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: Navy Pier Ship of Tolerance

1. Visit Navy Pier’s Ship of Tolerance, a conceptual free public art installation docking in Navy Pier’s Polk Bros Park as a visual representation and vessel of tolerance and peace, September 19-22. Additionally, the Pier will host a free concert celebrating talented youth from around the world in honor of the installation on Saturday, September 21, 2 p.m.-4 p.m.

2. Nothing says fall like a Scarecrow Fest! Over 50 handcrafted scarecrows compete for the best-in-show at this unique event held October 11-13 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.


photo: MB Financial’s Family Fall Fest

3. Parkway Bank Park packs a lot into their free Family Fest, October 5, 1 p.m.-5 p.m., where your crew will enjoy bounce houses, face painting, balloon sculpting, a magician, pumpkin painting, petting zoo and energetic children’s band Scribblemonster.

4. Green City Market with three Chicago locations, has become the Wednesday and Saturday morning stop-and-shop for foodies and families. Open outdoors through October (November-April, 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).

5. Take the traditional Oktoberfest to the next level with Oaktoberfest, September 20 & 21. This two-day event offers live music, craft beer and seasonal food, as well as a Kids’ Root Beer Garden Saturday, noon-5 p.m., which includes a ninja obstacle course, zucchini car races, kid games and activities.

photo: Lincoln Park Zoo’s Fall Fest

6. 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.

7. Families are invited to Hofbrauhaus’ Halloween Kinderfest, October 27, to celebrate the spookiest time of the year with children’s costume contests, parades, live music, face painting, Halloween-themed arts and crafts stations, $5 kids meals and more.

photo: YAS! Fest, Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs

8. Attend the free and open to the public YAS! Fest, Chicago’s largest celebration of young artists and youth arts organizations. The day will feature the creative work of musicians, actors, dancers, artists and more throughout Millennium Park. Teens and families will explore youth arts programs from across the city and enjoy a showcase of hundreds of outstanding young Chicago artists.

9. Explore a variety of pumpkin pop-up installations throughout Navy Pier and enjoy fabulous fall deals at the first-ever Pier Pumpkin Nights, a month-long seasonal celebration, October 1-November 2. From jack o’lantern towers to light displays, Chicago’s iconic lakefront destination will be decked out for fall.

photo: The Field Museum via Maria Chambers

10. 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 Field Museum is a no-brainer, especially on free museum admission days for Illinois residents.

11. Expect bushels of fun at Historic Downtown Long Grove’s annual Apple Festival, September 20-22. Take in the beautiful fall outdoor ambiance of the charming village and participate in the many activities offered, including free live music, apple pie-eating contests and more.

photo: Sugarfizz via flickr

12. 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.

13. We’re taking you back to the Lincoln Park Zoo to party like a Halloween animal at the Spooky Zoo Spectacular, October 26. 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

14. 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.

15. 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

16. 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.

17. Looking for a fabulous 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.

photo: Lincoln Park Zoo’s ZooLights

18. This is starting to become a bit stalkerish, but we’re looking at Lincoln Park Zoo, yet again. Starting November 29, 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.

19. Introduce your future globe trotter to music by performers from Latin America, Africa and beyond as they play in venues all throughout the city during the free-admission World Music Festival, September 13-19.

photo: Mr. Singer at Lincoln Park Zoo

20. Sway along to a joyful jamboree with Mr. Singer at Lincoln Park Zoo, featuring animal songs and dances for wee ones on Wednesdays and Fridays, 9:15 a.m. and 10 a.m. Every show features a kids’ choice and a grown-ups’ choice giving you the opportunity to request your favorite sing-along song.

21. 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.

— Maria Chambers


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