What’s better than an endless summer? A free (or super cheap) fall! We dug up great ways to play and entertain the kids while keeping spending at a minimum this season. From walks in the park to free museum days, here are the best no-cost fall flings.

photo: St. Charles Scarecrow Fest

1. Nothing says fall like a Scarecrow Fest! Over 50 handcrafted scarecrows compete for the best in show at this unique event held October 5-7. You can even make a scarecrow of your very own to protect and defend your garden. The arts and crafts show, petting zoo and carnival extend the fun, making for a full day of autumn merriment.

2. Green City Market with three Chicago locations, this has become the Wednesday and Saturday morning stop-and-shop for foodies and families. Open outdoors through October (in November, it moves indoors to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum), you can pick up fresh produce and a few cooking tips, to boot. Go to the Club Sprouts for tots 8 a.m.-noon for tastings and free cooking demos (you’ll want to copycat them for Sunday family dinner).

photo: MB Financial’s Family Fall Fest

3. MB Financial packs a lot into their free Family Fest where your crew will enjoy live music, bounce houses, face painting, balloon sculpting, a magician, pumpkin painting and petting zoo.

4. Go green this Halloween on the Oak Park Green Pumpkin Trail held October 13. Costumes are optional at this trek thru town that will lead kids to local business and organizations for all sorts of kid-friendly activities and healthy trick-or-treats — emphasis on the treats, of course.

photo: Lincoln Park Zoo’s Fall Fest

5. Usher in the harvest season with your animal friends at Lincoln Park Zoo’s Fall Fest, a family celebration complete with rides, activities and entertainment. An a-maize-ing corn maze, Ferris wheel, hay mountain, a giant 60-ft. burlap sack slide and hay wagon rides round out the fun.

photo: The Field Museum via Maria Chambers

6. A trip to see the most famous T-Rex pretty much ever, Sue, and her new neighbor Máximo, a cast of the largest dino ever found, at the The Field Museum is a no-brainer, especially on free museum admission days for Illinois residents.

7. Jeanie B! promises to get your toes tappin’ and your hands clappin’ when she hits the stage at the don’t-miss Pumpkin Flotilla at Lake Ellyn Park: bring a pumpkin to carve (or purchase onsite), add a candle to its core and plan on setting it a’sail on the beautiful lake for a kid-approved Halloween spectacle, October 21.

photo: Sugarfizz via flickr

8. Tire them out before nap time at North Park Village Nature Center. At the 155-acre paradise, you can hike through woodland, wetland, prairie and savanna; and interact with hands-on exhibits at the adored nature center. In the Discovery Room little ones are encouraged to touch and feel natural objects. For other ideas for taking a peek at fall colors, read our story  Walk This Way! 9 Colorful Spots for Fall Family Strolls.

9. We’re taking you back to the Lincoln Park Zoo to party like a Halloween animal at the Spooky Zoo Spectacular, October 27. It’s bigger than ever as they celebrate their 32nd birthday this year. Costumes are encouraged at this BOO-tastic bash that is packed with all kinds of kid-friendly entertainment, crafts, a haunted house and, of course, plenty of trick or treating, but please don’t feed the animals . . . at least not the real ones!

Ed Paschke Art Centerphoto: Ed Paschke Art Center

10. Color your world at the free-admission Ed Paschke Art Center. Filled with the large-scale oil paintings by the famed Chicago artist, the galleries are a great place to stimulate the senses, no matter how young or old you are. There is even a replica of the artist’s studio. For other free museum opportunities, read out story Free & Discount Museum Days to Jot Down.

11. Chicago Family Biking is a grassroots community group that organizes fun cycling events, advocates for safer streets and offers educational resources that help families bike safely. Cruise on over to one of their group cycling events and maybe meet a few new friends along the path.

Pilcher Park Nature Centerphoto: Pilcher Park

12. Trek to Joliet for a blaze of fall colors at Pilcher Park Nature Center, a worth-the-drive oasis. In autumn, it’s a great place for leisurely walks on forested paths on 640 acres of land that’s peppered with picnic grounds and playground areas. Can’t get enough of the trail-walking? We’ve got more ideas in our story Hiking Trails That Even Toddlers Will Love.

13. Looking for a a great backdrop for family photos? Look no further than the Lincoln Park ConservatoryYou’ll find tropical plants and ancient ferns right in the heart of Lincoln Park. Designed to showcase exotic plants and grow the thousands of greens needed for use in the parks, the Conservatory offers visitors a tropical experience within its four display houses. Or, use one of these cool Instagram-worthy backdrops in Street Art for Kids! Great Outdoor Mural Photo Opps.

14. Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary is a 15-acre natural wonderland that’s home to magnificent migrant songbirds through October. Bring your binoculars as you venture through the trees, across dune land and the Montrose Park beach, and stepped path along Lake Michigan. Pack a picnic lunch and bring a blanket.

photo: Lincoln Park Zoo’s ZooLights

15. This is starting to become a bit stalkerish, but we’re looking at Lincoln Park Zoo, yet again. Starting November 23, they’re flipping the switch to ZooLights. With the displays throughout the grounds, your fam can stroll through the twinkling winter wonderland created by over 2 million lights, take photos with Santa, get lost in a maze of 30,000 lightbulbs, enjoy food and drinks, watch ice carving demos, and partake in carousel rides and go-’rounds on the Lionel Train Adventure.

— Maria Chambers