Whether they want to be astronauts, authors, dinosaur hunters, or the next sports great, see kids play, learn, and explore at these 11 kid-sized, family-friendly Chicago museums.
1. Chicago Children’s Museum
Outside-the-box experiences await at the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier. Kids build things in the Tinkering Lab; splash around in the flowing, squirting, pumping WaterWays playground; camp, climb, burrow, and make believe in the Treehouse Trails enchanted forest; and dig for dinosaurs in a recreation of a real Saharan expedition. If you and the kids love unique, then stop by Michael’s Museum: A Curious Collection of Tiny Treasures. It’s one of the Chicago Children’s Museum’s permanent exhibits, and features nearly 100 miniatures donated by founder and curator Michael Horvich.
Insider tip: Take advantage of all the fun things to do and see at Navy Pier, including the Centennial Wheel and other amusement park rides at Pier Park, boat rides and cruises, an IMAX theatre, a mind-boggling maze, and more.
2. Museum of Science & Industry
The Museum of Science and Industry is the largest science museum in the Western Hemisphere, covering just about every scientific and industrial discipline you can think of in the most fun ways imaginable. Stand inside a tornado, climb into a real-life WWII submarine, explore a coal mine, get lost in a mirror maze, step aboard a Zephyr, marvel at model ships and railways, glimpse Planet Earth in real time, see the world’s largest pinball machine, watch science come to life on a five-story, wrap-around screen at the Giant Dome Theater, and more.
3. Field Museum
If the idea of dinosaurs gets your kids excited, Field Museum is a definite must-see. Walk under and get face-to-face with Máximo the Titanosaur, the largest creature to ever roam the Earth. Then pay a visit to SUE, Chicago’s famed T. rex, and a bunch of dinosaur friends. Continue exploring with man-eating tigers, mummified Pharaohs, rare gemstones, and giant bug.
4. Bronzeville Children’s Museum
Bronzeville Children’s Museum is the first African American children’s museum in the country. But that’s not the only way it’s innovating. The museum uses a unique guided tour format to reinforce the educational message of each of its exhibits, stressing hands-on play to ensure concepts truly sink in. The You Are What You Eat tour, for example, is all about healthy eating and working out, and the African American Inventors tour teaches kids about groundbreaking inventions by the likes of Lewis H. Latimer, who invented the long-lasting light-bulb filament, and Garrett A. Morgan, who invented the traffic light. Designed for ages 3 to 9, Bronzeville Children’s Museum is committed to inspiring kids to realize their full potential.
5. Chicago Sports Museum
Located on the 7th floor of Water Tower Place, the Chicago Sports Museum is an immersive, interactive, high-tech thrill for kids who love sports. They can test their skills against some of the all-time greats, including Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen; use CSI-type technology to unravel some of Chicago’s most famous sports mysteries; hop into a professional simulator that puts them in the driver’s seat of a high-octane race car at Chicagoland Speedway; and even go head-to-head with Chicago’s greatest sports legends thanks to custom virtual-reality games.
6. Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
From toddler-friendly play spaces to nature-inspired art, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is a true gem. Some of the museum’s many highlights include the TreeHouses exhibit, where kids explore the forest canopy, discovering what’s living in the trees through stereoscopic viewfinders, tracking clues, natural artifacts, and sounds; the Beecher Collections Laboratory, where scientists engage in taxidermy; and, of course, the beautiful, balmy, internationally renowned Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, a 2,700-square-foot greenhouse with more than 1,000 butterflies, representing 40 species. The beauty of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, though, lies in its location — right in the heart of Lincoln Park’s grounds and gardens. The museum’s Nature Trails activity guides kids along a nearly one-third mile trail to experience all the wildlife that thrives around the park’s North Pond.
Insider tip: Explore the rest of Lincoln Park while you’re there, including free attractions such as Lincoln Park Zoo, Farm-in-the-Zoo, Lincoln Park Conservatory, Lincoln Park Zoo Nature Boardwalk, and the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool.
7. Chicago History Museum
The Chicago History Museum is a curiosity-filled attraction that both kids and adults love. Pint-sized visitors are particularly enthralled by the chance to climb aboard the very first ‘L’ train car, ride a high-wheel bicycle, hear the Great Chicago Fire, catch a fly ball at Comiskey Park, smell the Union Stock Yard, dive into a giant Chicago style hot dog — and that’s just for starters. Located on the grounds of Lincoln Park, the setting couldn’t be lovelier either.
8. Adler Planetarium
Discover out-of-this-world collections at the Adler Planetarium, the oldest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere and home to Doane Observatory. Kids will marvel at interactive exhibits, immersive planetarium shows, and special programming designed to inspire the rocket scientists and space explorers of tomorrow. Adler Planetarium is part of the lakeside complex known as Museum Campus, which also includes Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium.
9. American Writers Museum
The American Writers Museum is a fascinating place to take the kids, and the Negaunee Foundation Children’s Literature Gallery, in particular, is a great way to get them all fired up about reading and fictional worlds. A fabulous mural created by celebrated illustrator and author Paul O. Belinsky adorns the gallery, depicting squirrels reading 34 books that represent significant milestones in American children’s literature. After, take the kids to The Mind of a Writer exhibit to tap away on vintage typewriters — you know, like Hemingway and Steinbeck used to do.
10. Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration at the Swedish American Museum
This is the nation’s first children’s museum devoted to the topic of immigration, with hands-on interactive exhibits that focus on the Swedish immigrant experience. You’ll find it located on the third floor of the Swedish American Museum, in the heart of Chicago’s charming Andersonville neighborhood. Interactive exhibits give kids the chance to experience immigration firsthand, with features such as a replica of a century-old Swedish farmhouse, and a 20-foot immigrant steamship that replicates the journey to America.
11. Busy Beaver Button Museum
If you like taking the kids off the beaten track to discover quirky, whimsical things to do, then the Busy Beaver Button Museum is made for you. This is the world’s only pinback button museum, and home to buttons from every year since the pinback’s patent in 1896. You’ll also see pinback button precursors, like George Washington’s inauguration buttons and an Abraham Lincoln campaign pin. The museum will take your kids’ ideas and build custom buttons for them, too.