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10 Free (or Semi-Free) Kids' Activities in Chicago

Sue Colerick
June 25, 2012

Don't be a Broke Nanny, Find Family Fun on a Budget

Between finding childcare, juggling ever-changing schedules and trying to keep the dreaded cry of "we're bored!" from becoming a staple in the kids' vocabulary, any hopes of relaxing with kids are often killed all too quickly. This is especially true for those of us who just can't swing expensive entertainment every day for those cooped up kids. Luckily, Chicago overflows with opportunities that won't blow a hole in anybody's pocket. From furry animals to historical throwbacks, doing Chicago on the cheap has never been easier.

1. Smart Museum of Art - University of Chicago
5550 S. Greenwood
Chicago, IL 60637

Older kids get more than enough education on all things pop culture outside of school. So it's no wonder we're constantly trying to find ways to supplement that knowledge with, you know, the useful stuff that the classroom usually provides. Free family programing at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago makes it easy to give the kids a little dose of arts and crafts, culture and hands-on education. The museum is known for its much-admired special exhibitions and vast permanent art collection, and because the museum is funded and supported by several foundations and agencies, it allows its patrons to view the exhibits for free. If the littler ones need some more structure, print out the child-friendly gallery guide; it provides a fun way (similar to a treasure hunt) for the kids to interact with the exhibits and learn about the artists. Younger kids will also love the museum's SmARTkids program, which enables families to come by for hands-on activities like games and art projects. Click here for parking and directions. On public transportation, take the Metro red line to Garfield and the 55 bus from Garfield and La Salle to S. Ellis Avenue.

2. Lincoln Park Zoo
2200 N. Cannon Dr.
Chicago, IL 60614

From the minute they're talking, we're trying to get them to make cute animal noises. But nothing beats their reaction to seeing a live monkey up close at the Lincoln Park Zoo. For city kids, the Farm-in-the-Zoo exhibit lets them see the country up close and personal. Families may feed the goats in the contact yard, experience interactive learning in the main barn, and learn about the milking process on a dairy farm. Immerse the family in the world of birds at the McCormick Bird House, which features habitats replicating the birds' natural environments from the tropics and forests to the seaside and wetlands. If you're looking for more traditional zoo animals, then stop by the Regenstein Center for African Apes, Kovler Lion House, Helen Brach Primate House and the McCormick Bear Habitat. Also be sure to check out the zoo's event calendar--it's constantly hosting fun events like zoo safari tours, outdoor concerts and garden tours, and visits here are free. Click here for parking and directions. Tip: Parking can be expensive, so try to take public transportation, if possible.

3. Montrose Harbor
601 W. Montrose Dr.
Chicago, IL 60640

Pack a picnic lunch or some snacks, park your car along Montrose Drive and take a walk on the piers of Montrose Harbor for precious pictures of those windblown, sun-soaked family days. Watch boaters as they prep for departure, and enjoy views of beautiful sails from boats from all over the United States. Kids love exploring the piers, reading the names of the boats and spotting their favorite colorful sails while collecting shells and taking in the lake sights and smells. It's the perfect trip to the seaside without hours in the car.

4. Foster Avenue Beach
5200 N. Lake Shore Dr.
Chicago, IL 60640

A hot day isn't complete without a good soak somewhere cool, especially for those rowdy water babies. Foster Avenue Beach is the perfect free place for families to swim, and it's less crowded than some of the other beaches in Chicago. It is supplied with imported silky sand and clean water that is mostly waist deep, making it the perfect depth for kids looking to sport their new floaties. Foster Avenue Beach also has enough space for beach sports like volleyball or a game of catch, and for building sand castles and moats. While the kids are off splashing in the water, parents can take comfort in the fact that safety is paramount here, with several lifeguards in both the tower and in the water to keep an eye on swimmers and conditions.

5. Willowbrook Wildlife Center
525 S. Park Blvd.
Glen Ellyn, IL 60137

Kids understand that housepets belong at home and zoo animals, of course, belong at the zoo, but at some point, we all end up explaining why we can't bring Mr. Squirrel home or why the baby bird needs to stay in the nest with his mom. At the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, children can experience wildlife rehabilitation up close and personal in an educational environment they'll love. The trained staff at Willowbrook provide care and medical treatment to wild animals--everything from cute baby raccoons to bullfrogs--that have been injured or orphaned, ultimately returning them to the wild whenever possible. Don't miss exhibits that include enclosures for permanent animal residents, the butterfly garden, sandhill cranes habitat and a nature trail, all included with a $1 donation.

6. Irons Oaks Environmental Learning Center
20000 S. Western Ave.
Olympia Fields, IL 60461

Take a walk (or run!) along the many trails at Irons Oaks Environmental Learning Center, and don't forget to pack a picnic lunch. Irons Oaks, a 40-acre nature preserve, is home to a variety of wildlife animals and habitat types. Visitors walk the trails on both sides of the park, strolling through beautiful woods past local wildflowers and, of course, area wildlife. Irons Oaks offers hour-long, on-site programs that provide a hands-on learning to children of all ages. These fun activities are great for ages pre-K on up to high schoolers, and include things like nature stories, recycling projects and detective games to solve outdoor mysteries. Free daily from dusk till dawn, fees for special events.

7. Buckingham Fountain
Congress Parkway and Columbus Drive
Chicago, IL 60604

You can't live in the Chicagoland area without visiting the most popular landmark and tourist attraction that the city has to offer: Buckingham Fountain. A brief, but beautiful, display, this free water feature never ceases to amaze the kids. Take a walk through the seasonal plantings and gardens before relaxing on a park bench to take in the show. Hourly light and water shows come equipped with music every hour on the hour for 20 minutes. The water shows start at 8 a.m. and continue until 10:45 daily.

8. Kline Creek Farm
1N600 County Farm Rd.
West Chicago, IL 60185

Grandma and grandpa not only get all that extra attention because they're the keepers of candy and presents, but also because these are the people who tell the coolest stories of life back in the day! Yes, kids, there was life before "iCarly." In lieu of granny and pa - and their grandparents - Kline Creek Farm takes families back in time to the 1890s to experience what life used to be like on a county farm. Watch and learn from volunteers and staff dressed in historical costumes as they plant heirloom vegetables and fruits at the kitchen garden, cure sausages in the smoke house and work in the wagon shed. Stroll through the farmland and connect with the past for free at one of the city's most fun farms.

9. Elk Grove Historical Farmhouse Museum
399 Biesterfield Rd.
Elk Grove Village, IL 60007

If the kids just couldn't get enough of Kline Creek Farm's fun food operations, keep the 1800s theme going with a visit to Elk Grove. The Elk Grove Historical Farmhouse Museum focuses on life Elk Grove during the 19th century, and at just $1 per person, this is one family-friendly activity everyone can enjoy. One-room schoolhouses were the stuff of legend for our generation, so imagine what the kids will think! Visitors enjoy the entire museum campus, which includes a one-room schoolhouse reproduction, an actual 1856 farmhouse with period furnishings, and an 1880s barn filled with farm equipment from the period. These hands-on history lessons are a great way to spend some time outside of the house.

10. The Logan Theatre
2646 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL 60647

Nothing chases away the rainy day blues quite like a day at the movie theater. Take in a show with the whole family without breaking the bank at The Logan Theatre's matinees. The Logan Theatre offers a beautiful visual surrounding along with independent films, kid-friendly flicks and lots of film festivals. Enjoy the vintage movie posters and film artifacts while the kiddos munch on snacks and an assortment of confections. On Wednesdays, the family can take advantage of free popcorn with the purchase of your movie ticket. For even bigger savings, catch a matinee before 6 p.m. when tickets are just $5.50 for everyone.

Sue Colerick loves to cook, bake, and share food and recipes with her friends and family. A freelance writer in Chicago, her work can be found here.

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