Kid-Friendly (and Cheap!) Weekend Adventures in the Chicago Area

Pack up the kids and get ready for an awesome, affordable adventure.

Credit: Chicago Botanic Garden website
Credit: Chicago Botanic Garden website

Written by Bridgette Outten

Sometimes all it takes is a little planning to have a great family outing. When routine exploits just aren’t cutting it anymore, shake things up by exploring new terrain, taking in an exhibition, or visiting a landmark and learning a little something about our local history. Here are awesome events to attend and places to visit around town before fall ends. Best part? All of them can be done on the cheap and on one tank of gas—or less!

The Chicago Botanic Garden has a Model Train Railroad Garden

Why Go? The thought of 18 tiny trains huffing and puffing through 7,500 square feet of tiny villages (and don’t forget the cool whistle!) on 1,600 feet of track will take you back to the days when the world was something at which to marvel. The display runs through Oct. 27. New this year is a replica of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., a refurbished White House, and a Lumberyard/Railroad siding prop for the Pacific Northwest area.

Insider Tip: The Garden Cafe offers healthy lunches at fairly reasonable prices (meals for kids under 12 run about $6). There’s always the option to pack a lunch, but keep in mind that no outside food beverages are allowed in the Garden Café or on the decks of the Visitor Center. There is a designated picnic area adjacent to Parking Lot #2.

Must Do! While you’re admiring the trains, don’t overlook the 5,000 plants (including annuals) in more than 300 different varieties that are in this garden.

The Fine Print: Located at 1000 Lake Cook Road in Glencoe, the Model Train Railroad Garden is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, weather permitting. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $4 and for children 3 to 12 years old. Children age 2 and under are admitted free. Chicago Botanic Garden members receive $1 off each price, and Garden Plus members are admitted free on Wednesdays. One cost you want to keep an eye on is parking — $25 per car and $30 per van. If those fees aren’t in your budget, you may want to consider public transportation. However, some good news: If you’re active duty military or former POW, you can park free, and there are discounts for Cook County residents.

Night Out in the Parks

Why Go? The great outdoors, good weather (with any luck) and awesome activities. Head to the park with a plan that’s a bit more ambitious than pushing a swing. With 750 activities in parks throughout the city, you’re bound to find something you want to do near you, such as seeing the circus!

Insider Tip: Most of the events are free, but some programs ask for a fee or donation. Make sure that you visit the website of the activity you want to visit to be sure you have all of the information.

Must Do! Four words: Circus in the Parks. The 2013 lineup features the Midnight Circus, with the troupe traveling to Chicago parks through late October. But with tickets at $20 each for adults and $15 for children (age 2 and under are admitted free), we realize that could get pricey. So that’s just one of the world-class cultural attractions; you can also enjoy live jazz, movies and more.

The Fine Print: Night Out in the Parks runs every weekend through the end of October. But remember to keep an eye on those pesky parking meters or map your route through public transportation. And because most of the activities are outside, you’re going to want to watch the weather and check the website to be sure events aren’t cancelled or postponed.

Garden Patch Farms

Why Go? From peaches to pumpkins, Garden Patch Farms in Homer Glen will undoubtedly have something fresh and delicious for the little ones to pick. Check out the fall selection and wander around the farm.

Insider Tip: The expanded Farm Market now includes an array of jams, jellies, spreads, syrups, salsas and sauces. You also can grab freshly squeezed, homemade apple cider or honey from the bees. The Garden Patch Farm blog also gives awesome recipes on what to do with your haul once you get it home.

Must Do! Word is that your kids will get a chance to feed the hens that provide the farms with daily fresh eggs!

The Fine Print: The farm is located at 14158 W. 159th St. in Homer Glen. Admission to the field is $5, but remember that you also have to pay for the produce you pick to take home. Pay special attention to the prices listed on the farm’s website and plan accordingly.

Wildwood Nature Center

Why Go? Because it’s fun to learn about animals up close and personal — including what and how they eat. The folks at Wildwood Nature Center in Park Ridge invite your family to hang out — at no cost — while they feed more than 35 animals, including mice, ball python snakes, a red-tailed boa constrictor, and other interesting creatures that are even more intriguing when you see them snack.  

Insider Tip: Speaking of snacks, you’ll want to pack your own to enjoy a day at the center. The only onsite option is vending machines, so be sure to bring your own food if you travel with hungry little “animals” of your own.

Must Do! Check out the Critter Connection on Saturdays at 10:15 a.m. to learn about a featured animal and what makes it special. The featured animals change monthly.

The Fine Print: The Wildwood Nature Center is located at 529 Forestview Ave. in Park Ridge and is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Note that the Nature Nook, where you get to watch the animals eat, is open only on Saturdays. The animals eat at 10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.  

Kids Play Golf Free

Why Go? The Chicago Park District is tugging on the heartstrings of avid golfers with a program that allows kids to play free with a paying adult. You read that right: Kids play free all day, every day on all six Chicago Park District golf courses. As the weather chills (or maybe it won’t, because we all know Chicago weather is nothing if not unpredictable), you will want to take advantage of this deal.

Insider Tip: Pssst! Sometimes kids can play free without an adult during certain times. You’ll want to check out the different times throughout the six courses where that is possible.

Must Do! If you and your little one are beginners, you’ll want to try Columbus Park, with a course that is ideally suited for the novice golfer. Need something more challenging? Try the Sydney R. Marovitz course. And Douglas Park has a three-hole learning course and an 18-hole miniature golf course that’s absolutely free!

The Fine Print: In this context, parents, “kids” means 17 and under. The deal is one free kid with a paying adult, and all rounds are based on space being available. You’ll also want to note that this applies to walking the courses only.

Skokie North Shore Cultural Park

Why Go? If you want to expose your kid to some culture, try the Skokie North Shore Cultural Park. Take a guided tour or roam around more than 60 sculptures by local, national and international artists. Now a gem in the Village of Skokie, the land used to be an eyesore in the mid-1980s, until the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the village and private citizens banded together to create a landscape for picnic areas, jogging paths and large-scale contemporary sculptures.

Insider Tip: Students can be introduced to the sculptures at their own schools, too — through an initiative called Sculpture in the Classroom for grades K-12.

Must Do! To really get the most out of the park, sign up for the free public tour.

The Fine Print: The Skokie Northshore Sculpture Park is located on the east side of McCormick Boulevard, between Dempster Street and Touhy Avenue, in Skokie. The park is adjacent to the north channel of the Chicago River. The Sculpture Park is open all year, and admission is free. The park welcomes bicycling and jogging, offers group touring and picnic areas, and is fully accessible to persons with disabilities.


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