The cost of entertaining pre-schoolers during Chicago winters can add up. From indoor playrooms to classes to museums, nothing comes cheap. But some things do come free! Namely, the “free days” at some of Chicago’s best kid-friendly museums. The down side, of course, is bigger crowds. But if you’re on a strict budget and still want to expose your kids to culture, not to mention fun, the free days are for you:
Adler Planetarium: A must-see for kids eight and under is the 25-minute One World, One Sky: Big Bird’s Adventure where Big Bird, Elmo and their friend from China, Hu Hu Zhu, take viewers on a journey of discovery to learn about the Big Dipper, the North Star, the Sun, and the Moon. Click here for the upcoming free days sponsored by Charter One. 1300 North Lake Shore Drive; 312-922-7827.
Art Institute of Chicago: Kids don’t have to be art connoisseurs to have a blast here. Check out the Touch Gallery, the Kraft Education Center and the “Faces, Places and Inner Spaces” exhibit where little ones can try on masks and try their hand at Chinese calligraphy. Free after 5:00 pm on Thursdays; kids under 13 always free. 111 South Michigan Avenue; 312-443-3600.
Chicago Children’s Museum: Perfect for toddlers and up, this museum combines education with play time. You can literally spend hours here with your kids exploring WaterWays (bring a dry change of clothes), pretending to ride public transportation, climbing TreeHouse Trails, playing palentologist in a hunt for dinosaur fossils, catching faux fish in a mock river and more. Free every Thursday night from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm thanks to Kraft Free Family Night and every first Sunday kids under 15 are admitted at no charge for Target Free First Sundays. 700 East Grand at Navy Pier; 312-527-1000.
Chicago History Museum: Children can explore Chicago using their five senses at the “Sensing Chicago” exhibit and experience the city’s first “L” car and its first steam-powered locomotive. Free every Monday; children under 12 free every day 1601 North Clark Street; 312-642-4600.
Field Museum: What kid doesn’t love to marvel at Sue the Dinosaur? Plus, they have the Crown Family PlayLab with six themed play areas perfect for pre-schoolers. Check here for the upcoming free days, including the Target Second Free Mondays program. 1400 South Lake Shore Drive; 312-922-9410.
Shedd Aquarium: In the Polar Play Zone, kids will get up close and personal with sharks, sea otters, dolphins and beluga whales. Pre-schoolers will also get a kick out of donning penguin costumes and sliding down the “ice” like a real penguin. Check here for upcoming free days. 1200 South Lake Shore Drive; 312-939-2438.
The Notebaert Nature Museum: This is my new favorite place! The Exploring Trees Inside and Out exhibit keeps my three-year-olds entertained for hours “protecting” big blue eggs in a gigantic treehouse with an accompanying slide. This hands-on, educational exhibit is open through January 30. There is of course the infamous butterfly room where kids and butterflies commune with nature together and a pre-school area with caves and tunnels to explore. Children under 3 are always free and Thursdays are “suggested donation days.” Once the girls turned three opted for the family membership for $60 that includes a yearly pass for a family of four plus 50 percent discounts to a host of other museums. Bargain! 2340 North Cannon Drive; 773-755-5100.
If you plan to visit any one museum multiple times in 0ne year, always check out membership rates which are usually great deals for those who visit often. Know of any other free museum days? Let us know!