Smile. Play. Repeat. Good—you’ve got the basics of a perfect summer down. Now add a few highlights to your warm weather 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.

photo: Morton Arboretum via Maria Chambers

1. Troll take-over at Morton Arboretum.
Something has emerged 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 constructed the mammoth mythical creatures of Troll Hunt, an exhibition on display through this summer. Take in the beauty of 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. (4100 IL Route 53, Lisle;

2. Join in on Nickelodeon’s giant party.
Nickelodeon is making the world a more playful place by bringing you Nickelodeon SlimeFest—part music festival, part Nickelodeon slime party! Be on the lookout for dates to be announced soon. (Huntington Bank Pavilion Northerly Island, 300 S. Linn White Dr.;

photo: Maggie Daley Park

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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!

15th Dragon Boat Race for Literacyphoto: Chinatown Dragon Boat Race

6. 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 this June. 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;

7. 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.;

8. 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.

centennial-beach-2photo: Centennial Beach Naperville

9. 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;

10. 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.

11. 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

12. 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. 10 & 11. (1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe

13. 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.

photo: Brookfield Zoo

14. 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;

15. 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 26), 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

photo: courtesy of Michael Malyszko

16. 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;

17. 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;

18. 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.

photo: Chicago Botanic Garden

19. 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;

20. 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.;

21. 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;

photo: Seadog

22. 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.

23. 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;

24. See a show on the big screen under the stars.
Blow your kids’ minds. Park the car, sit in front of one of the nation’s largest outdoor movie screens and offer them a dose of yesteryear. One by one, drive-in theaters have disappeared in favor of their theater-style competitors. Cascade is still around, offering blockbuster double features under the stars. Bring your own food and charcoal to cook on one of the grills in the picnic area. Cascade operates March through November. (1100 E. North Ave., West Chicago;


25. 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;

26. 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;

27. 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!

— Maria Chambers


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