The holidays are behind us and the long Chicago winter stretches out ahead. This leaves all parents and caregivers with the same question: How the heck are we going to entertain our kids for the next three months?
[Related: Make winter in Chicago your favorite season with these fun outdoor activities]
Having lived through eight Chicago winters with at least one child, I give you my top activities and favorite things to do to kill time—I mean, educate and stimulate—your little ones. The best thing about most of these tips is they work for both the infant/toddler set and elementary-age kids. Get out and have some fun this winter!
My favorite free activities that work for the whole family:
- The library. I love libraries, all libraries. My local branch has a fantastic section for both elementary-age readers as well as young toddlers. It also offers games, puzzles, computer time, homework help, and movies to keep kids of all ages entertained for a solid stretch of time in the morning or afternoon, and most have Saturday hours!
- Free days at any of the museums (but go early). I sometimes avoid these days because the museums (understandably) can become so crowded, however I’ve learned a few tricks over the years. The benefits of getting there right when the museum opens: On both the Museum Campus and near the Peggy Notebaert Museum, there is cheap to free street parking that is not yet occupied; and the museums usually doesn’t get insanely crowded until later morning when you will be on your way out.
The Lincoln Park Zoo. It might sound insane to go to the zoo when it’s freezing out but here’s why it works:
- It’s almost always empty when it’s cold out so you have the zoo to yourself if you motivate.
- There are so many exhibits that are warm and indoors – if you building hop you can spend at least an hour or two there in general quiet and warmth.
- There is more likely to be free street parking or metered parking around the zoo if you’re not a member and you don’t want to spring for the zoo lot.
[Related: Does your child have SAD, or is it just the winter blues?]
Great activities for the entire family for a fee:
- The movies. My 2 year old will sit through pretty much anything if I give her popcorn, but I understand some 2 year olds might not sit through an entire movie. But if you have a movie-going family this is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon. The Davis Theater in Lincoln Square was recently renovated and is $9 for kids.
- Little Beans/Big Beans in Evanston. Definitely not inexpensive but Mondays are $6, and if you get there early, you can relax in the toddler room while your older kids play on the basketball court or on the obstacle course.
- The Morton Arboretum in Lisle. This is a hike from the city and it’s all outside, but to me it is well worth it. If you bundle up and can hit the highway after rush hour this is just an amazing way to spend the day. There is a children’s area that has both a maze garden and a fantastic larger space to explore. There is usually a small craft set out, gnomes to hunt for, rope climbing to tackle, and of course hot cocoa in the cafeteria at the end. If you have just older ones with you there is also the ability to rent snow shoes, which we are hoping to do this winter.
I’ve found the biggest challenge to getting out of the house throughout the winter in Chicago is mostly my own attitude. There are some hidden gems in this city in the winter, and if I can just motivate to get out to see them it’s always worth it.