Best Things to Do in Chicago for Kids: Family-Friendly Activities

Exploring Chicago with kids can be a rewarding experience filled with fun and educational activities that cater to the curiosity and energy of young minds. As one of America’s most vibrant cities, it boasts an array of attractions that are perfect for family outings.

From splashing around in the shallow pools of Millennium Park to the exploration of world-class museums, the Windy City offers countless opportunities for children to learn, play, and create memories.

Children playing in a colorful playground with a backdrop of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan. The scene includes families picnicking and flying kites on the grassy area nearby

We understand the importance of engaging and interactive experiences for kids, and that’s why we look to Chicago’s diverse offerings to keep the little ones entertained. Whether it’s discovering the underwater world at Shedd Aquarium, getting an aerial view of the city from Skydeck, or embracing the artistry at the Art Institute of Chicago, there’s something for every interest.

Seasonal activities, such as beach outings in the summer or self-guided scavenger hunts through the city’s green spaces in the spring, highlight Chicago’s commitment to being a year-round destination for families.

As we navigate through Chicago’s child-friendly attractions, it’s clear that the city has mastered the art of combining education with excitement. The city’s rich history, cultural institutions, and immersive environments ensure that children are not only entertained but inspired.

With an abundance of free and accessible options, we find that planning a family trip to Chicago can be as straightforward as it is enjoyable, making it an ideal city for our kids to explore and discover.

Iconic Parks and Gardens

Children playing in Millennium Park's Crown Fountain, families picnicking in Grant Park, and a carousel ride at Maggie Daley Park

We’re fortunate in Chicago to have a diverse array of parks and gardens that are perfect for families and children seeking outdoor adventures. From interactive art installations to tranquil green escapes, these spaces not only offer visual pleasure but also a range of activities for all ages.

Millennium Park and Attractions

Millennium Park is a modern marvel for families. The Bean (officially known as Cloud Gate), with its reflective steel surface, offers a unique photo opportunity that kids love. Adjacent to it, Maggie Daley Park serves as an urban playground paradise, complete with climbing walls and mini golf.

  • Families: Find interactive fountains in summer, ice skating in winter.
  • Children: Enjoy the Play Garden, designed for various age groups.

Lincoln Park Highlights

Lincoln Park stretches alongside Lake Michigan and is a cornerstone for family outings. It’s home to the Lincoln Park Zoo, which is free and showcases animals from all over the world in thoughtfully designed habitats.

  • Zoo: Open year-round, with educational programs and events.
  • Nature Walks: Explore the park’s well-kept trails and boardwalks.

Gardens and Conservatories

For a lush experience, the Garfield Park Conservatory offers a year-round tropical climate amid extensive plant collections. Families also gravitate towards the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park for its serene setting and nature programs.

  • Garfield Park Conservatory: Indoor and outdoor gardens, often hosting family-friendly events.
  • Chicago Botanic Garden: Features 27 gardens and four natural areas spread over 385 acres.

In embracing these green spaces, we’re not only nurturing our love for nature but creating lasting memories with our little ones.

Museums and Educational Experiences

Children explore interactive exhibits in a Chicago museum, learning through hands-on experiences and educational displays

Chicago offers a wealth of museums and educational experiences perfect for young minds eager to learn and explore. Let’s take a closer look at these havens of knowledge and culture.

Museum Campus Gems

Shedd Aquarium

  • Home to a vast array of aquatic life, the Shedd Aquarium provides an immersive experience with exhibits like the Caribbean Reef and Amazon Rising.

Field Museum

  • At the Field Museum, kids marvel at dinosaurs, including Sue, the T. rex, and explore extensive natural history exhibits in a captivating environment.

Adler Planetarium

  • Space enthusiasts rejoice at the Adler Planetarium, where our galaxy and beyond are brought to life with engaging shows and hands-on exhibits.

Interactive Learning Centers

Chicago Children’s Museum

  • Located at Navy Pier, this museum offers innovative, child-focused exhibits that encourage learning through play and creativity.

Museum of Science and Industry

  • Known for its interactive approach to science, its hands-on exhibits like the Coal Mine and the U-505 Submarine engage children in a unique way.

Art and History Exhibits

Art Institute of Chicago

  • The Ryan Learning Center at the Art Institute provides a kid-friendly approach to art. Their family workshops are educational yet fun for all ages.

Chicago History Museum

  • Delve into the city’s past through interactive and multimedia exhibits that make history accessible and entertaining for children.

American Writers Museum

  • While not traditionally a children’s museum, this space ignites a love for reading and writing, with a special gallery dedicated to children’s literature.

Adventure and Outdoor Activities

Children kayak on the Chicago River, passing under iconic bridges and skyscrapers. Families picnic in Millennium Park, while others bike along the Lakefront Trail

Chicago offers an array of outdoor and adventure activities perfect for kids to explore and enjoy. From splashing around in waterfront attractions to discovering wildlife in natural settings, we’ll guide you through some of the best options in the city.

Waterfront Attractions

Navy Pier is a Chicago landmark offering a plethora of child-friendly activities. At its heart, the Centennial Wheel provides panoramic views of the city skyline and Lake Michigan. Kids will also delight in the playful spouts of Crown Fountain during warmer months, a favorite in Millennium Park.

  • Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier: Enjoy a ride on this iconic Ferris wheel.
  • Crown Fountain: Interact with the unique public art installation featuring water-spouting video faces.

Recreational Green Spaces

We find that the green spaces in Chicago are not only refreshing but also bustling with life and recreational activities. Millennium Park invites families for self-guided scavenger hunts in Lurie Garden. Kids can engage their adventurous spirit at Northerly Island, a lush park that serves as a natural oasis with stunning skyline views and ample space for exploration.

  • Millennium Park: Participate in scavenger hunts and seasonal cultural events.
  • Northerly Island: Explore this 91-acre peninsula and enjoy its greenery and wildlife.

Exotic Wildlife Encounters

For those keen on animal encounters, Lincoln Park Zoo provides a family-friendly experience with free admission. The zoo resides in a picturesque park alongside Lake Michigan. Away from the downtown area, Brookfield Zoo offers insight into the lives of animals from around the globe in more immersive habitats.

  • Lincoln Park Zoo: Wander through a variety of exhibits, free of charge.
  • Brookfield Zoo: Encounter exotic wildlife within the zoo’s expansive grounds.

Family Entertainment

Children laughing and playing at a colorful playground in a spacious park in Chicago

In Chicago, we ensure that the youngest visitors have memorable experiences with a plethora of lively, interactive, and awe-inspiring entertainment options tailored for families.

Amusement and Thrill Rides

At the heart of Chicago’s family thrill offerings, Navy Pier’s Centennial Wheel stands out, providing panoramic views of the city skyline and Lake Michigan. Kids can also enjoy the traditional carousel at Navy Pier, which is a hit among the younger ones. For an adventure sky-high, the Willis Tower Skydeck and 360 Chicago provide exciting vistas from the pinnacle of the city’s famous skyscrapers.

Theater and Performances

Our city takes pride in the variety of child-friendly theatrical experiences it offers. The Chicago Shakespeare Theater is renowned for adaptations that engage both kids and adults. Family-friendly performances are carefully crafted to captivate the imaginations of children, making theater an accessible and enriching experience for all ages.

Interactive and Playful Spaces

Interactive spaces in Chicago like the Chicago Children’s Museum and the Sloomoo Institute invite kids to learn and play. Hands-on exhibits at the children’s museum let imagination run wild, and the Sloomoo Institute provides a sensory journey with its slime-centered fun. The city also boasts of several thematic playgrounds, such as those at Oz Park, which encourage outdoor activity and enjoyment in a storybook-inspired environment. For fans of building blocks, LEGOLAND Discovery Center offers creative workshops and engaging displays that fascinate kids and parents alike.

Cultural Highlights

Children explore a vibrant cityscape with iconic landmarks like the Bean, Navy Pier, and the Field Museum. Families enjoy cultural activities and interactive exhibits

In Chicago, we take tremendous pride in our city’s rich tapestry of culture, which is woven with architectural wonders and flourishing arts and literature. From museums that celebrate celestial achievements to iconic structures that scrape the sky, each aspect invites children to explore and appreciate human creativity and history.

Architectural Marvels

Chicago’s skyline is a testament to architectural genius, and two structures stand out as educational spectacles for kids. The Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), punctuates the city’s silhouette with its towering presence. Families can ascend to the Skydeck to witness unparalleled views from 1,353 feet in the air. To truly appreciate the city’s architectural history, we can embark on one of the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s boat tours along the river, where the stories behind the majestic buildings are brought to life, engaging both young minds and adults alike.

  • Architectural Entities Covered:
    • Willis Tower
    • Skydeck
    • Chicago Architecture Foundation
    • Boat tours

Arts and Literature

Our journey through Chicago’s cultural landscape isn’t complete without delving into the arts and literature scene, which is both inspiring and educational for kids. The Art Institute of Chicago showcases an impressive collection that spans thousands of years, including works that resonate with young audiences. Additionally, at the American Writers Museum, literary achievements are honored in interactive exhibits that encourage kids to discover the power of words. These experiences not only impart knowledge but also inspire a lifelong appreciation for the arts and literature.

  • Arts and Literature Entities Covered:
    • Art Institute of Chicago
    • American Writers Museum

By focusing on these cultural highlights, we ensure that the children visiting Chicago engage with the city’s history, and immerse themselves in the world of art, architecture and literature, which are pillars of our vibrant metropolis.

Food and Dining

A bustling restaurant with colorful tables and chairs, filled with families enjoying a variety of delicious foods. Outside, children play in a nearby park, laughing and running around

When visiting Chicago with kids, we find it’s essential to explore the city’s family-friendly dining scene. Chicago’s culinary landscape caters to young palates with an array of kid-friendly restaurants that offer both inviting atmospheres and menus suitable for children.

For a classic Chicago experience, we can’t overlook the Chicago-style hot dog. Often found at street vendors and local eateries, this all-beef frankfurter is a culinary staple. It’s distinguished by its poppy seed bun and a heap of toppings including yellow mustard, bright green relish, chopped onions, tomato slices, a pickle spear, sport peppers, and a dash of celery salt. Remember: ketchup is typically a no-go in the traditional Chicago-style.

Another sweet treat we recommend is the Original Rainbow Cone, a colorful stack of ice cream flavors including chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (vanilla with cherries and walnuts), pistachio, and orange sherbet. This iconic dessert captures the essence of summer in Chicago and is a delightful treat for kids.

Here’s a quick list of family-friendly dining options we’ve gathered:

  • Kid-friendly Tours: Package deals offering dining experiences tailored to families.
  • Kid-Friendly Restaurants:
    • The Warbler: Offers a special Supper Club for families.
    • Luella’s Southern Kitchen: A cozy spot in Lincoln Square known for Southern comfort food.
    • Kings Bowl: Combines dining with bowling, a fun option in Lincoln Park. Ideal for a daytime family outing.
    • Summer House Santa Monica: A nearby restaurant with diverse menu options, from traditional pizzas to more adventurous dishes.

We find these venues offer the flexibility and variety required to keep dining with kids enjoyable and stress-free during a visit to Chicago.

Shopping and Souvenirs

Families browsing colorful souvenir shops in downtown Chicago. Kids excitedly pointing at toys and trinkets. Busy streets and tall buildings in the background

When we take the kids to Chicago, finding the perfect souvenir becomes an integral part of the journey. We know the best memories deserve to be cherished with something special to bring home.

Magnificent Mile
On Michigan Avenue, known as the Magnificent Mile, we find an array of shops suitable for all ages. From mainstream retailers to designer boutiques, there’s a treasure for every child.

Shopping Highlights on the Magnificent Mile:

  • American Girl Place: A wonderland for doll enthusiasts, with a chance for our kids to pick a doll that resonates with them.
  • LEGO Store: Engaging our children’s creativity with a colorful selection of LEGO sets.

River North
River North is a hotspot we visit for art galleries and design. It’s where we discover offbeat and artistic gifts, especially at quirky independent stores sprinkled throughout the neighborhood.

Children’s Favorites in River North:

  • Candyality: A sweet tooth’s dream come true with an assortment of candies that also make great gifts.

We always make a point to explore Andersonville for its Swedish heritage and unique toy shops. We find that one-of-a-kind gift while enjoying the small-town vibe within the big city.

Notable Stops in Andersonville:

  • Women & Children First: An independent bookstore where we find literature for kids and an uplifting selection for women.
  • Toys et Cetera: Filled with educational and fun toys, we choose something enlightening for the little ones.

In each of these places, we capture the essence of Chicago in items that our kids will love and cherish, ensuring the trip remains memorable long after we return home.

Seasonal and Free Activities

Children playing in a colorful park with a carousel, ice skating rink, and a giant snowman. Families enjoying outdoor activities in a cityscape with tall buildings in the background

We know that exploring Chicago with kids can be filled with excitement without breaking the bank. Our city offers a wealth of no-cost seasonal activities and attractions that offer fun for the whole family.

Outdoor Festivals and Events

Grant Park Music Festival: Held in the summer, this free concert series is a perfect way to enjoy classical music in the open air of Grant Park. Check the festival’s schedule for family-friendly performances.

Lincoln Park Events: Throughout the year, Lincoln Park serves as a venue for various free activities. From nature walks to seasonal fairs, there’s often something happening in this expansive green space.

No-Cost Attractions

  • Beaches: Chicago boasts several free public beaches perfect for a family day out during the warm months. Visit the sandy shores of the Lake Michigan coastline for swimming, sandcastle building, or just relaxing by the water.
  • Lincoln Park Zoo: Open year-round, it’s one of the oldest zoos in the country and it’s free to enter. Come see a wide variety of animals and learn about wildlife conservation.
  • Parks and Playgrounds: In neighborhoods across the city, parks and playgrounds offer endless hours of free fun. Areas like the famous Millennium Park feature modern play equipment alongside iconic art installations.

By visiting these locales and participating in free events, we can provide our children with enriching experiences that capture the spirit of Chicago.

Unique Experiences

Children laughing and playing at Millennium Park's Crown Fountain, while others explore the interactive exhibits at the Chicago Children's Museum

Chicago offers a plethora of unique activities specifically tailored for children, providing educational and awe-inspiring moments. Whether it’s gazing at the city from sky-high vantage points or getting up close with diverse wildlife, our recommendations ensure unforgettable experiences for the younger visitors.

Cityscape Views

For a bird’s-eye view of Chicago, we recommend the Skydeck at Willis Tower and 360 CHICAGO. Both attractions offer unparalleled panoramic views of the cityscape and Lake Michigan. Willis Tower’s Skydeck, standing 1,353 feet in the air, provides an adrenaline rush with its glass-floored Ledge, allowing kids to stand directly over the city streets.

  • Skydeck at Willis Tower hours: Daily, 9 AM – 10 PM
  • 360 CHICAGO hours: Daily, 9 AM – 11 PM (last entry 30 minutes prior to closing)

Pro tip: Visit during early morning hours to avoid crowds and enjoy a serene viewing experience.

Local Wildlife and Conservation

Connecting with wildlife is a powerful experience for kids, and Chicago’s zoos and aquariums make this possible. Lincoln Park Zoo, one of the oldest in the nation, is home to gorillas and polar bears among other animals, and it’s free to the public. With the mission of wildlife conservation and public education, it makes for an engaging visit.

For marine life enthusiasts, the Shedd Aquarium is the place to be. With exhibits ranging from playful sea otters to the mesmerizing Caribbean Reef, children can observe a diverse array of aquatic animals.

  • Lincoln Park Zoo highlights:
    • Penguins: Exhibit housing fascinating penguin species.
    • Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo: Featuring North American wildlife.
  • Shedd Aquarium must-see:
    • Polar Play Zone: Get a penguin’s-eye view of underwater life.
    • Amazon Rising: A journey through a replica of the Amazon with catfish and piranhas.

We recommend timing your visit to catch feeding sessions or interactive wildlife shows, enhancing the educational experience for kids.

Educational Pursuits

Children exploring interactive exhibits at a science museum in Chicago

When exploring Chicago with children, we focus on experiences that combine education with entertainment. Our youngsters not only have a blast but also engage in enriching activities that feed their curiosity and expand their knowledge.

Interactive Workshops and Programs

At the Ryan Learning Center, located within the Art Institute of Chicago, we guide our children through hands-on art workshops and family programs designed to inspire young minds. These activities complement the museum’s extensive collection, allowing children an immersive approach to art appreciation.

The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum stands out with its nature-focused workshops, which provide our kids an up-close encounter with local ecosystems and wildlife. Interactive displays and programs about the environmental sciences make the learning process captivating.

We also encourage visits to the Museum of Science and Industry, which is one of the largest science museums in the world. Here’s what you can expect:

  • A plethora of interactive exhibits that cover various topics, from physics to biology.
  • Themed workshops that change periodically, always offering something new to discover.

Our trips to these Chicago institutions are not just walks through a gallery but interactive experiences where learning is hands-on and fun. Through these educational pursuits, our children’s horizons are broadened within the vibrant and intellectual landscape of Chicago’s museums.

Sports and Recreation

Children playing soccer in a park with the Chicago skyline in the background. Families having picnics and flying kites nearby

In Chicago, we find a wealth of options for young sports enthusiasts and families looking to engage in recreational activities. The city’s robust athletic spirit and ample green spaces cater to a variety of interests.

Chicago Sports Museum: We suggest starting at the Chicago Sports Museum to immerse your kids in the city’s rich sports legacy. Interactive exhibits allow kids to experience the physics of sports and even compare their jumping abilities to those of famous athletes.

Baseball Games: Chicago’s love affair with baseball makes a trip to Wrigley Field a must for families. We recommend catching a Cubs game, where the energy is palpable, and even the youngest fans can appreciate America’s pastime. Check schedules in advance to find family-friendly promotions and game day activities.

Recreational Trails: For outdoor enthusiasts, the 606 Trail provides an urban oasis where we see families biking, jogging, and strolling daily. The 606 trail connects neighborhoods with a beautiful, elevated path that weaves through the city, providing safe and scenic views.

Here’s a breakdown of some favorite sports and recreational spots:

Location Activity Kid-Friendly Feature
Chicago Sports Museum Interactive Exhibits Hands-on learning
Wrigley Field Baseball Games Family-friendly zones
The 606 Trail Biking/Walking Elevated, car-free path

We encourage families to experience these engaging activities, which not only offer enjoyment but also instill a sense of community and athleticism in children.

Stephanie Creek

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