zoo.
After a day of visiting African lions, Amur tigers and polar bears at the zoo, families can wind down with music, magic and juggling acts on the zoo’s east mall in this kid-friendly event. (8400 W. 31st St., Brookfield; brookfieldzoo.org)
16. Bike the Drive.
Lake Shore Drive is one of the most fantastic expressways in the world. Once a year, the cars are brushed aside for bikes at the annual Bike the Drive (May 27), one of the best bike rides in the nation and an excellent way to kick off summer. Start biking as early as 5:30 a.m. and keep tearing up the fast lane until 10:15 am. (Lake Shore Drive; to register, visit bikethedrive.org)
17. Reveal the magic behind Pixar.
We all have a favorite Pixar movie. Whether it be Toy Story, Inside Out or A Bug’s Life, Museum of Science and Industry is giving you a unique look at the Pixar process of creating these instantly classic films. The Science Behind Pixar is an interactive exhibition showcasing the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts used by the artists and computer scientists who help imbed these beloved characters into our hearts. (5700 S. Lake Shore Dr., Hyde Park; msichicago.org)
18. Explore underwater worlds at Shedd
Shedd’s newest exhibit, Underwater Beauty, celebrates the unbelievable beauty living in our oceans, lakes and rivers. You’ll catch a glimpse of the grandeur beneath the waves as 100 species from around the world come together in an evocative new space consisting of five distinct rooms that display a variety of adaptations and characteristics of aquatic beauty. (1200 Lake Shore Dr., Museum Campus; sheddaquarium.org)
19. Celebrate Sunday Funday 94 stories above the city.
Sure, sleeping ’til noon on a Sunday is swell, but what’s even better is 360 CHICAGO’s Sunday Funday. Infuse a little excitement into your life by taking the family to the observation deck on the 94th floor for a little magic, a little music and a whole lot of amazing Chicago views. (875 N. Michigan Ave., Mag Mile; 360chicago.com)
20. Bike the 606.
Chicago’s newest biking trail stands on a former elevated train line. Connecting six neighborhood parks at ground level with numerous art installations along the route, the 606 gives kids a new (rooftop) view of the city.
21. Spend your summer evenings at Chicago Botanic Garden.
Pack a dinner or dine at the Garden Grill or new Rose Terrace Beer Garden and be treated to live music every Monday-Thursday evening this summer. (1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe; chicagobotanic.org)
22. Go fishing.
Learning to hook a worm is a childhood rite of passage and River Park, located on the Chicago River near Foster Avenue, is one of the best fishing spots in the city. You’ll need an Illinois fishing license, which you can obtain online before you go. (5100 N. Francisco Ave.; chicagoparkdistrict.com)
23. Strike a Pose with the Animals.
Take a moment to exercise your body and imagination with your little one at a parent and toddler drop-in yoga class hosted every Thursday, all summer long, at the Lincoln Park Zoo. You’ll twist and stretch yourselves into fun animal yoga poses, set off on an oh-so-zen guided nature exploration, read a storybook and more. (Nature Boardwalk Peoples Gas Pavilion, 2001 N. Clark St., Lincoln Park; lpzoo.org)
24. Go on a lightening-fast cruise.
It’s fast and furious aboard the 75-minute Seadog, which jets off from Navy Pier, speeds along the lakefront, then zips down the Chicago River. The fast-paced excitement makes it the most kid-friendly architectural cruise of all. Little ones love this bright red and yellow speedboat, which usually has dogs on board (bring your pet along!) and funny guides. Parents appreciate learning more about Chicago’s most famous riverfront buildings, including the Tribune Building, Willis Tower, Lyric Opera and Merchandise Mart.
25. Take a spin on Navy Pier’s Ferris Wheel.
Get a birds eye view of Chicago on Navy Pier Ferris Wheel! Among the top six tallest Ferris wheels in the United States, this ride features closed, air conditioned gondolas that seat up to eight adults and two children and a maximum load of 414 passengers at once. An in-gondola entertainment system with interactive video screens will play interesting facts during the ride. (600 E. Grand Ave., Streeterville; navypier.org)
26. See the Race exhibit at Chicago History Museum.
Race is the first national exhibition to dive into the concept of race from the biological, cultural and historical points of view and offers an unprecedented look at race and racism in the United States. It points out the obvious . . that people are different . . . and these differences have been a source of community, strength and personal identity, as well as a basis for discrimination and oppression at times driven by misinformation and fear. Race has historically been used to describe differences and justify inequality and even genocide, but this exhibit touches on contemporary science that has begun to question the concept of race and how our differences came to be through evolution. (1601 N. Clark St., Lincoln Park; chicagohistory.org)
27. Be amazed by Navy Pier’s fireworks . . . again and again.
Keep the kids up a tad later on Wednesdays and Saturdays this summer to experience the fireworks display synchronized to music at Navy Pier. (600 E. Grand Ave., Streeterville; navypier.org)
28. Washed Ashore at Shedd Aquarium.
A 500-lb sea lion pup, a 13-foot eel and a 150 lb. Sea Jelly. See those and more in Shedd’s special exhibition featuring larger-than-life sculptures of aquatic animals, created entirely from plastic beach trash. The exhibit was created to illustrate how plastic pollution has become one of the gravest threats to both ocean and freshwater animals and help the public become a part of the solution. (1200 S. Lake Shore Dr., Museum Campus; sheddaquarium.org)
29. Model Railroad Garden: Landmarks of America.
Experience the delightful sights and sounds of miniature trains traversing high and low tunnels, across bridges and around buildings at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Model Railroad Garden. The exhibit features 18 garden-scale trains on 1,600 feet of track with vignettes of tiny people and animals that give it a storybook feel. (1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe; chicagobotanic.org)
30. Take advantage of summer festivals.
Grab the sunglasses and sunscreen — festival season has begun and we have the scoop on the outdoor parties both kids and parents will love. Have a blast with art, cars, animals and folk music . . . and that’s just the start!
What’s on YOUR bucket list this summer? Let us know in the Comments!
— Maria Chambers