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TODAY

Sunday, September 22

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Earlier this spring, I was feeling a bit adventurous and decided to take the boy to a playroom in the city. The place claimed to have a vast array of toys and a clean environment — it promised fun, frolic and merriment which would foster exploration and socialization for the children. The moment I walked in, I wanted to call OSHA, the Board of Health and get the hell out of there.

Toys were scattered all over the place and looked as though they hadn't been cleaned in months, the place was empty and depressing and worst of all, the woman who worked there had a red, raw looking rash that completely covered her arms and back. I didn't want to be rude and walk immediately out of the place, so I put Vincent down and let him play with a wooden train that was on a table. The minute he tried to put it in his mouth, we left. I thought, if they consider this a clean, safe place, I'd hate to see what it looks like on a bad day. Last weekend on a whim, I visited Wonder Works Children's Museum in Oak Park and realized this is what that other place should aspire to be.

The museum, which encourages learning through creative play, is geared towards children 10 and under, was founded in 1991 by Gale Zemel. From its small beginnings, the museum has grown and now has over 1,000 members as well as funding from The Oprah Winfrey Foundation and McDonald's — yet it still manages to keep its intimate feel. Walking up to Wonder Works, I instantly knew Vincent would enjoy his visit. The building itself is very charming and colorful. From the outside, it doesn't look very impressive — it is actually quite small — but once you enter (the entrance is in the rear) you instantly feel a certain fuzziness and feeling of playful security wash over you.

The staff was very polite and friendly, and I felt completely at ease putting the kid on the floor and letting him explore. Everything was clean — but not scary hospital-sterile-clean, which is usually not conducive to touching or inviting exploration. The other children there were around Vincent's age (between 1 and 3 years) and the parents seemed comfortable being there, too.

There are five main exhibits in the museum, each with portions divided for children of all ages — including many padded play areas for non-walkers. In the "Built It!" exhibit, children can work on designing and building with various materials and "construction" equipment. In "The Great Outdoors," they can imagine what it is like to be in a forest: a gigantic picnic basket with plastic food, a canoe, a tent and various sound effects all add to the experience. The "North Avenue Art Works" exhibit is an art studio where children can explore their creative side working with various mediums.

My favorite exhibit was "Lights. Camera, Action!" There, children can dress up in various costumes, act on a stage, change backdrops and even work stage lights. The exhibitionist in me had me dancing around the stage acting the fool while Vincent just sat there wondering what I was doing. In addition to the stage, the area also has a small puppet theater that is very cool and the perfect size for small children — or mothers with a thing for puppets. (I think I played more with it than the kid did.)

In the "Farm to Market" exhibit, children can learn the importance of farming and how what we buy affects the lives of others. The children can pick apples, work a conveyor belt and sell their produce. To call Wonder Works a museum, however, is a bit of a misnomer. Sure it has educational exhibits where children can learn, but this place was more a great playroom, only all the toys were smart and engaging, and seemed to challenge the children and make them think as well as grow and build motor skills. There are wooden puzzles, blocks, rocking horses, tricycles, saucers for infants, mirrors and other beautiful well-cared for toys that all the children seem to really enjoy.

Wonder Works Museum is located at 6445 West North Avenue in Oak Park near the Galewood/Oak Park border. There isn't much parking in back, but I did find plenty of metered parking on the street.

Wonder Works Children's Museum
6445 W. North Ave.
Oak Park, Illinois
708/383-4815
Hours: Wednesday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm
Sunday, Noon to 5pm
Admission is $5 and children under 1 are admitted free.
(Please note: Wonder Works will be closed August 29 - September 6 for maintenance)

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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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