Learning and Fun in Family-Friendly Illinois (page 4)
- Tips for Family Friendly Travel
- Family-Friendly Music Festivals
- Family Friendly Must-Sees in Georgia
- Family Friendly Texas Travel
- Family Fun and Learning in New York
- Family Fun and Learning in New Jersey
Other than Chicago, the industrious metropolis that poet Carl Sandburg rightly called “City of Big Shoulders,” much of Illinois is rural farmland, but the southern part of the state has forested hills if the miles of corn and soybeans get tedious. Trade and pioneer exploration have always been part of the culture here, thanks to plentiful rivers and later the canals and railroads that criss-crossed the state. Midwestern friendliness and politeness almost guarantee a pleasant visit to the Land of Lincoln.
Whether you're looking for big-city attractions or country appeal, the great state of Illinois may be just the place for you. Here are our picks for top spots your family will love:
1) Museum Campus – Just south of the Loop in Chicago’s Grant Park, this cluster of world-class museums (the Field Museum of Natural History, the Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum) could keep curious kids busy for weeks. Don’t miss Sue at the Field; the largest, most complete T. rex skeleton ever found, it’s named after the paleontologist who located the bones. Superb anthropological exhibits include a Great Plains Pawnee Lodge, a simulated 300-million-year-old Illinois forest and an everyday marketplace in ancient Egypt – the Field excels at immersing children in natural science and cultures. The Shedd is the world’s biggest indoor aquarium, with close-up views of sharks, a 360 degree look at a Caribbean reef, beluga whales from the Pacific Northwest, piranhas from the Amazon and 90 different aquatic habitats in Waters of the World. At the Adler, explore the nighttime stars through telescopes on Far Out Fridays, see amazing space shows in the StarRider and Sky Theaters and experience the Milky Way galaxy in 3D.
2) Fort de Chartres State Historic Site – The French administered what is now Illinois from 1720 to 1763, and three different forts occupied this strategic position on the Mississippi near present-day Prairie du Rocher. Special events are an especially good time to visit, as reenactors bring a little bit of 18th century France to the site. Kid’s Day in May features 18th century games, contests, story telling and puppet shows, October is a French and Indian War Assemblage and June is a huge two-day traditional French fur trapper’s holiday with buckskinners, militiamen, artisans and entertainers.
3) Historic Highways – Take a road trip on the Illinois sections of not just one, but three famous roadways – Route 66 (from Chicago to Los Angeles,) the Lincoln Highway (the first transcontinental highway in the U.S.) and the Historic National Road (construction was authorized by President Thomas Jefferson.) Old Route 66 swings southwesterly across the state; it shows kids how America traveled the Mother Road from the 1920s-1960s, with well-preserved landmarks like gas stations in Odell and Dwight, the maple syrup vendors in Funks Grove and the Route 66 Association Museum in Pontiac. The Lincoln Highway runs across northern Illinois – it has special historic markers, nearby parks with lovely trails and small-town sights like the Egyptian Theatre in DeKalb and President Reagan’s boyhood home in Dixon. The Historic National Road crosses southern Illinois and shines during its annual Spring Festival in the towns that dot the route: music, fairs, flea markets, Dodgeball tournaments and frog jumping competitions.
4) Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) tours – Thanks to a confluence of imaginative architects (and the unexpected redecorating opportunities left by the devastating 1871 Great Chicago Fire) the Windy City has a jaw-dropping collection of spectacular buildings. The CAF works to preserve that heritage; they offer all sorts of docent-guided tours, but the waterborne ones on the Chicago River really appeal to kids. Who doesn’t like seeing cool stuff from a boat?
5) Shawnee National Forest – Spread across most of southern Illinois in the Illinois Ozarks and Shawnee Hills, the Shawnee National Forest offers plenty of outdoor recreation, cycling on the Tunnel Hill State Trail, hiking and camping opportunities, even panning for gold in some areas. Clamber around huge boulders in the Garden of the Gods Wilderness Area and play river pirate where real pirates used to hide in Cave-in-Rock State Park.
6) Quad Cities – Four cities straddle the Mississippi River in one area; on the Illinois side are Rock Island and Moline/East Moline (with Davenport and Bettendorf on the Iowa side.) Rock Island’s Black Hawk State Historic Site has forested hiking trails and the Hauberg Indian Museum, honoring the region’s Sauk and Mesquakie tribes. At the Mississippi River Visitor Center at the Army’s Rock Island Arsenal, visitors can see river traffic “lock through” at Lock and Dam 15, the largest roller dam in the world. Take a Park Ranger-led lock tour to see how engineering transformed what was formerly a shallow rapid. Quad City Arts provides an umbrella organization for the performing, literary and visual arts in all four cities, and features a paid summer artist apprentice program for teens. Drive the legendary Great River Road National Scenic Byway along the Mississippi and right through Moline (headquarters of the plow that tamed Midwestern soil: John Deere.)
7) Cahokia Mounds State Historic and World Heritage Site – Sixty-eight earthen mounds and their excavated contents tell the story of an ancient culture that started here in 700 AD and became the region’s center of Mississippian society. Rulers lived in a giant stockade atop 14-acre Monks Mound, the largest prehistoric earthen structure in the Americas. Kids learn about basic astronomy when they explore the circular wooden posts called “Woodhenge,” which appear to have been designed as calendars.
8) Frank Lloyd Wright – How can children learn about the famous Midwestern architect? Through other children: the Preservation Trust Junior Interpreters are trained 5th-10th grade students who lead tours at Wright’s home in Oak Park and explain his innovative style and influence. There are also family tours tied to the children’s mystery book Wright 3 (follow young sleuths Calder and Petra in solving arts puzzles in the Robie House) and popular Youth Architecture summer camps. For more, visit Oak Park in mid-May when many private Wright-designed homes are open to the public.
9) Springfield – Much of this central Illinois city is all about Abraham Lincoln, but it is also important as the state’s capital. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is a must-see; visitors walk through life-sized dioramas and exhibits that explore Lincoln’s famous log cabin upbringing, law career and Presidency. Children can play with period clothing, toys and tools in Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic. The Lincoln Home National Historic Site shows Lincoln’s daily life and house as it looked in the 1860s. In July, a variety of living history performances and demonstrations entertain visitors at each historic site and in Springfield parks, and there is a special Civil War flag retreat ceremony each Tuesday evening June-August at Lincoln’s Tomb.
10) The Art Institute of Chicago – Sure, it’s internationally-known and has acres of beautiful fine art, but the Institute is quite accessible to families. Drop into the Kraft Education Center Arts Studio for hands-on creative fun, then grab a free stroller in the museum lobby and head out to explore or perhaps draw in the galleries. The Mini-Masters program and Story Time introduces art to kids as young as three, and the Lions Trail Family Tour audio tour has 32 art-related stops for ages 5-10. Don’t miss paintings like American Gothic and Nighthawks, the Impressionists gallery with Monet’s Stacks of Wheat and Marc Chagall’s gorgeous stained-glass windows. Best bet: the tiny Thorne Miniature Rooms – dollhouse-like recreations of 68 period interiors like a Tudor Great Room, a Shaker living room and a traditional Japanese interior with tiny tatami mats.
11) Midway Village Museum – A small Victorian village (from the turn of the last century) keeps the past alive in Rockford, with costumed interpreters in a blacksmith shop, one-room schoolhouse, general store, fire station and other period buildings. The Museum also works to preserve other eras in the town, including an exhibit on the Rockford Peaches women’s baseball team, made famous in the movie A League of Their Own. The calendar is packed with seasonal festivals that honor area history; the annual Sock Monkey Madness event teaches about Rockford’s sock knitting industry.
12) Museum of Science and Industry – After 75 years of operation, there are a lot of Illinois residents who have fond memories of childhood explorations inside the Chicago museum’s giant human heart, or yelling “Dive! Dive” inside the U-505 German submarine, or taking a simulated ride down a mineshaft for a coal mine visit. Newer interactive fun include space exploration, a genetics lab with cloned mice and baby chicks in a hatchery, immersion into Networld for Internet exploration and plenty of Science Live! Demonstrations (slime science, anyone?)
13) Lewis and Clark Historic Site – They launched westward from here at the mouth of the River Dubois; the “point of departure” for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s historic journey across the Continent. At the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center near Hartford, walk through a complete replica of the explorer’s keelboat; it dominates 14,000 square feet of artifacts and interactive exhibits about Camp River Dubois, where the men prepared for their journey. The expedition’s arrival at camp in December and departure in May are celebrated with annual Dec/May reenactments, and there’s a special Kid’s Day in June.
14) Celebrate music in Chicago – Four annual festivals celebrate the city’s musical diversity. The Chicago Blues Festival in June fills downtown Grant Park for four days of free music on multiple stages; the smaller stages and many daytime performances are kid-friendly. “Blues in the Schools” also brings musicians in to teach area students blues history and music. The Labor Day weekend Chicago Jazz Festival has a Children’s Tent, with music for young people and hands-on fun with jazz instruments. Since 1904, the Chicago Symphony and many pop artists have played in the Ravinia Festival in north Chicago (the Steans Institute at Ravinia features Young Artist concerts) and the October Country Music Festival features a Kid’s Corral.
15) Does it play in Peoria? – The city of Peoria, accurately or not, has long been shorthand for mainstream America – to see why, take one of the four different themed historic trolley tours of the city, or ride the stern-driven paddle wheeler “Spirit of Peoria” riverboat. There’s certainly something quintessentially American about the city’s June Steamboat Festival that celebrates everything about living on the Illinois River. Naturalists at nearby Wildlife Prairie State Park help visitors get up close and personal with bison, eagles, elk and most native animals that have called Illinois home.
16) Illinois and Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor – In 1848, the 97-mile-long I&M canal opened, finally allowing goods and people to move smoothly between Lake Michigan and Chicago down the Illinois River and onward to the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico. It helped make not only Chicago a trade boomtown, but also many towns that sprouted along the Canal. Today, visit the Hands-on History Gallery in the I&M Canal Visitor Center in Lockport, especially during the Old Canal Days heritage festival in June. Romeoville’s Isle a la Cache Museum has Sunday Nature Tales and Trails for children, and ride a real horse-pulled canal boat in LaSalle, with a story-telling pioneer captain.
17) Chicago theater – The city of Chicago has a long tradition of unique and innovative theater. The prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Company has Young Adult Productions and the MaTEENe matinee performances for teens. The Second City comedy theater was the launch pad for much of the original “Saturday Night Live” cast, but it’s not all adult humor; there are improv workshops for K-12 and special comic revues like “Short Detention Span” geared to grades 6-12. For just a taste of theater magic, most blockbuster Broadway in Chicago productions offer backstage tours with cast members to see props and ask questions.
18) Kohl Children’s Museum – Located in Glenview, this museum is designed to promote the value of interactive play in learning. 17 hands-on exhibits engage children from birth to age 8 – create a child-sized house, learn about musical melodies, operate a local Dominick’s grocery store and take care of (play) animals as a veterinarian.
19) McCormick Freedom Museum – Located in the same building as Chicago’s main newspaper, the Tribune, this museum tells the story of free speech, the importance of the First Amendment, the expansion of voting rights and the role of foundation documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Through interactive exhibits that pose scenarios and questions, visitors define for themselves exactly what freedom means and how it applies to our society.
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