Visiting Chicago with your favorite preschooler? Between the city's parks, beaches and exhibits for kids, there's excitement around every corner. Here are my top seven must-dos for families with kids in the 3-5 age range, proven and tested by my 3-year-old daughter.
Located in the heart of a charming city park, the Lincoln Park Zoo is educational, fun and free! One of the best free indoor playgrounds in the city is located in the Pritzker Family Children's Zoo. Take a walk in the woods where you'll find North American creatures out and about, then head into the main children's zoo building where kids can climb a giant tree-like sculpture that will take them up into the treetop canopy of a forest - one of the best indoor playspaces in the city. The Endangered Species Carousel, which features over 48 artisan crafted wooden animals, is a must-ride; You can pre-purchase a pack of 20 Carousel tickets for $1.75 each here.
North Avenue Beach boasts amazing skyline views and a nice expanse of shallow water, perfect for shorties. Castaways, the beach house shaped like a boat, is your go-to place for a ice-cream and snacks. It can get a little rowdy during weekend afternoons, so the earlier you can hit this place, the better. Bring some beach toys and a couple of dollar bills for cotton candy and paletas (Mexican-style fruity ice popsicles), and you're set for an afternoon of fun in the sun.
The Adler Planetarium manages to bring planetary and space science down to a child's level at its Planet Explorers play space. Kids can take an imaginary journey to a mysterious planet, where they will work to recover debris, explore tunnel systems, man a rocket ship and more. A comfy reading area is the perfect place to chill out after travel-induced over-stimulation.
The 4-D theater at the Shedd is perfect for wee cinephiles (read: tots that can manage to sit still and watch a kid-dazzling 8 minute show). My daughter loved seeing two of her fave characters, Dora and Diego, on the big screen in Catch that Robot Butterfly! You'll fly and bump through the jungle; be on the lookout for Swiper! Burn off some energy at the Polar Playzone: overlooking the cute Shedd penguins, this play area features a slide slipping down an iceberg climbing area that's just right for toddlers, as well as a submarine for even the youngest explorers.
The Crown Family PlayLab is an imaginative play space that encourages a child's natural curiosity with its array of hands-on fun: bang on an African drum, crawl through a log, or gather and sort interesting artifacts. Play house in a Pueblo, don a costume and transform yourself into your favorite animal, or examine and identify dinosaur bones. The art studio offers a changing menu of craft projects that can be tailored to fit the age and ability of every kid on your family. The Crown Family PlayLab is free with basic admission to the Field Museum, which - as you can see from the picture - is a world of curiosities in its own rite.
Crown Fountain, at our most brillant city park, became a water play zone by default: Kids love to take off their shoes and splash in the shallow water. Watch out for the spitting images that blast water every few minutes! Kids also enjoy looking into our beloved giant bean, a.k.a. Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate.
Playlots dot our city, and stand as one of the best places to meet some locals and give your kids a chance to burn off some energy. Visit the Chicago Park District online to locate the park nearest to you. If you're staying near North Michigan Avenue or need a break from Mag Mile Shopping, take a moment to discover Seneca Park, a fun park and quiet oasis, tucked away between a firehouse and the Museum of Contemporary Art.
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