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TODAY

Thursday, August 22

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Airbags

We are a fair skinned lot, I'm afraid. My daughter, possibly a changeling, is the only one who doesn't get sunburned or suffer from heat stroke from being in the baking hot sun and ultra humid climate that descends upon our fair city around July. My sons and myself have high potential to get extremely red and splotchy in the face, descending first into crabbiness, then fatigue and finally flat out on a blanket in the shade being force fed ice cubes. So our summer plans always involve shade and water, some sort of frozen treat and possibly an escape hatch into refreshing a/c.

Fortunately for all of us, the city has been on a big parks rehab kick, which means that a lot of the more organized and — I'll go ahead and say it because we're all thinking it — nicer neighborhoods have done the necessary fundraising to have their former drab playground turned into something that used to only be found in the suburbs: parks with great playground equipment and "interactive water playgrounds" (that's the term the CPD uses). Sometimes the city gets benevolent/wise and decides to build one of these in neighborhoods that aren't so top notch, which is what happened in my park a few years ago. They tore out the ancient horseshoe pits and a century's worth of lilac bushes that were just perfect for the bums to poop under, and put in something that is meant for nothing other than to cool off kids and give them something fun to do in the summer. I love that attitude! We still have a 100-percent lame playground, but right next to it is the taj mahal of interactive water play.

Also part of the park rehab world are ponds and streams and waterfalls that seem to be popping up here and there. The former swamp down the street was dredged out and turned into what is now a glorious pond with a waterfall leading into it. There is a big NO SWIMMING sign right next to the waterfall, but on any given day you will see more than one kid in wet underpants climbing around on the rocks or flat out standing in the water. It's not a pool, it's not the pond, it's somewhere in between. Not the cleanest water, and I'm certainly not advocating it, nor am I suggesting that the kid in the wet Power Ranger briefs belongs to me. And that's not my dog either.

Hands down the best example of this psuedo-nature is at Gompers Park. The river runs along the northern edge of the park and someone — a genius! — rerouted part of the river and ran it south of Foster, making a beautiful stream for fishing, strolling or creek stomping, ending in a lagoon where folks can rest and gaze upon the lovely lilly pads. Or fish. Again, it's not swimming-pool sanitized water, but put the kids in some water shoes, give them a bucket, grab a magazine for yourself, and you've got a perfect afternoon lined up.

Let us not forget the ultimate water experience in town, the beach. The beach! Everyone has their personal favorite, and mine, for 10 years, has been Foster Beach. The lake is very shallow here, and very gradually deepens, making it a perfect spot for small kids. Older kids can walk out to the deeper part for some real swimming, but since it takes a while to get there the toddlers and non swimmers are relatively safe and have plenty of room to romp around. The beach house was renovated sometime in the '90s, with somewhat clean bathrooms (though it's still a public beach, folks) and an outdoor de-sandifying shower. If you need incentives to lure your sandy, sunburned lot off of the beach, popsicles (aka "mother's little helpers") are available in the little cafe at the beach house, and even further out by the parking lot, as are hot dogs and the usual round of junk food, as well as bike rentals. Another beach definitely worth checking out is the 12th Street Beach, located just south of the Museum Campus. It's one of those beaches that gets chest deep quick, so it's perfect for an invigorating dip, plus it's right downtown. It's a great view, and the perfect spot to head after filling your family's brain with museum factoids.

I just noticed that my local outdoor pool is filled and ready for swimming. Sadly, a sparkling public pool filled with delicious looking water without a swimmer in sight is the norm for many Chicago pools. The rigid scheduling, the need to keep them available for the day-long summer camps, and the lack of staffing keeps the public pools off limits for the type of person who wants to show up and swim whenever he, she or they please. My advice is to phone first to make sure that what the web site schedule says is what's actually going on. Once you've waded through the red tape and figured out exactly when people are allowed to swim it's all good — if you don't mind entering the cannonball zone. Park pools that also have a baby pool, such as Holstein Park, are a good bet, as sometimes the baby pool is open even when the big pool is not, so for those with only small kids it's possible to get into some water and not be turned away at the gate by a power-tripping teenager. Whelan Pool on the far North Side is a huge zero depth water park and pool, which is lots of fun, though it fills up fast on hot days.

And then there are the fountains. Some fountains are teases. You can go and look, but you can't get in, dang it! Until we've passed the five-year mark on all three kids, we are content to gaze at the Buckingham Fountain from afar. Visions of running in an endless loop around the fountain in pursuit of a wayward and very determined 3-year-old exhaust me. Someone, likely a parent, recognized the need for children to get into fountains, and thus the happy citizens of Chicago can roam from fountain to fountain all over town in soaking wet clothes. The Crown Fountain takes the cake of course, so well designed for all ages to enjoy. The old folks sitting around the edges, the brave kids standing up next to the sculpture awaiting the flood, the babies and toddlers happily toddling about in the shallow water, the frenzied 6-year-olds bee-lining it from one end to the other, dodging nimbly around those who prefer to stand still, or at least move slowly. The beautiful thing about the Crown Fountain, though, is that amidst the sea of concrete and "don't touch" art and traffic and buildings and business that defines the Loop, our city decided to put someplace for everyone to cool off and play. The night that Tortoise played at Millennium park, I was hanging out at the fountain with the baby, watching a group of 20 or so teenagers, all of them dancers from out of town here for a ballet intensive. The girls tricked the unwitting boys into standing against the face, supposedly for a picture and waited just long enough for the water to fall on their heads. Soon everyone was soaked through and they all began dancing, using the whole shallow surface as a stage.

The fountain at Navy Pier, which I mentioned in my last column, is also a big hit, as are the new fountains at Lincoln Park Zoo and Brookfield Zoo. The problem with these is obvious to many: a day at the zoo or Navy Pier doesn't always include a complete change of clothes for your kids, right? I've spoken with many a parent who gets hot under the collar about this (maybe they need to jump in) but I agree, somewhat, that being surprised by a jet of water shooting out of the sidewalk at the zoo is perhaps not the best idea, for parents anyway, particularly those in from out of town and ill prepared for the kind of whining that only wet jeans can bring on. Sometimes water can be stressful. I think all brochures touting the wonders of Chicago should include the following tip: In the summer months, have your kids wear a swimming suit under their clothes at all times.

If you are hot and tired, and can't find your way to a water playground, a pool, a fountain, an artificial stream or the beach, not to worry, there's always the one million sprinklers watering sidewalks all over town for weary Chicagoans to enjoy as they stroll (or stumble) home from their daily adventures. Refreshing!

~*~

Chicago Park District has a great web site with all sorts of information about all of the parks in the city. For example, I just read that in the south region of the park district there is a 36-foot water slide! A few North Side parks with water playgrounds are Riis, Felger, Unity, Jefferson, Portage and Adams. I found two references on the South Side, at Ogden and Mayering Park, and I know there is one at Austin Park as well, at the corner of Austin and Lake.

The Crown Fountain is located right smack dab in the middle of downtown on the corner of Michigan and Monroe. More information about Millennium Park, including schedules of free performances to give you even more of an excuse to run around in the Crown Fountain, is available at www.milleniumpark.org.

Before you head to your favorite beach, it's a good idea to make sure it's open and safe to swim in, which you can do here. The beaches get cleaned right before the weekend, so if you want to enjoy a beach relatively free of trash, Friday's are a good day to go. Have fun and don't drink the water!

Gompers Park is located at 4222 W. Foster Ave. There is a lot to see and do, so don't forget your snacks and your pond nets.

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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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