Monday, March 14, 2011

Free & Cheap Indoor Exploits


(updated January 2012)

An assortment of our favorite fun, local, indoor destinations. I'm dropping the seasonal listings in favor of two simple master lists: indoor and outdoor, for bad and good weather in any season (i.e. I'm lazy).
Yes, some of the activities listed here are not free, but most of them shouldn't break the bank, and I've included coupons and discounts wherever I could. The list concludes with a number of classes that might help you beat the winter blahs.
Click on the name header of an attraction or class to get to its main webpage for specifics on hours, admissions, and requirements.
My very random rotten-weather roll call...enjoy!

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Exploritorium (Skokie)





We absolutely adore the Exploritorium (located in Skokie's Oakton Community Center), a large open play space with a car/train table, a dress-up area and awesome storybook stage, a fantastic water play place (bring a change of clothes!), an indoor mini-playground/infant & toddler area, an art space with a chalkboard wall and small tables for coloring, kid-friendly climbing walls and balance boards, and a music-making area. The highlight, however, is a giant, three-story, tubes-and-tunnels maze with swinging, suspended pods and two huge, twisty slides. Ayize can easily spend an hour or two climbing, hiding and sliding. Good times! Besides a spare pair of clothes, don't forget to wear socks - required to play in the tubes and tunnels.
Admission is $5 for both adults and children, $3 apiece if you're Skokie residents. Children under 1 are free. Residents and non-residents alike can save 10% by buying a ten-pass punchcard. Parking is free in the large, adjacent lot.

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Time Together (Evanston)

Time Together (located in the large gymnasium at the Chandler-Newberger Center in Evanston) is a wonderful parent/tot playtime that runs from 9 to 11 a.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Essentially, they divide the spacious Chandler gymnasium into two sides with a heavy canvas curtain. On one side they offer an indoor playground, two slides, a teeter totter, play tables with puzzles and blocks, Exersaucers, trains and cars, giant building blocks, books, a giant playhouse, and more; the other side is an open gymnasium with tot-friendly basketball hoops and a bunch of balls for the kids to throw and kick and bounce on and roll to their heart's content. They also offer a small snack table with tot-sized chairs to sit on, goldfish crackers, and cups for the nearby water fountain. Each session ends with a small circle session, with songs and fingerplay that young kids love.
Your first visit is free if you want to check it out (reference their Meetup website above). After that, it's $11 for one child, $13 for two (accompanying parent or caregiver is free) per visit. If it's just you and one child, you can buy an 8-punch pass for $66 - a pretty good deal for repeat visitors, as that will run you $8.25 per visit instead, and the pass has no expiration date (8-punch passes are available for people with 2 and 3 kids as well, though the price is not listed o the website). Parking is free in the large, adjacent lot, but you will need to get a hangtag at the front desk upon entry, which can be re-used at each visit.

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Much to do inside for wee ones of all ages: kid-friendly science stuff; a hard-hat area for kids with an "in-progress" house under construction; a water-play room (bring a change of clothes); an amazing musical area; a child-sized veterinary clinic; a plastic-food Potbellys; kid-sized carts and fake food galore at a mini-Dominicks...and on nice days, there's even a fun outdoor area with water "painting", a little nature trail, and much more. And this is just a partial to-do list - they also have baby chick and butterfly exhibits annually, special events, and traveling exhibits that are always spectacularly entertaining.
Not cheap - admission is $9.50 for children and adults, and free entry only for those under 1. But worth the price tag if you want to spend a good amount of time running your wee one out, with both of you having fun doing it. Here's a printable $1 off coupon, applicable towards all members of a family, and good through June 30, 2012. Unfortunately, they're no longer offering a buy-one-get-one-free through the Macy's Museum Adventure Pass program at the library, so be forewarned. Parking is free in the large, adjacent lot.

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Family Room (Evanston)

This one-story home that's been converted into an amazing play space includes train tables, ride-on toys, a cozy reading room, a giant playhouse, a room-sized kitchen filled with cool kid-sized appliances and fake food, a small indoor playground, and toys and puzzles galore, among other fun diversions, for kids aged birth through 5 years (depending on the program). It's a wonderful rotten-weather sanctuary, and the super-experienced staff offer great baby and child advice, with an emphasis on acceptance and open-mindedness - now that's something I can vehemently get behind! Best perk: they clean up at the end of each Together Time (family drop-in) morning and afternoon session so you don't have to do anything but relax, chat, and play. Another plus: they set out free Casteel coffee for caretakers and small snacks for the kids.
Not cheap for single parents of singletons, at $15 for a drop-in session, but that fee covers a whole family - adults plus kids up to age four - so well worth it for bigger clans. They also offer a $100 punch card, good for 8 visits ($12.50/visit), and they kindly offer sliding-scale fees for low-income folks. Pricey, yes - but super fun, easy on the mamas, and your money is going to a wonderful, well-established cause. Parking is free in the lot, accessible through the alley, at the Central Street location, and they recently opened a second location in South Evanston that Ayize and I eagerly looking forward to exploring (more to come on that in time).

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Splash Landings (Glenview)


An indoor water park with one large waterslide, one kiddie slide, a zero-depth-entry pool, a small waterfall area which kids can control with steering wheels, a second lap pool available for water piggy back rides LOL, awesome airplanes hanging overhead (the pool is located at the old Genview naval base), and pool temps that hover around 80 degrees. Can't be beat!
Bring your own towels - they are not supplied - and a lock for your locker if you worry about stuff like that (or pack light, as I do, forego using a locker, and park your stuff poolside on one of the benches). Also - FYI that the handicapped shower stall has a handheld spray nozzle, great for washing kiddie hair.
Admission is $6 and children under 2 are free. They offer a six-visit pass for the price of five at every winter, so ask if you're interested. And here's a printable "buy two, get one free" coupon expiring March 1, 2012 in case you're traveling in a group of three or more. Parking is free in the large lot provided for the Glenview Park District building, which houses SL.

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Pump It Up (Glenview)


This place is a fantastic find - it got its own "playground" review and you all know what that means! Jump Zone of Niles (below) has more variety in terms of inflatable offerings, but nothing beats Pump It Up's mega-slides for thrilling speed and fun - especially the ones with canvas toboggans! They're currently offering "pop-in playtime" on Tuesday through Friday mornings, as well as second sessions on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons. Click here for the complete schedule. The fine print: pop-in playtime is limited to kids ages 2 to 6. Infant sibs get in for free and there are a few ride-on toys available for floor play (though Ayize and I have been doing the slides since he was 15 months old, and we never got in trouble). You must wear socks to play.
$8 per child and accompanying adults are free (awesome). Here's a printable coupon for a buy one, get one free deal on admission good through March 22, 2011, in case you're visiting with multiple kids. Parking is free all along the large, industrial building that houses JZ.

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Jump Zone (Niles)

A huge thanks to Ayize's godfather Peter who turned us onto this lesser-known inflatable play place. Requisite slides (taller, but not as fast as Pump It Up - see above), but it also features fun inflatable obstacle courses, bouncy houses, and a well-stocked floor-play area for little sibs under age 2. Scarily enough, they also have well-worn sofa seating and a huge TV that runs non-stop for bored parents and caregivers. Now who could sit there and watch Oprah when there's so much fun to be had?? But I'll save that snarky commentary for another day...LOL. Like Pump It Up, they have morning, afternoon and evening open-play hours, depending on the day of the week; see their home page (above) for details. The fine print: open-play is limited to kids ages 2 to 7. Infant sibs get in for free, and there is a huge array of fun toys for them in their own sectioned-off area. You must wear socks to play.
$8 per child ($10 on weekends), and accompanying adults are free (awesome). Sign up for their email list here and you'll receive a 2-for-1 pass for open play, in case you're visiting with multiple kids. Parking is free in a large, adjacent lot.

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Ecology Center (Evanston)

The Ecology Center is located on the Ladd Arboretum grounds, which plays host to a lovely walking trail along the canal. The very-unique Eggleston Park, with its eco-friendly playground and awesome variety of climbing structures, is across the street. Inside the center itself are a few educational displays and an animal room. A visit indoors is a great way to spend some quality time on a wintry day, but I recommend calling ahead as the staff can be a bit persnickety about people stopping by. Though the center is small, there are some resident animals - fish, tarantulas, a guinea pig, a rabbit, and even a giant sulcata tortoise kept in a little turtle corral.
Free parking in a large lot across the street, and no admission required for hiking, enjoying the park, or playing inside the ecology center. Take a peek at the corkboard of announcements outside the office -- the center runs several fun, inexpensive (usually a few dollars per participant) events throughout the year, including an Easter egg hunt, World Animal Day, and a hilarious Halloween walk with games and refreshments afterwards.

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Emily Oaks has many lovely trails to walk (I've even had deer crash through the brush and bound across my path as I've walked there), a fun playground on premises, a gorgeous, expansive pond, and a two-story indoor center, the highlight of which is its Woodland Wander-Inn. The Inn is a large room with kid-friendly exhibits including peekaboo doors that showcase backlit animal drawings, a treehouse with a nature sounds listening booth inside, some scat and animal footprint tracks to follow, an "eau de forest" area which actually emits natural scents for your smelling enjoyment LOL, and a very funny spin on the traditional dinner table.
Parking is free in the large, attached lot, and there is no admission fee for hiking, enjoying the park, or playing inside the nature center. They do, however, host a variety of fun, inexpensive (usually a few dollars per participant) seasonal and holiday-themed events, including a winter chilly fest, campfire singalongs, a Halloween hike, and their annual breakfast in the woods. Just be careful you don't get a snake stuck in your raincoat, as Ayize did (see pictures above)!

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A lovely hiking loop to enjoy, with small bridges and towering trees; several animals on display (rehabilitated but non-releasable) in large enclosures along the parking lot; beehives and other educational outdoor displays; a fun kids' playhouse at the commencement of the trails; and best of all, an awesome indoor children's play space - truly the best free one I've encountered in the area - with a cozy "fox den" nook, filled with toys and books; an "eagle's nest" kids can climb up to; a fishing pond with magnetic fish, nets and poles; an arts and crafts area; a lovely assortment of animal hand puppets and a kid-sized stage; puzzles and games galore; lots of animals to see and learn about; and more. A real treasure trove.
Parking is free in the attached lots, and there is no admission fee to hike the trails, see the animals, or spend time in the children's play space. The nature center does offer a plethora of fun, inexpensive (usually a few dollars per participant) family events - Maple Syrup Days is a big fave - and a scrolling events calendar can be found on their homepage (above).

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The Grove (Glenview)

Amazing floor-to-ceiling aquariums, rehabbed birds of prey, snakes, turtles of every size (including a 120-pound one), reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and giant cockroaches await you when you enter the magical cicada-adorned cabin that is the Grove's interpretive center. There are also glass cases filled with aging samples of all the amazing bugs and mammals that once populated our area - and I guarantee you, you will be amazed - plus a huge stuffed bear (hint: look up). Outside, there are gorgeous hiking trails (including one that crosses over a pond by footpath), life-sized Lincoln logs for kids to build mini-cabins with, a coop filled with guinea fowl (watch your fingers LOL), a beautiful greenhouse which doubles as a gynormous terrarium, and their newest exhibit - a conestoga covered wagon that kids are allowed to climb on and around.
Parking is free in the large lot at the edge of the premises, and there is no admission fee to walk the trails or play indoors and out on the children's attractions. Buy a cool t-shirt if you want to show your support - they are really neat (as you can see, ha ha ha)! And remember that the center offers many fun, inexpensive (usually a few dollars per participant) seasonal events, like hayrides, campfire singalongs, and October's annual The Grove Fest.

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Wagner Farm (Glenview)

I hardly know where to start - this place is hands-down, our favorite destination, and it offers fun year-round. Spring with its baby animals, and summer and fall with their warm weather and outstanding events, are of course, the stars of the farm's "show", but it has its own unique beauty in the winter. Best of all, the farm has an amazing Heritage Center with awesome interactive exhibits: sort of like a free Kohl Children's Museum a la farm. There is an old-fashioned general store (I'll bet your kid will love that typewriter); an egg-gathering/candling activity; a milkable cow; a hay bale-lifting display; a pig-feeding area; and even a new horse-drawn carriage kids can climb up onto, with working reins. It's education and entertainment, all rolled into one, in the heart of a huge, gorgeous, sunlit, warm, wooden barnhouse.
Parking is free in the large lot across the street, and there is no admission fee to visit the animals, enter the outdoor buildings, wander the gorgeous grounds, or play in the Heritage Center. Wagner is truly one of the finest children's places our area has to offer, and there are neat farm toys, books, kitchen knickknacks, t-shirts and onesies in the gift shop, if you want to show your support. And remember that the farm holds several fun (the MOST fun of all local events IMHO), inexpensive (usually a few dollars per participant) seasonal events like barnyard dances, ice cream socials, s'mores campfires, and horse-drawn hayrides.

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Tree House (Northbrook)

Let me start by saying I'm trying to boycott the Northbrook Court Shopping Mall until they get rid of the pukeworthy Pawsh Puppies. I cannot believe they sold space to this sister store; the other is in Lincoln Park. No animal-savvy person in this city worth their salt harbors a doubt as to the puppy mill origins of these "designer dogs". You wanna mutt for $1500? Try PAWS, Save A Pet, Chicago City Pound or Anti-Cruelty, and not only will you be saving a dog, but you'll have $1400 bucks left over to pamper your new pooch with. Fortunately, the outrage seems to be growing and protests have been a-plenty at both locations, so with any luck, between that and the new ordinances being proposed, we'll soon be able to return to Northbrook Court to play in this seasonally-changing tree house playground!
No admission fee to enter, but avoid during crowded times if you have a younger tot; it can get a little rough-and-tumble on weekdays and bad-weather school holidays. It's a mall, so there's a ton of free parking, and we usually park near the AMC theaters, which are close to the tree house.

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Yes, this place can be overwhelming, what with all the noise, lights, and hopped-up kids, but if you have a hyper wee one and need to unleash them for a bit, this is not the worst option out there. Fact is, on a wintry weekday morning, you might be one of only a handful of folks there. Ayize likes taking a spin on the carousel, the construction truck, and the jockey pony. He gets his rocks off for free on many games too, "playing" whack-a-mole without the obnoxious lights and accompanying sound effects (just don't put in any tokens LOL), climbing around on a free tubes-and-tunnels structure, and watching Chuck E's somewhat-creepy animatronic life-sized band jam onstage. But whatever you do, go only on weekdays when school is in session. Avoid, avoid, avoid this place like the plague on weekends and school holidays!
Admission is free. Tokens are something like 6 for a dollar (though FYI that the weekly coupons always offer a ton of free tokens), and mechanical rides and games each cost 1 token. Keep in mind that there is lots of free fun to be had, like the aforementioned tubes & tunnels, as well as "free" games, which are games toddlers think they're playing LOL. Their thin-crust pizza is cheap and actually pretty decent. The Skokie location offers printable coupons here towards extra tokens or meal deals that expire at the end of each week, so check before you go. Parking in the large, attached lot is free.

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Our pal Gretchen (thanks!) turned us on to this gem, just over the border of Evanston. An old-school, all-wood bowling alley with wide-ranging hours (11 to 9 Sunday through Thursday, 11 to 11 on the weekend), kid-friendly accommodations (toddler-sized bowling shoes, a ramp to assist wee ones, and lightweight balls), and delicious thin-crust pizza (they also serve beer and wine for the mamas, woo hoo).
$5 per game, $3 for shoe rental. Since it takes toddlers about two hours to bowl a single game, you get a lot of bang for your buck! Street parking is abundant and a few adjacent parallel spots are right outside the door.

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A drop-in space with toys is available to parents/caregivers and their tots on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9:15 to 11:45 a.m. at the Ridgeville Community House, 908 Seward. Keep in mind that they accept gently-used large toddler toys (think ride-ons and Fisher-Price music table-type toys), so call to inquire if your little one has outgrown some items that you want to go to a good cause.
Drop-in play is free, and the Ridgeville Park District (a bizarre, rebel cousin of the Evanston Park District) runs some great, free, neighborhood events like the Spring Bunny Trail, a Halloween Happening, and a lovely summer farmer's market in the neighborhood. Take note that the market is conveniently located near the super-fun Leider Park, a big fave of Ayize's. Last year, our Hawaiian-nurse-airline-steward friend Keenan (pictured above - yes, a man of myriad talents) also entertained shoppers with children's music played on his ukelele! Street parking is free, but check signs for street cleaning to avoid a ticket.

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We missed the free Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration but hopefully we'll make it next year to hear FJCC's choir, watch dancers perform, and hear the children's program.
Also, the center periodically offers free drop-in story hours - in the fall, we went to a Tuesday morning program for several months with Mr. Rick from the library and Ayize LOVED it! Hoping they'll start that up again in the new year, we shall see...call for details if you're interested. They also offer several other seasonal events that are free, such as a Halloween party for kids. And they have one of the coolest, most innovative playgrounds in town (look for the fluorescent hues of turquoise, pink, and yellow!) adjacent to the building.
Most of their events are free to the community. Street parking is free, but check signs for street cleaning to avoid a ticket.

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Ice skating with a toddler is actually surprisingly fun. Yes, they may have so much trouble balancing once they hit the ice that you find you are actually half-carrying them by the armpits as you whiz (or crawl, in our case) around the rink, but if Ayize is any indication, this in no way detracts from their sheer joy at ice skating. Public skating on the main rink runs Monday through Friday from 11:30 to 1, and Sunday from 2 - 4. The smaller studio rink is open every evening around dinnertime except Wednesdays and Sundays. Check the website (above) for a complete schedule and more detailed information. Wear layers you can peel off and dump, because if your kid needs as much assistance as mine did, you'll work up a sweat in two seconds flat. I always seem to start out dressed for the North Pole, but end up looking like a vacationer in Hawaii.
$6 per person (all ages), $3 to rent a pair of skates. They do carry some toddler pairs, but call to confirm if your kiddo is in a very small size - luckily, we own a pair of hand-me-down size 7s which have seen us through the past year.

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Sledding (Evanston)

James Park is the mother of all local sledding hills, with three different heights to choose from (the bunny hill is suitable for even the most timid of sledders). Ayize recommends the suicide run from the largest, central hill, especially on days when ice has frozen into solid bumps, causing us to catch air periodically as we hurtle downwards. Of course, it's only my (thankfully, well-padded) butt that takes all that punishment - easy for him to say! LOL
Lovelace Park is great for tots with a little more trepidation than my daredevil, as they have about twenty sleddable hills of varying heights and steepness to choose from, only one of which offers any real speed.
Penny Park (central Evanston, near the high school) and Cartwright Park (northwest Evanston) each have a single, decent-sized hill if you just want to go local.
A few suggestions: make sure your sled has a rope to drag your toddler around with, as this is half the fun. Wear some super-thick gloves to protect your hands from said rope. Toss a large, waterproof bag (plastic reusable shopping bags work great) on the sled behind your kid for wet-clothes collection. Wear layers you can unload as you heat up from racing up and down hills, most likely towing a heavy toddler as you go. And wear snowpants - any old clunky pair - you'll be happy you did. Yes, you may look foolish compared to the cute, fashionable "snow bunny" power-mamas hanging out on the hilltops (you know, the ones who don't actually sled), but if you're planning on joining in the fun, you'll be wet and cold after a single downhill run without them.

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Snow Sliding (woo hoo!)

Ayize's personal spin on playgrounds in the wintertime. Wait til it snows at least a half-inch.. Pick a park, any park (ones with crazy slides a la Noah's Playground work best). Dress your kid like a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. Don your ugliest snowpants which you have borrowed from your significant other, or bought on clearance at T.J. Maxx. Fly down a slick, wet, snowy slide at 100 miles per hour, kid in lap, and get soaked. Make sure to scream "Wheeeee!" in a really jolly voice. Repeat. Good times guaranteed.

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More of a warm-weather expedition (the stepping stones of the dwarf conifer garden, the zany bridges of the Japanese gardens, the wooden walkway over a pond filled with lotus blossoms and giant carp, and the fruit and vegetable gardens with apple orchards and ponds are but a few fun paths one can follow) but the Gardens are uniquely beautiful in the winter, especially around the holidays, so bundle well and enjoy the wander. There are three huge, indoor greenhouses, loaded with gorgeous plants, and maintained at 80 degrees - always a sweet reprieve from the cold.
No charge to enter the Gardens, but parking will run you 20 bucks if you're not a member, so either take the Metra or hop a Pace bus to save bucks (your kid will enjoy the getting-there as much as the being-there), or check out a Macy's Museum Adventure Pass from your local local library, good for free parking.

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A wonderful place to spend the day, with loads of interactive, nature-themed exhibits for kids, a cool cave with peekaboo windows and a periscope, a couple indoor playgrounds, an impressive, educational water-play area (bring a change of clothes!), many aquatic animals on display, a series of walkable landscapes, and much more. Their biggest draw, of course, being the idyllic Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, an 82-degree room filled with lush tropical plant life, a small waterfall, glassed-in walls and windows, and thousands of butterflies flying free. Open Monday through Fridays from 9 to 4:30, weekends from 10 to 5.
Not exceedingly cheap, as admission runs $9 for adults and $6 for children 3 and up. On the other hand, kids under 3 are free - a generous concession. Also, Thursdays are suggested donation days, which means you simply pay what you can upon entry. Free street parking along Cannon Drive is fairly abundant, but after 9:30, you're usually out of luck. You can hunt farther afield for street parking and hoof it, or park in the nature museum lot for $20 (weekdays only). Buses run frequently from the Fullerton CTA stop.

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Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago)

More of a warm-weather destination (besides the animals, there's a zoo train to ride and picnic tables to sup at with pals), but lovely on warmer wintry days as well. Plenty of indoor exhibits (the big cat house, the great apes house, the reptile house, and the indoor, underwater-windowed halves of the pools are just a few examples), and best of all, the Pritzker Family Zoo has an awesome area for kids, including a giant climbing net.
No charge to enter the zoo, but parking will run you $16/hour, $19/hour if you stay longer than three hours. Free street parking along Cannon Drive is fairly abundant, but after 9:30, you're usually out of luck. You can hunt farther afield for street parking and hoof it. Also, buses run frequently from the Fullerton CTA stop.

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Brookfield Zoo (Brookfield)


More of a warm-weather destination (besides the animals, there's a fantastic playground, conveniently located near the picnic tables for a super-fun outdoor eating experience), but lovely on warmer wintry days as well. Plenty of indoor exhibits (the Fragile Kingdom houses, the Habitat! houses, and the Living Coast are just a few examples), and best of all, the Children's Zoo and Hamill Family Play Zoo are two awesome areas for kids.
Not hardly cheap, as admission runs $13.50 for adults and $9.50 for children 3 and up. Additional bummer - the Children's Zoo costs a few dollars extra per person - ugh. On the other hand, kids under 3 are free - a generous concession. And you can check out a Macy's Museum Adventure Pass for free entry for two at your local library. But then there's also the matter of parking - $9 per car or van. Yikes! You can hunt farther afield for street parking and hoof it. Also, keep in mind that the Metra's Burlington Northern Line will drop you within two blocks of the zoo (exit at Hollywood Station) and PACE buses offer curbside service to the South Gate entrance.

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So much to see and do, from hatching chicks, to the toy factory, to the farm, to the crazy-cool dollhouse, to the WWII submarine exhibit, to the circus, to clothing made of lights, to traveling exhibits such as the Obama White House in stunning miniature, to - above all (as far as one little man is concerned) - the insane train room. There's also a very cool kid's area to play in, for little ones who need to unwind.
Not hardly cheap, as admission runs $15 for adults and $10 for children 3 and up. On the other hand, kids under 3 are free - a generous concession. And they offer free days aplenty, which entail free general admission and discounted admission to special exhibits. But then there's also the matter of parking - $18 per car or van. Check here for detailed instructions on getting to the museum by bus or train; options abound.

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Field Museum (Chicago)

Sorry - couldn't resist the photo in front of the ad for the Gold exhibit (funny because a certain piece of gold happens to be featured in that exhibit. Or so I've heard. It costs extra to see, so I really couldn't tell ya for sure LOL). The irony was too much for me to bear! Especially since later on, I totally had to scrounge to come up with parking, since it was cash-only that day.
It's been awhile since I've been to the Field, but I remember that there's a plethora to see and do inside for kids of all ages. Best of all, they recently opened a children's area called the Crown Family PlayLab which is supposed to be super cool. Entry included with general admission - woo hoo! How often does that happen??
Not cheap, as admission runs $13/15 for adults (Chicago residents versus non-residents) and $8/10 for children 3 and up (Chicago residents versus non-residents). On the other hand, kids under 3 are free - a generous concession. And they offer free days aplenty - both Target Free Second Mondays and 52 community discount days - which entail free general admission and discounted admission to special exhibits. But then there's also the matter of parking - $16 per car or van. There are some metered spots on Solidarity Drive, but they fill fast, so be forewarned. Check here for detailed instructions on getting to the museum by bus and/or train; options abound.

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Yes, these photos are of random telescopes in the Sonoran desert, but whatevah LOL. My way of showing that Ayize has been into scientific stuff since he was little, which makes me sure he'll have a grand old time here. However, we are STILL holding off on visiting, as my memories from a pre-pregnancy visit are of things imminently breakable. We shall see...maybe this will be the year!
Not too bad, as general admission runs $8/1o for adults (Chicago residents versus non-residents) and $4/6 for children 3 and up (Chicago residents versus non-residents). And kids under 3 are free - a generous concession. But remember that Adler's big-ticket items are their shows, and admission to those cost extra. Just something to keep in mind before you go. Luckily, wee ones won't know the difference - the regular exhibits alone are surely enough to entertain them for hours. And there are many - though not as many - discount days, when entrance is free and special attractions are discounted. Remember, too, that there's the matter of parking - $16 per car or van if you park in the lot. There are some metered spots on Solidarity Drive, but they fill fast, so be forewarned. Check here for detailed instructions on getting to the planetarium by bus and/or train; options abound.

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Shedd Aquarium (Chicago)


Like the Adler, the Shedd's big-ticket items are their shows, and admission to those cost extra. Just something to keep in mind before you go. But for the really small set, they won't know what they're missing. Just a ramble through the original galleries is enough to fill a few fun hours. I've heard the Polar Play Zone is lots of fun...but paying extra for it? No thank you.
But unlike the Adler, the Shedd's prices are STIFF - because that's their gambit to force you to buy membership...at least, that's my theory, and I'm stickin to it. Adult entry runs a whopping $28.95, and tickets for children 3 and up cost $19.95. Wowzas! At least kids under 3 are free - a concession. Luckily, there are quite a few discount days, when general admission is free and special attractions are discounted, including Community Discount Days and Bank of America's "Museums on Us" days. But then there's also the matter of parking - $16 per car or van if you park in the lot. There are some metered spots on Solidarity Drive, but they fill fast, so be forewarned. Check here for detailed instructions on getting to the planetarium by bus and/or train; options abound.

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A cafe that opened recently in Lincoln Park with an indoor playspace and an attendant. The space boasts a large Victorian playhouse, a smaller, seasonally-changing playhouse, a trains and building area, a sports center, a little schoolhouse, and a performance stage. Socks are required to play, and no outside food is permitted.
Their rates are steep - $11 for the first child, $6 for additional siblings. Plus a minimum cafe purchase requirement for parents of at least $4 - wowzas. However, they do offer an early-bird time slot on Tuesday through Thursday mornings from 7 to 8:45 a.m. at a discounted rate of $6 per child, so hopefully we'll make it there one morning soon to suss out the space. The price is a bit...ouch. But the cafe still provides a nice alternative for moms who want to have their coffee and kvetch with a minimum of concurrent kiddo chaos.

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Fantasy Kingdom (Chicago)

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We've been here for birthday parties and it's a really nice, large play space designed for kids up to 6 years old. There's a castle with slides, a grocery store, a nursery, a dress-up area, a fire and police station, and all the accompanying toys one would expect for each theme. There's also a gated infant/toddler area for wee ones overwhelmed by the big-kid mayhem. The hours are generous - the center offers open play Monday through Friday from 9:30 to 5. Unless you buy a punch card, admission is steep, but there are several reasons why I find their prices tolerable. Plenty of free street parking (always a perk in the city). They offer complimentary coffee until noon daily - yay! Best of all, since they have all-day entertainment scheduled during winter open play, and since they have a large eating area on-site, they don't care if you brown-bag your lunch or even order in from local eateries - you can literally stay all day. Or leave for lunch and return later the same day without having to pay again. Generous terms.
$12 per child, adults and siblings under 1 are free. A 10-punch card runs $100 ($10/visit) and a 20-punch cards runs $180 ($9/visit). Also, adults and siblings under 1 are free. So - yes, can be a pricey endeavor, but it really depends on your circumstances and whether or not you go the punch route. Buy wisely, grasshopper...

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Hobbitland (Chicago)

I've never been here but I've heard it's very similar to Fantasy Kingdom, Monkey Island, etc. with one major difference: Hobbitland is proud to be an organic alternative to typical commercial play spaces. The photo gallery showcases a beautiful, thoughtful play space with hand-painted walls and a selection of wooden and cloth toys. Open play is Monday through Friday from 9 to 5. A first-time trial visit is $12 per child (adults and siblings under 1 free) though there are other money-saving options, from a monthly membership (unlimited visits), to 10-punch cards, both of which can shave off quite a few bucks depending on your circumstances.

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And of course, the best free indoor resource of them all: our libraries!


Evanston Public Library's Main Branch features a lovely children's section that includes a padded, benched baby-play area stocked with board books and soft toys; an area for older kids with a mini-staircase and a peekaboo window; a colorform wall, a shape-sorting table; plenty of blocks and cardboard bricks to build with; two kiddie computers; several beanbag chill areas along one wall; a small stage and several hand puppets; a large coloring/crafting section; and much more. The Purple Crayon Players (a Northwestern drama group) does a story and craft the first Saturday morning of each month at 11, Mr. Brian (our absolute fave) runs a drop-in story hour every Wednesday morning at 10:30, and a group of students read books to kids one-on-one on "Fun, Free Fridays" from 4 to 5 in the afternoon. Check out the library calendar for a complete list of events.
Caveat emptor: one whole wall of the children's section has a cutout ceiling which feeds into the second floor above. Given this fact, the librarians (certain ones in particular LOL) can be quite strict about noise, and we've even been kicked out on a few awful cabin-fever occasions. Still, for the most part, they're tolerant of rambunctious toddler behavior, but consider yourself forewarned.
The library and all of its hosted events are free. The big perk of this place is the attached, indoor, heated parking garage - such a nice place to let one's car thaw post-blizzard. Do keep in mind though that regular downtown Evanston parking rates apply, and they're steep: a quarter will get you just 20 minutes. Of course, the library is easily accessible by train (both the El and the Metra stop within a couple blocks) and bus (both CTA and Pace buses run through the downtown area frequently).

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North Branch is currently the sole outpost of EPL's Main Branch. It sits square in the middle of the lovely Central Street shopping district, and is painted such a horrid shade of vomit green that you can't miss it. But don't be fooled by appearances - EPL's North Branch is one of our favorite, and most frequent destinations. They occasionally leave out a box of fun toys for kids, and they always have cardboard bricks available for building, cozy seating for reading to your wee ones, a sweet old wooden rocking horse, kid-friendly puzzles, and an art table with paper scraps, crayons and markers. They also happen to throw the best Halloween party in north Evanston, where even the library ladies dance to the Monster Mash! Check out the library calendar for a complete list of events, and the North Branch also has its own events page on EPL's website.
The library and all of its hosted events are free. Plenty of metered street parking along Central Street and in a large lot across the street; there are also many free spots if you park residentially a few blocks away and hoof it. Of course, the library is easily accessible by train (the Metra stop is one block away; the El stops about eight blocks away) and bus (both CTA and Pace buses run along Central Street frequently).

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Rest in peace, EPL South Branch...

You were a frequent and beloved destination for us. Half the library was devoted to a lovely children's section with comfy animal beanbags to sit in, a toddler-sized table for arts and crafts, trains, and lots of fun toys and games. There were many fun events unique to this location, and they will be missed. In particular, very sad to think there will never be another annual Thomas the Tank Engine Night, come this crisp, cold October.

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So much to do here, so little time. A kid's kitchen, complete with tons of fake food and cooking implements; four toddler computers; giant headphones, CD's, and a listening station; a well-stocked Lego table; several kid-sized tables and seating, each with puzzles and games galore; a fire station with a pair of giant trucks; a big fish tank (can you find the albino frog?); giant chess and giant dominoes; a kid's house built entirely from books; a car, boat and truck table; a kid-friendly, push-button machine that reads story excerpts to kids; a great arts and crafts room; a "soda shop" tween area which, when not occupied, is a big fave with toddlers; and much more.
Check out the library's calendar for a complete list of kid-friendly events.
The library and all of its hosted events are free. Parking is also free - yippee! - in an adjacent, large, outdoor lot.


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Another great kids' area: animal chairs and sofas; alphabet puppets; a doll house; giant checkers; bean bag rhymes (hard to describe, but very cool nevertheless); toddler rocking chairs; a glass lookout to the floor below; and more. They offer many events, especially in the summer (Books in the Park is one popular program) and several free, drop-in story hours for different ages. You're supposed to be a Wilmette resident for all events though we've never had a problem attending. Just be cool about it, and if whatever you're aiming for looks crowded through the window, skip it and try another day. Check out the events page for a complete list of kid-friendly happenings. There's also a calendar that gives a nice overview.
The library and all of its hosted events are free. Parking is also free in a smallish, outdoor lot and residentially around the library.

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A lovely library with another awesome children's section, including cool kiddie seating, Legos, blocks, cardboard bricks, games and puzzles, toddler computers, a wooden dollhouse, and an outdoor patio for nicer days. Best of all, the library is home to a fantastic, double-wide, fully-stocked (a hundred trains, at least) Thomas table! Ayize can hang here for hours on a nasty day - it's pretty unbelievable. They also run a ton of cool kids' programs, from playgroups to kid-friendly crafts to story hours. Check out their calendar for a complete list of happenings; children's events are highlighted in purple.
The library and all of its hosted events are free. Parking is also free in an adjacent, large, outdoor lot and residentially around the library.

[One last aside: when you leave the library parking lot, you must turn right because it's a one-way street. I always take another right to go home, and sometimes we stop and play in a small tot lot with a cool ride-on purple T-Rex. We heard bird sounds yesterday and followed our ears across the street. There - on private property, so we only went a bit up their driveway to read the sign ("Please do not pick leaves from the plants to feed the birds") - we saw a fantastic indoor/outdoor bird coop. We watched them with awe from a (mostly - Ayize was excited!) respectful distance. Fancy pigeons, a few ducks and chickens, and a couple really bizarre birds as well, like this shy guy you see peeking out above. Just something to keep in the back of your mind on your next visit!]

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This last section deals with weekly or monthly mom/tot classes that may help you survive long winter months with a hyper little one. Click on the name header of a class for specifics on location, hours, prices, and requirements.

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Wiggleworms (Evanston, Lincoln Park & Lincoln Square)

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This is the real deal - good, old-fashioned, guitar folk music accompanied by a singing teacher, and YES, you have to participate and sing along too, and NO, no one cares if you have a voice that would break glass, and YES, your kid will love every minute of it. The teachers also incorporate everything from scarves to bubbles to finger animal puppets to unique instruments to parachutes - but the focus is centered primarily on just plain music and fun (think interactive songs about whales and spiders, circle dances, kid-friendly instruments out for experimentation). Kid classes offered from birth (WW Lullabies) to 4 years (Wigglegrads) and all ages in between.
They run two or four months in length (depending on the class) and are not cheap, costing approximately $16/class. They are also extremely popular, so be sure to sign up early. But they are well worth it, and lay a really nice foundation for meeting other moms and spending great time with your kid in a sweet, sociable, musical environment. (A tip, for those who want to try but are not committed to several months: you can wait-list for a class that is already in session. It's a gamble, but if space opens up, you can take the class and pay only for the remainder of that session.)
I am forever grateful that I followed Molls here one afternoon to return her address book after she left it in our post-swim class coffee get-together, and happened into one of the most wonderful experiences that I shared with Ayize starting when he was just a wee little one.

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A class especially for 1- to 3-year-olds. Balance beams, trampolines, rings, mats, horses, tunnels, bars, a gynormous foam-filled pit...need I go on? You have to supervise your kid, but basically, you're both let loose and allowed to do pretty much anything you want on pretty much any piece of equipment. Avoid the weekends if you want even less restrictions, since weekday mornings, the toddlers are pretty much the only kids in class and you don't have to worry about interfering with older kids' classes. Amazingly fun (oh, and your kid will probably like it too!)
No drop-in times; you'll have to sign up for a 12-week class which costs $91/Wilmette residents and $114/non-residents . But worth every penny for those of us with athletic kiddos who have energy to burn in the wintry months.


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Gymboree (Skokie)

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Gymboree offers parent-tot classes for all ages at several locations (Old Orchard, Northbrook Court, Lakeview, and Lincoln Park). Each week, the gym equipment (ramps, slides, monkey bars, air logs, etc.) is rotated into a new setup and the teacher leads the kids through a different series of activities based on the theme of the week. Each class includes a few songs, circle activities, a short story, and the very-awesome "parachute time". Plus, you get your hand stamped by Teach on the way out - a nice way to transition the kids to the door with minimum tears when the fun has ended.
Gymboree isn't cheap now that they've switched to monthly membership - around $80/month - but besides your 4 weekly classes, that fee includes generous open gym hours five afternoons a week. Since the gym set-up is changed every week or two, it's like a fresh indoor playground each time. Also, enrolled members can play at any of the other locations during their open gym hours, for a nice change of scenery. Adjacent mall parking is free at both the Old Orchard and Northbrook Court locations.

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My Gym (Skokie)


Parent-Tot gym classes, and I believe they're now offering unlimited classes at one set monthly price (comparable to Gymboree's pricing), so this would be the better option for parents who want to hit an indoor playground frequently but prefer a structured setting (unlike Gymboree, which offers unlimited free play during specific daily periods, but not unlimited classes). Not sure if they offer a free trial class but I seem to remember they do if you call and ask. They also throw periodic seasonal and character-themed parties, usually charging $5/child, and we've done a couple of those. Not a bad way to spend a couple hours on an icy cold afternoon. If you sign up for their email list (see link above), you'll get notice about events as they come up.

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A fun place to boogie with your toddler to international music and world dance, at the Hip Circle Studio in Evanston. Fun mixed with a little much-needed fitness for me! Studio founder/teacher Malik provides the kids and mamas with fun belly-dancing coin scarves and other adornments, which Ayize loved. Unfortunately, we only made once class before Ayize was set upon by the ear problems which plagued him for almost two years - but we hope to make it back now that he's improved!

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One last word about classes: the Evanston Ecology Center, the Emily Oaks Nature Center, and the Chicago Botanic Gardens (all cited above; click on header links for contact information) offer nature-oriented classes in all seasons for kids 2 and up with a parent or caregiver. I've only heard glowing reviews of them from many friends. Check online or call for details about start dates, class descriptions, prices, class length, and requirements.

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Okay guys! I'm sure I'm missing a bunch of stuff, but I'm too damn tired to care and this is way overdue anyway. Comments, feedback, and criticism are very appreciated. Are these posts too long? TMI? Too many (or not enough) pictures? Thanks - they help me try to make this space a better place!

Hooray! Let's play!

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Giving it my all every day. Trying to make the world a kinder, gentler, happier place - one blog post at a time.