Chicago has some of the best children’s museums in the world where interactive play, with a focus on engaging youth development, is the modus operandi. We’ve rounded up the GOAT (greatest of all time) museums for kids, all with special family programming and events, that are fitting for various ages and interests.
Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier
Play and learning are bridged together at this museum, where kids can: crawl through tunnels, send toy cars hurtling through a race course, excavate dinosaur bones, explore the way water moves through pulleys and pipes, see how Chicago’s transportation works, pretend to fight fires, and discover how our skyline full of buildings is created through architecture and engineering. Daily art, S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), health and wellness, and language and literacy classes are offered as well as programming that focuses on the diversity that exits in our great city.
Good to Know: On the first Sunday, every month, kids 15 and under enjoy free admission.
700 E. Grand Ave., Navy Pier, 312-527-1000; Online: chicagochildrensmuseum.org
Kohl Children’s Museum
Children eight and under will love exploring this museum, with 17 hands-on interactive exhibits to keep them busy for hours. The love of learning is nurtured here through music, art, water play, and nature-focused exhibits. Shop in the Whole Foods Market, make sandwiches in the play café, take care of stuffed pets at the vet, and send hand-made cars down a chute at the SpotHero Car Garage. New activities and exhibits are featured on the regular, which means that there is always something fresh and fun at the museum.
Good to Know: Birthday party packages here include a private party room, full-day admission, a party assistant and free parking. Catering is also available through the on-site Cosi Café.
2100 Patriot Blvd., Glenview, 847-832-6600; Online: kohlchildrensmuseum.org
Chicago History Museum
The history museum might not pop in your head right away when considering which museum to bring your kids to, but it’s definitely worth a look-see. Learn how blues music came to Chicago through southern black migrants, bring classroom studies into focus through a deeper look into Dr. King’s work within the Civil Rights movement, get a glimpse into what Chicago looked like during Lincoln’s era, and visit the Sensing Chicago permanent exhibit where kids can ride a high-wheel bicycle, play with baseballs at a recreation of Comiskey Park, and climb into a life-sized Chicago hot dog (with no mustard, of course). Of course, there are several family-friendly events and happenings throughout the year—take a peek at the online calendar under the “families” audience tab.
Good to Know: Children 18 and under, who are Illinois residents, are free (yes, you read that right—free!). Grab a Chicago-style hot dog at the North and Clark café before you leave.
1601 N. Clark St., 312-642-4600; Online: chicagohistory.org
Bronzeville Children’s Museum
The first and only African American children’s museum in America, Bronzeville Children’s Museum’s exhibits and galleries highlight African American culture. Learn about famous politicians, artists, musicians and athletes that lived in this neighborhood, take part in enriching S.T.E.M. activities, learn about prominent African American inventors and explore why healthy eating is important for families.
Good to Know: Admission is $5 per person, parking is ample.
301 S. Stony Island Ave., 773-721-9301; Online: bronzevillechildrensmuseum.com
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
In the same way that nature is for everyone to enjoy and benefit from, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, is also intended for all ages. Children are connected to nature and science through the museum’s hands-on exhibits, family events and education programming. Learn about the specimen and archival collections: birds, eggs and nests; mammals; amphibian and reptiles; insects and spiders; fossils and more. New this year, an indoor treehouse that can be climbed on and in to learn about animal habitats (there’s even a crow’s nest at the top). The most popular exhibit is the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, where you can watch 40 species of these delicate creatures flutter around the 2,700 square-foot indoor greenhouse. Other fun events include: interactions with turtles, live animal feedings, story time and even nature museum overnights—Bunking with the Butterflies—facilitated by educators.
Good to Know: Daily, at 2 p.m., families can learn about the butterfly’s life cycle—caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly—and then witness a first flight of newly emerged butterflies and moths into the haven (included with admission).
2430 N. Cannon Dr., 773-755-5100; Online: naturemuseum.org
The Children’s Museum in Oaklawn
Play based play is important for children’s development emotionally, physically and mentally and The Children’s Museum in Oaklawn has designed activities and exhibits that engage children in social activity. Popular highlights include: Water Adventure and Beachcomber Island, Safe Haven Animal Shelter, Nanoscale: The Science of Small, The Moo Café, Dream a Dream Theatre, Friendly Market, Air Maze and Health Quest.
Good to Know: Babies can practice their skills in the designated Tummy Time areas.
5100 Museum Dr., Oaklawn, 708-423-6709; Online: cmoaklawn.org
Wonder Works is best for the little guys, ages birth to eight years-old. This children’s museum is a designated shoe-free play space, with things to climb, jump and run on. Art, performance, design and building are the main objectives here and kids are encouraged to be creative and let their personalities shine. Over 600 special events are held every year, including a concert series, celebration of Africa American History and Dino Works. Kids here can meet other pals and brush up on their social skills and moms can hang out with new friends too.
Good to Know: Wonder Works is closed on Tuesdays but open every other day of the week. Admission is $7 per person.
6445 W. North Ave., Oak Park, 708-383-4815; Online: wonder-works.org
DuPage Children’s Museum
20,000 square-feet of play space will keep your small children busy. There are designated spaces for babies and toddlers and older kids can run around and get their sillies out as well. Exhibits are situated throughout the space for extra entertainment and learning. Enjoy story time, movement and music classes and pop-up play time.
Good to Know: Kids can do a bring-home art project, offered daily as a keepsake. Admission is $12.
301 N. Washington St., Naperville, 630-637-8000; Online: dupagechildrens.org
Museum of Science and Industry
This museum has it all: flight and ride simulators, submarine, coal mine, chick hatchery, mirror maze, storms created by science, model ships and railroads, fairy castle, farming equipment, pinball machines and classic metal toys, a whispering gallery and a Pioneer Zephyr. Four films are shown in the large dome theater. This museum is massive—most people don’t see everything in one visit so plan accordingly. . . and wear your most favorite walking shoes.
Good to Know: The parking garage is attached to the museum for easy access—you never have to step outside in inclement weather to visit.
5700 S. Lake Shore Dr., 773-684-1414; Online: msichicago.org
KidsWork Children’s Museum
Local parents and educators founded KidsWork because they wanted a safe and fun place for kids to come to play and learn. What they’ve found, is that the community as a whole benefits. Kids can roam around the museum’s two floors, discovering science, art and movement exhibits. Highlights include the Pet Vet, Imagination Theater, Art Works, Tot Spot and Light Exhibit.
Good to Know: The Mojo Market is full of fun treasures.
11 S. White St., Frankfort, 815-469-1199; Online: kidsworkchildrensmuseum.org
Chicago’s Museum Campus
Museum campus, situated along Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Grant Park, is home to world renowned, kid-friendly museums, full of family programming and special child-centric events and happenings. Visiting Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium or the Field Museum of Natural History is a great way to spend a break, vacation, or lazy Saturday. Here are the best parts of each museum:
Shedd Aquarium: The Polar Play Zone is designed with littles in mind, which means kids have the run of the place in the penguin play place, submarine and touch tanks with real starfish. Visit the Amazon Rising and Wild Reef exhibits, see an aquatic show with dolphins, ask questions during an animal chat with an expert and watch a 4-D movie. Also, do not miss seeing the live diving and feeding at the Caribbean Reef, which happens four times daily.
1200 S. Lake Shore Dr., 312-939-2438; Online: sheddaquarium.org
Field Museum of Natural History: The big thing to see these days is literally big: Maximo the Titanosaur, the largest dinosaur that ever lived. And, the world’s most famous T. Rex, Sue, is getting the royal treatment with brand new digs to call home. Volunteer docents will, at your request, lead you around the museum on a public tour. Also, in Stanley Field Hall there will be discovery carts for hands-on learning and exploring. Monday—Friday at 11:00 a.m. you can stop by the DNA Lab for the Talk to a Scientist Hour.
1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., 312-922-9410; Online: fieldmuseum.org
Adler Planetarium: Since 1930, Chicagoans have been learning and exploring at this planetarium, which includes interactive permanent exhibits, the Doane Observatory and highly-rated Sky Shows. Special programming exists for kids of all ages, including special night’s out for teenagers.
1300 S. Lake Shore Dr., 312-922-7827; Online: adlerplanetarium.org
Good to Know: All of the museums on museum campus have discounted or free admission days every month. Also, you can grab your sleeping bag and your family and spend the night at each spot.
— Wendy Altschuler