Chicago has some of the best children’s museums in the world where interactive play, with a focus on engaging youth development, is the modus operandi. We’ve rounded up the GOAT (greatest of all time) museums for kids, all with special family programming and events, that are fitting for various ages and interests.
Newbie: Museum of Illusions
Chicago's newest museum will be an absolute delight for kids. They have a chance to immerse themselves in the wonderful world of illusions! You’ll find more than 80 visual and educational exhibits featuring holograms, stereograms, optical illusions and immersive rooms designed to tease the senses and trick the mind.
25 E. Washington St., Loop; Online: moichicago.com
The Polar Play Zone is designed with littles in mind, which means kids have the run in the penguin play place, submarine and touch tanks with real starfish and stingrays. Visit the Amazon Rising and Wild Reef exhibits, see an aquatic show with dolphins, ask questions during an animal chat and watch a 4-D movie. Also, do not miss seeing the live diving and feeding at the Caribbean Reef.
1200 S. Lake Shore Dr., 312-939-2438; Online: sheddaquarium.org
Field Museum of Natural History
The big thing to see these days is literally big: Maximo the Titanosaur, the largest dinosaur that ever lived. And, the world's most famous T. Rex, Sue, got the royal treatment with brand new digs on the 2nd floor. Volunteer docents will, at your request, lead you around the museum on a public tour. Also, in Stanley Field Hall there are discovery carts for hands-on learning and exploring. If you're up for a stroll outside, the Rice Native Gardens are perfect for a peaceful fresh-air break.
1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., 312-922-9410; Online: fieldmuseum.org
Chicago History Museum
The history museum might not pop in your head right away when considering which museum to bring your kids to, but it’s definitely worth a look-see. Learn how blues music came to Chicago through southern black migrants, bring classroom studies into focus through a deeper look into Dr. King’s work within the Civil Rights movement, get a glimpse into what Chicago looked like during Lincoln’s era, and visit the Sensing Chicago permanent exhibit where kids can ride a high-wheel bicycle, play with baseballs at a recreation of Comiskey Park, and climb into a life-sized Chicago hot dog (with no mustard, of course). Of course, there are several family-friendly events and happenings throughout the year—take a peek at the online calendar under the “families” audience tab.
1601 N. Clark St., 312-642-4600; Online: chicagohistory.org
The Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn
Play-based activity is important for children’s development emotionally, physically and mentally. The Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn has designed activities and exhibits that engage children in social activity in response to that fact. Popular highlights include: Water Adventure and Beachcomber Island, Safe Haven Animal Shelter, Nanoscale: The Science of Small, The Moo Café, Dream a Dream Theatre, Friendly Market, Air Maze and Health Quest.
5100 Museum Dr., Oaklawn, 708-423-6709; Online: cmoaklawn.org
Kohl Children's Museum
Children eight and under will love exploring this museum with hands-on exhibits to keep them busy for hours. The love of learning is nurtured here through music, art, water play, and nature-focused exhibits. Shop in the Whole Foods Market, make sandwiches in the play café, take care of stuffed pets at the vet, and send hand-made cars down a chute at the SpotHero Car Garage. New activities and exhibits are featured on the regular, which means that there is always something fresh and fun at the museum.
2100 Patriot Blvd., Glenview, 847-832-6600; Online: kohlchildrensmuseum.org
Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier
Play and learning are bridged together at this museum, where kids can: tackle the Cloud Buster, a 30-ton, 37-foot-tall steel dreamscape that celebrates adventure and risk-taking — qualities that are inherent to childhood — excavate dinosaur bones, explore the way water moves through pulleys and pipes, pretend to fight fires, and discover how our skyline full of buildings is created through architecture and engineering.
700 E. Grand Ave., Navy Pier, 312-527-1000; Online: chicagochildrensmuseum.org
Since 1930, Chicagoans have been learning and exploring at this planetarium, which includes interactive permanent exhibits, the Doane Observatory and highly-rated Sky Shows. Special programming exists for kids of all ages, including special nights out for teenagers.
1300 S. Lake Shore Dr., Museum Campus; Online: adlerplanetarium.org
Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
At Peggy Notebaert, Children are connected to nature and science through the museum’s hands-on exhibits, family events and education programming. Learn about the specimen and archival collections: birds, eggs and nests; mammals; amphibians and reptiles; insects and spiders; fossils and more. You'll find an indoor treehouse that can be climbed on and in to learn about animal habitats (there’s even a crow’s nest at the top). The most popular exhibit is the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, where you can watch 40 species of these delicate creatures flutter around the 2,700 square-foot indoor greenhouse. Other fun events include: interactions with turtles, live animal feedings and storytimes.
2430 N. Cannon Dr., 773-755-5100; Online: naturemuseum.org
DuPage Children’s Museum
DuPage Children's Musem's 20,000-square-feet of play space will keep little kids and their imaginations busy for hours. There are designated spaces for babies and toddlers and older kids can run around and get their sillies out. Exhibits are situated throughout the space for extra entertainment and learning. Enjoy storytime, movement and music classes and pop-up playtime.
301 N. Washington St., Naperville, 630-637-8000; Online: dupagechildrens.org
Museum of Science & Industry
This museum has it all: flight and ride simulators, submarine, coal mine, chick hatchery, mirror maze, storms created by science, model ships and railroads, fairy castle, farming equipment, pinball machines and classic metal toys, a whispering gallery and a Pioneer Zephyr. Four films are shown in the large dome theater. This museum is massive—most people don’t see everything in one visit so plan accordingly. . . and wear your most favorite walking shoes.
5700 S. Lake Shore Dr., 773-684-1414; Online: msichicago.org
This hidden-gem museum delights kids with hands-on exhibits about light, water, wind and more. Come wearing your thinking cap—or just romp around. Attractions include a giant “Lite Brite” pegboard, musical instruments, and climbing tubes and tunnels that stretch two-and-a-half stories.
4701 Oakton St., Skokie; Online: skokieparks.org
KidsWork Children’s Museum
Local parents and educators founded KidsWork because they wanted a safe and fun place for kids to play and learn. What they’ve found, is that the community as a whole benefits. Kids can roam around the museum’s two floors, discovering science, art and movement exhibits. Highlights include the Pet Vet, Imagination Theater, Art Works, Tot Spot and Light Exhibit.
11 S. White St., Frankfort, 815-469-1199; Online: kidsworkchildrensmuseum.org
Bronzeville Children’s Museum
The first and only African American children’s museum in America, Bronzeville Children’s Museum’s exhibits and galleries highlight African American culture. Learn about famous politicians, artists, musicians and athletes that lived in this neighborhood, take part in enriching S.T.E.M. activities, learn about prominent African American inventors and explore why healthy eating is important for families.
301 S. Stony Island Ave., 773-721-9301; Online: bronzevillechildrensmuseum.com
Wonder Works is best for the little guys, ages birth to eight-years-old. This children’s museum is a designated shoe-free play space, with things to climb, jump and run on. Art, performance, design and building are the main objectives here and kids are encouraged to be creative and let their personalities shine. Over 600 special events are held every year, including a concert series, celebration of African American History and Dino Works. Kids here can meet other pals and brush up on their social skills and adults can hang out with new friends, too.
6445 W. North Ave., Oak Park, 708-383-4815; Online: wonder-works.org
— Wendy Altschuler