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TODAY

Wednesday, December 11

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Airbags

I have a confession to make. I do not care for the Chicago Children's Museum. I've tried on many occasions to make it happen between us, but, Chicago Children's Museum, you're just not my type. The other day when I visited, I thought that now that my youngest is three and capable of 30 seconds of concentrated activity, that my feelings would have changed, and that I would find it in myself to enjoy my time spent there, but alas, it's not meant to be. Maybe it was the library pass that I checked out that wooed me with its sweet talk and lies. It clearly said "free admission for cardholder and family." What it didn't say is "if you have a family with four people in it." I had to shell out $24 to get the rest of my "family" in, and for $24, I guess I need more.

Of course my kids dig it, they'd be abnormal freaks if they didn't, right? They were frolicking about, grinning from ear to ear, just like all of the other lucky children visiting the museum. But my children, and all of those other children, were also perfectly happy playing in the free fountain outside the front door to Navy Pier. The $24 I spent could have bought most of an hour on one of those funky family bike things. We could have spent $24 on a block of dry ice, some rubber snakes and root beer and had a grand old time in our backyard. Yes of course the Children's Museum is fun for children, but do they need that kind fun? Let's break it down.

I have a 10-year-old, a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old. The older kids both brought "cousins" of the same age and gender along with them. The girls spent most of their time standing in front of the magical shadow wall, where the imaginary butterflies come and land on your head. The boys spent most of their time in the water room, and the 3-year-old, as I mentioned above, dashed from room to room at the speed of light, strong armed other small children from behind the wheel of the ambulance, fell down the xylophone slide on his head, pushed a baby and lost his shoes. Everyone universally turned up their noses at the insipid "Miffy" exhibit. Please. Miffy?

We have mirrors, dressup clothes, a garden filled with blooming flowers, bees and real butterflies. We have a hose, toy boats, a variety of containers for water play. We even have the same raincoats that the museum supplies if need be. We have plenty of toy-filled rooms for a 3-year-old to dash through, leaving a path of destruction in his wake. We have a dog that he can push out of his way. He can pretend to drive the van. We don't have to look at anything with Miffy on it, because the one Miffy book some relative bought for a long ago baby was long ago shoved in a trash bag and hauled off to the thrift store.

I can hear my kids sneering already. Those things are not the same as the Children's Museum! The Children's Museum is cool! It's fun! There's a gift shop! I can't argue with that. I don't operate a gift store at the entrance to my house, so yeah, I'll concede that point.

I've got nothing against Navy Pier. I've had tons of fun there in my time here in Chicago. The first visit was in 1982, when I went with my small town high school art class to a giant modern art exhibit in that cavernous building that used to be there before it became the amusement park it currently is. I remember stacks of Interview Magazine with David Bowie on the cover being handed out for free. There were interesting people there, and it is the first time I saw for myself that there was more to life than high school. I'm glad they didn't tear it down. I love the stained glass museum, love standing at the end of the pier and looking out at the lake with all of the flags snapping in the wind, I love looking back at the skyline and I love each and every band I've ever seen there. I know people who love Winterfest. It makes sense that they built a giant attraction for children and families there.

This stance I'm taking doesn't encompass all children's museums (though I'm gunning for you next, Ft. Meyers, Florida.) There are great children's museums out there. I've heard great things about the Indianapolis Children's Museum, but haven't had much call to visit Indianapolis since my Grandpa moved to Florida in 1980. Maybe we'll get there someday. Milwaukee, I've heard, has a good one too. Closer to home, the Dupage Children's Museum is top notch. There's a wind tunnel, a wood shop with real tools, a system of air current tubes that you can send objects flying through, a climbing area that's designed for all kids, with varying levels of climbing competency, not just kids age 5 and up, as is the case at the CCM. Both museums are lacking a key element though, in my opinion, and that is the great outdoors. Both are largely windowless spaces, with no access to outside.

The Hamill Family play zoo at Brookfield Zoo is just about as perfectly designed as a children's center can be. The activities there are real activities that kids can engage in at many levels, particularly the outdoor areas. Summertime at the Hamill is a good thing. First up is the huge "animal habitat" area where there are log, tunnels made out of rebar and tarps for the kids to play with. Hmmm. No artificial tree stumps? Nothing that lights up? Nope. Rebar, logs, tarps. I have seen families spend hours there, hanging out, allowing their kids to get lost in building shelters, being animals, and playing, with no "hurry up, let's go see the bears now" attitude. Beyond that is a sand play area with my favorite surprise, a tunnel of lilacs, not big enough for grownups really, but big enough to follow your little fellow or gal into their world if you need to. There is a stream with piles of river stones for kids to splash in, build dams and redirect the water. There are bunnies laying in the shade, next to frozen water bottles. There's a trail through a hidden forest of dwarf conifers, leading to a hollow tree, a path up into a forest room, with log furniture. A garden where kids can plant and dig and water. Inside, the Hamill is just as good, and a perfect place to while away a winter afternoon, or escape the heat in the summer, with a greenhouse where kids go crazy misting the plants, an animal hospital with real x-rays and equipment are available for kids to explore. An armadillo. Face paints that work, and wash off. Nice volunteers who love kids and animals. Lemurs. The entrance fee is $2. If you have a membership, free.

Maybe what I love most about the Hamill is that it is a destination in and of itself, and it just happens to have a kick ass zoo in it's back yard. Whereas with the CCM, we have a kick ass tourist destination with a mediocre children's museum attached to it. We go down there for the museum, after which we are usually too well done to enjoy the pier. I think I've figured out a solution though, a way to reclaim Navy Pier: the funky family bikes. My plan is to lure them to Navy Pier with the promise of a family bike ride, ice cream, a big splash in the fountain, and a walk out to the end of the pier. We will run around underneath those flags, watch the boats and look back on our city. If it's not too crowded, we can ride the carousel, and stay until the moon rises over the lake.

~*~

Navy Pier is located right by that giant, slow moving Ferris wheel over on the lake. You can't miss it. The #65 Grand Avenue bus will take you directly there, and connects with the Blue Line. The fountain out front is very fun, and your kids will get wet, so pack accordingly. The Tall Ships are coming at the beginning of August, a perfect excuse to head down there and enjoy the view. If you must do the CCM and check out a library pass for your large family, consider yourself warned.

The Dupage Children's Museum is located in Naperville, and is accessible via Metra. The DuPage is relatively new in comparison with the CCM, and this may well account for it's superiority. The exhibits are great, are geared for kids of all ages to explore and enjoy.

The Hamill Family Play Zoo is located near the south entrance of Brookfield Zoo. It's open year round, though many of the outdoor exhibits are available only in warm weather. There is high potential for wet clothes here as well. You might end up spending the whole day here. Brookfield now has a new carousel that we have yet to check out, but are looking forward to! Who doesn't love a carousel?

WonderWorks, located at 6445 W. North Avenue in Oak Park, is a nice little museum. It's all on one level, which makes it easier for parents to sit and relax while the kids play. They have a nice art studio for kids to paint and draw, or make the daily craft, in addition to lots of groovy building materials and pretend areas. This museum has been deemed "too babyish" by my oldest, but the boys love it.

The Kohl Children's Museum recently reopened in its new space. I have yet to visit, I'm still trying to get over the fact that it's not located next to Walker Brothers Pancake House anymore. It looks like it could be a winner, though, as there is a big outdoor area. It is available via Metra, with a 1/2 mile walk on the other end. Sounds like a plan.

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About the Author(s)

Lori McClernon Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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