One day you wake up and realize that your city kid isn’t a baby any more. Preschoolers are ready to get out and explore what Chicago has to offer beyond Mom and Tot classes and the local playground. But, at the same time, you want activities aimed at the three and four year old set, some of whom can be a bit — shall we say? – rambunctious. –Emily Paster
Here are the top spots in Chicago for your three and four year old.
The Lincoln Park Zoo
2001 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 606014
Right in the heart of Lincoln Park, the Lincoln Park Zoo is a favorite spot for families and not just because of the free admission. The Lincoln Park Zoo is surprisingly compact, making it easy to navigate on short legs. But your preschooler will not soon run out of things to see. Whether your child likes monkeys, big cats or colorful birds, there are exhibits to satisfy everyone. Special features for little ones include the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo and the Farm-in-the-Zoo, where kids can get up close and personal with farm animals. End your visit with a ride on the AT&T Endangered Species Carousel.
The Museum of Science and Industry
57th Street and Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60637
So, preschoolers like trains. Some of them really like trains. Luckily, Chicago’s own Museum of Science and Industry is home to an amazing model train display, with a breathtaking miniature version of the trip from downtown Chicago across the west to Seattle. If you can tear your kids away from the trains, they will love the hands-on Idea Factory. Christmastime is particularly special at the Museum of Science and Industry: the halls are decorated with more than 50 trees each one representing a different global culture.
Model Railroad Garden at the Chicago Botanic Garden
1000 Lake Cook Rd
Glencoe, IL 60022
Did I mention that preschoolers really like trains? During the summer months, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s outdoor Model Railroad Garden is nirvana for train-obsessed kids and adults. My son can stay here watching the trains until his legs give out from under him. The 7,500-square-foot garden features 17 trains on 1,600 feet of track and depicts favorite American landmarks from coast-to-coast. Fall at the Botanic Garden is particularly beautiful with the changing foliage and the Model Railroad Garden hosts a special “Trains, Tricks and Treats” event on Halloween weekend before closing for the season.
Emerald City Theatre
2540 N. Lincoln Ave
For children who are used to on-demand TV shows and watching movies on their parents’ iPhones, there’s something particularly captivating about live theater. The Emerald City Theatre is a top-notch children’s theater that offers exciting, original productions for families. Many of Emerald City’s shows are aimed at kids as young as three and are based on favorite books, such as Pinkalicious and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. The performers know just how to tickle little one’s funny bones and offer enough excitement to thrill but never terrify. Ticket prices are low, making Emerald City a great choice for your preschooler’s first trip to the theater.
1418 N Kingsbury St.
When the Chicago winter hits, parents go looking for indoor spots where their preschoolers can burn off some excess energy. One of the best is Fantasy Kingdom, an indoor play place and birthday party facility aimed at the under-six crowd. Designed to encourage imaginative play, Fantasy Kingdom has abundant dress-up options and themed play areas, including a pretend fire station, a jail and a grocery store. Large play structures and a slide ensure that kids get plenty of physical activity, tiring them out for that much-needed nap! Fantasy Kingdom offers monthly memberships as well as a drop-in option.
Emily Paster is lawyer, writer and mother of two living in the near west suburbs. Read more of her work on her blog West of the Loop.