There comes a time for every mom and baby when a Target run just doesn’t cut it as a “social outing” anymore. Thankfully, there are tons of playgroups to be had in the area: casual, open-play gatherings where littles safely explore and caregivers can share tips and swap night-waking stories. Bonus: Many are free or ridiculously cheap. How many can say that about a Target run? Browse our list for our favorite local playgroups.

P1000323photo: Eduardo Merille via flickr

McPherson Elementary Toddler Time
One of the best well-kept secrets in the Chicago parenting world is the free open play sessions at this North Side CPS school. Housed in a carpeted multipurpose room, it has a setup you’d pay good money for elsewhere: play kitchens and houses, costumes and props, building blocks and ramps, trikes and seesaws, books and crafts, and even a crawling space for babies. Playtime is laid-back and communal, with parents sharing ideas for crafts and activities. No need to have a child enrolled at the school to come. Some parents do, though, so take advantage and glean advice about the school system or how to keep cool on your baby’s first day of kindergarten.

Tip: Like the group’s Facebook page for updates, since they don’t meet on school days off or during standardized testing. When you go, park near the southeast side of the building and buzz in through door #15.

Held mid-October through late-March on Tuesdays, 10 a.m.-noon
Cost: Free
Ages: Infant to 4 years
McPherson Elementary School
4728 N. Wolcott St.
Ravenswood
Online: facebook.com/mcphersontoddlertime

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Anklebiters Playgroup
Got a bad case of the Mondays? Escape cabin fever and enjoy the warm welcome in this cozy school. Every Monday the group meets in the Preschool Motor Skills room in the lower level. Let your little ones amble around with age-appropriate toys while you catch up with other parents. Use the north courtyard entrance and head to the lunchroom to sign in between 10-10:30 a.m.

Tip: The program runs through the end of the school year, which is in mid-May. When the weather gets mild, walk one block over to Welles Park for a picnic with your little one.

Meets every Monday, 10-11 a.m.
Cost: Free
Ages: Infant to 3 years
Queen of Angels Catholic Elementary School
4520 N. Western Ave.
Lincoln Square
773-769-4211
Online: parish.queenofangelschicago.org

jbabyphoto: jBaby Chicago

jBaby Chicago
Meet new friends and play in Chicago’s hottest play spots. The group is comprised of parents raising Jewish children the same age in the same neighborhoods. Share stories while the children play, and navigate the parenting adventure together.

Tip: You’ll flock together with people in the same life stage, because playgroups are arranged according to the child’s age.

Locations: too many to list, so check the website for info
Cost: Prices differ by location
Ages: Infant to 24 months
312-357-4907
Online: juf.org

St. Andrew Parish Baby Bulldogs Playgroup
You’ve probably passed by this church a dozen times without knowing the gem of a playgroup it hosts. People of all faiths are welcome in this casual setting. Babies and toddlers take over the gym that’s filled with age-appropriate toys, providing a nice change-up from the toy box at home. Sessions are held in the fall and spring, and the website gives more details about registration, contact info, program guidelines and upcoming events.

Tip: Siblings cash in: It costs only $100 to register two or more kids per session.

Held Thursdays, 9:15-10:45 a.m.
Cost: $60 per season; 2018 registration opens January 11
Ages: Newborn to 4 years
St. Andrew Parish
1710 W. Addison St.
Lakeview
Email: babybulldogs@saintandrewchicago.com
Online: gosaintandrew.com

playgroup-2photo: Julie, Dave & Family via flickr

St. John Berchmans School
A chance to try official My Gym or Multilingual Chicago classes for free? Yes, please. This Logan Square playgroup often hosts teachers from these and other establishments from the neighborhood to keep moms and tots on their toes. The early meeting time is perfect for that whole transitioning-to-one-nap thing, and you can join any time and bring older siblings along.

Tip: Enter through the elevator next to the church at 2517 W. Logan Blvd.

Held: Thursdays, 9:30 a.m.-11 a.m.
Cost: Free
Ages: birth to age 3
2511 W. Logan Blvd.
Logan Square
Contact: asullivan@stjohnberchmans.org
Online: stjohnberchmans.org

Preschool Playtime at Oak Park’s Gymnastics and Recreation Center
Three words: Giant. Foam. Pit. Do sensory-craving tots need anything more? If so, cushy tumbling and gymnastics equipment in this new building will have them burning off steam in no time. Open play costs you a paltry sum compared to similar venues, and your Olympian-in-the-making will be nice and ready for naptime by the time they’re done.

Tip: Bring older siblings for Open Gym times held on holidays and days off from school for the same price. Check the calendar for updates.

Held through June on Tuesdays & Wednesdays 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m.; Fridays 1 p.m.-2:30 p.m.
Cost: $6 per visit; 10-visit pass is $50
Ages: 1-6 years
21 Lake St.
Oak Park
708-725-2200
Online: pdop.org

park-district-playgroupphoto: Chicago Park District

Chicago Park District Playgroups
Kudos to the Chicago Park District for their registration page that makes searching for groups a breeze. Structured classes often leave little room for parents to chat, so if you’re looking to socialize, be sure to read the descriptions and look for open play options. Of course, if you’re looking for specialty classes like music or art, browse away. Prices range widely, from $10 at some parks to $50 or higher at others.

Tip: Narrow down the program search function by doing an advanced search based on location, times, age, and more.

Held January-March
Cost: Around $10-$50
Ages: Newborn to 5 years
Parks citywide
Online: chicagoparkdistrict.com

National Lekotek Center
If your child has special needs, this non-profit organization has a variety of services to encourage and improve play and interaction for children and families. Members participate in monthly therapeutic family play sessions with a philosophy of play-based, child-led learning that includes the family and siblings. Sessions are geared toward the developmental needs of the child and aim to teach cognitive, sensory, communicative, social-emotional, and/or physical skills and to promote inclusion within the family unit and community. Members are also invited to connect with other families at playgroups and support groups, as well as participate in community partnerships fostered through the Center.

Tip: Individual play sessions are available, where play specialists work one on one with your family and offer personalized advice. Bonus: you get to check out traditional and adapted toys from the library on a monthly basis.

Held: monthly
Ages: 0-8 years
2001 N. Clybourn St.
Lincoln Park
773-528-5766 ext. 408
Online: lekotek.org

Morning Glories at Garfield Conservatory
Welcome the new week by igniting your little one’s curiosity about the world around us by dropping in to this weekly educational activity. Each week, children and their caregivers rotate through different stations including story times, planting projects, soil digging exploration and more.

Tip: Visit the website to download an age appropriate Scavenger Hunt to help focus your child’s observational skills while visiting the Conservatory.

Held: Weekly, Mondays 10 a.m.-noon
Cost: Participation is free, donations for materials are welcome
Ages: 5 & under; note – some activities designed with ages 3-5 in mind, but younger children may participate with support
300 N. Central Park Ave.
Garfield Park
773-638-1766
Online: garfieldconservatory.org

Barnes and Noble
While this isn’t a traditional playgroup, Barnes and Noble story times and author visits are a great way to get mommy downtime while your little is kept entertained by someone other than you. Put your zip code in the search box and find a scheduled time or event near you.

Tip: Most Barnes and Nobles have an in-house cafe. Leave enough time to grab yourself a cup of personality (aka coffee) before you settle in for story time.

Locations and times all throughout Chicagoland
Online: barnesandnoble.com

Do you have a favorite playgroup? Let us know about it in the Comments!

— Maria Chambers & Nicole Morris