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TODAY

Monday, February 18

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Airbags

Quite unexpectedly, last week the kid and I ended up at the Chicago Children's Museum. An impromptu visit while my husband was at work for a meeting. Hitching a ride with him down there, Vincent and I soon found ourselves at the front door of Navy Pier.

Knowing that I'm not a big fan of Navy Pier, I was a bit hesitant to go there — especially on a beautiful 85 degree day for fear of vast crowds, but it was 3pm on a Thursday, so I figured it wouldn't be so bad.

The Chicago Children's Museum was founded in 1982 as a response to cutbacks of various programs in the Chicago Public School system. It was initially housed within the school system and its buildings, but soon grew into a traveling exhibition which visited the schools, before taking residence at the Lincoln Park's park district facility. After one more move in 1995, the Chicago Children's Museum finally found its permanent home at Navy Pier.

Up until then, I had really avoided the museum thinking Vincent was too young to appreciate it. The thought of trying to walk through crowds of running children while he was still wriggling in my arms and wanting to nurse every few hours didn't really appeal to me. Now that he was a year old, however, I guessed he would actually enjoy a visit there. Even if he was still too young for many of the exhibits, he would love watching other children run and play.

As soon as we walked into the museum, the noise and bustle of the Pier seemed to disappear. In its place, came the giggles and intense glances of children as they absorbed and studied the environment around them.

The first thing to greet us was the Magic School Bus exhibition based on the PBS children's series of the same name. Older children can learn about the weather, and other natural sciences with various hands-on displays. While there wasn't much for Vincent to do there, he did enjoy the hot air balloon experiment, in which hot air caused four Mylar balloons to rise up and gently float down with the push of a button. Up and down, up and down, up and down... up and down. Yeah, after about 10 minutes of that, mama was ready to move on.

Since the kid can't walk yet, the things he can actually do in the museum are limited — but after checking the map and brochure, I noticed that there were three or four exhibits geared towards children under the age of five — with special activities just for non-walkers.

"Treehouse Trails" on the third floor is a cool forest-themed room that lets children explore and imagine what it would be like to camp outdoors. There's a large tree house, a goofy little canoe and "river" they paddle down, a log-cabin with a kitchen and garden, a waterfall they can fish from and, for those who have yet to master their walking, a special giant "pond" complete with ducks and logs they can crawl over and sit on. The infant pond is actually a giant enclosed, padded space where the logs and ducks are as soft as your kid's butt.

While in the pond, Vincent exchanged curious glances with another 11-month-old, gently touched hands with an 8-month-old with earrings and threw a sponge ball to a talkative one-year-old. Here, the babies are free to explore the area, each other and can feel safe while doing so. Safe that is, until some 3-year-old in clunky gym shoes comes barreling in and pushing everyone out of the way while his mother sits watching and doesn't say a word. Yes, I'm talking to you, lady on the cell phone.

Moving on, we ventured to the "BIG Backyard." A gigantic garden filled with huge insects, toadstools and flowers that give adults and children an insect-view of the world. There is even an enormous foot you can crawl beneath. When you first enter the backyard, a pretty light display of fluttering butterflies stands out and lets you know you are entering another world. Wall-to-wall mirrors and another cushioned infant's area kept Vincent entertained for a while, but there really wasn't much to the exhibit.

From the BIG Backyard, we stopped at the "PlayMaze" exhibit. Set in your local neighborhood, children under 5 can ride and drive a CTA bus, scan groceries at the local Jewel, "walk" around the city, and even change a tire. Like the previous exhibits, the PlayMaze also featured an infant area, only this one had a tunnel they could crawl through and puzzles and dolls to play with. Also in this area is a special place to nurse your infant or feed your child.

Before leaving the museum, we made a pit stop at the "family restroom." If you have never experienced a family restroom, I recommend you do so — if you have a family, that is, otherwise you're just being creepy. There in one place are all the wonders of the modern restroom: a toilet and a urinal! A changing table! A sink! Well... that was really all, but I have never had opportunity to use either a toilet or a urinal presented to me, so it was quite a thrill. (Note to those without children: little things like these give those with children a big kick.)

If you plan on going to the museum, I highly recommend going during the week in the late afternoon (between 1pm to 4pm). It wasn't crowded at all, which is always a plus when going out with kids. The museum is located right off the main Navy Pier entrance and if you have a stroller, you can enter through the gift shop and take the elevator up one floor.

All in all, it wasn't bad; even though he couldn't partake of all the exhibits, he still did a lot and we had a nice relaxing visit. It was then that I began to appreciate how small my son still is. As I exited the museum and saw the other parents frantically chasing after the preschooler and the echoes of "NO! NO! NO!" flailing behind me, I looked at my sweet innocent immobile son and thought, "Sweet Baby Jesus, he too, will soon be running around like a crazy boy. Save me!"

Chicago Children's Museum
700 East Grand Avenue at Navy Pier
312/527-1000

Open daily, 10am-8pm
Children and Adults - $7
Seniors - $6
Children under one - Free
Free Family Night - Thursday evenings, 5-8pm

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About the Author(s)

Alejandra Valera is a new mom and writer. If there's a baby- or kid-friendly place, product or event you think she should cover, email her at .

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