19 Sweaty Yet Joyful Things to do in Chicagoland (or anywhere) with Children

Here’s the truth.  We go on a lot of adventures.  This summer in particular because I have a ton of vacation time that I need to use from work or I lose it, so, yes – we go on a lot of adventures.  And there is a lot of sweating because it is HOT.  I mean seriously.  I’ve lost weight going out with these kids so much WHILE eating fried foods because of all the sweating.  But don’t you worry, WE ARE HYDRATING. Which leads me to this water bottle.


My kids know that when this bottle comes out, an adventure is coming.  They will start jumping up and down with excitement at the mere sight of it in the kitchen. I just love how cute it is and that when we are carrying it around with us, something fun is bound to happen.

Real talk, I am not one to spend money on these outings.  We pack lunches and snacks, we go places that are FREE or have free days, deals, coupons or use memberships that we currently have.  The experience is worth the gas money and expenses incurred and I’m happy to weigh the pros and cons to decide if it’s worth the cost.  If not, we stay at home and walk to a park nearby.

Summer is depressing. The sun DEMANDS that we be happy. Eff that. I don’t know man. This summer I’m actually kind of happy and if that ain’t depressing as hell….

I fully admit that being super busy and taking a different road trip or going on an adventure each day keeps me happy. Road trips as escapism? ABSOLUTELY. They keep me joyful. Even harried and sweaty, I’m not watching the news and obsessing about how we are spiraling. I’m not fretting about doom and gloom that surrounds us. We aren’t at each others throats in our house all day every day.  I am convinced that I thrive on these outings and these kids are so much fun to be with, it’s just silly. So we get the hell out and just keep going! I should mention that my kids are still technically nappers and on days when they don’t get a nap (some of these days car naps happen), the end of these days can be a total mess, but they fall into bed happy and tired, and I do as well.  What more could we ask?

Instead of reading tweets and posts about how awful everybody is, we are out doing our own research and we are coming to some wonderful conclusions. The news doesn’t tell all the stories, not even close.  So many stories happen that we don’t hear about, but if we are present, we get to be in the stories.

We meet all kinds of people we wouldn’t ordinarily meet because even if you just go a little ways down the road, you never know who you will encounter.  We chat people up and we learn about things and places we didn’t know about before.  We leave feeling filled up with human contact, even while most times we will never see these folks again. We stopped at the dollar store before going to the beach one day last week and a whole bus from a senior center was there, and boy did I enjoy talking with those ladies.  The kids were a little shy, but we are working on not being scared of older folks (it’s a thing) and it was a perfect learning experience.

Everywhere we go, I stretch my social anxiety muscles.  I figure it’s good for me and it’s good for the kids to see me interacting with folks all over the place and hearing stories.  It’s good to learn how to have an old fashioned, honest to goodness conversation, you know? How else these kids gonna learn?

Whenever we go on these adventures, I slap on my earrings of hope and combined with our lemon water bottle, it feels like something special is going to happen.  And in the right frame of mind, it always does, no matter what we do.

Here’s my list of 19 Sweaty Yet Joyful Things to do in Chicagoland (or anywhere) with Children:

  1. Plant and tend a garden in your own space! – There are no kids as proud as kids who grow and pick and eat their own food!
  2. Road trip to visit friends ANYWHERE! – A trip St. Louis or anywhere within a safe distance you feel comfortable managing is a great getaway. Ask if you can sleep at someone’s house for a night (thank you to our friends Steve and Heather for a great stay and the hospitality!) or get a cheap hotel somewhere.  A new location changes everything and discovery awaits around every corner!
  3. Home Depot Kids Projects! – Check your local stores for these workshops.  They have them on Saturday mornings and they’re free! Kids get to bang on stuff with hammers and make a mess and it’s not in our home? SIGN US UP. They give them aprons, certificates, and collectible little pins for each project they complete.
  4. Lincoln Park Zoo! – Chicago’s FREE zoo! It’s beautiful, it’s in a setting second to none and it’s jam packed with kid friendly activities, plus ANIMALS.  What more could you want?  There’s climbing places, a farm, a pond and train to walk around and it’s right on Lake Michigan with a skyline second to none.  Some of our favorite memories (and photos) happen at LPZ.
  5. Chicago Botanic Gardens! – I’ve had two memberships since on maternity leave, and this is one.  We go to the gardens about once a month and every time we find something new and beautiful. We have secret pathways (they’re secret, dammit!) and special corners of this vast garden space that we cherish and appreciate year round.
  6. Walk walk walk walk walk! – JUST TAKE A WALK. If we slow down enough, there are bugs and birds and leaves and trees and flowers to be found and talked about.  Just take a walk!
  7. Festivals! – Bring me all your festivals and we shall partake.  ALL THE FESTIVALS!
  8. Little Bear Park! – This place rules.  It’s a story-walk, castle playground, splash pad all in one!  And it’s free!
  9. Morton Arboretum! – Similar to the Botanic Garden, yet totally different.  There’s a massive kids area and then another whole area where kids are free to roam in the little stream and get really hands on.  Just a beautiful way to spend a day outdoors. And with our Botanic Garden membership, it’s reciprocal, meaning there’s a big fat discount on admission here.
  10. Blackberry Farm! – This might be my favorite new place.  It was $22. for all three of us to get in, because we aren’t residents of Fox Valley, but still.  You get unlimited paddle boat rides, train rides, hay rides, and carousel rides!  PLUS, there are animals, a vast array of pioneer days historical buildings and folks dressed up to represent the past.  It’s clean and well laid out and I just cannot say enough about how much we enjoyed our day here. There are also unlimited pony rides, but as my boy said while we passed right by, “I don’t think those ponies enjoy just walking around in a circle all day with kids on their backs.”  MAMA PRIDE BEAMS ENSUED.
  11. Milwaukee! – It’s just a hop, skip and a stop at the Mars Cheese Castle away from Chicago, so why not? We went to the lakefront and walked til we couldn’t take it anymore, then we went to the SafeHouse for lunch (super fun), then we went to the RiverWalk and gave a thumbs up with the Fonz.  Good clean fun.
  12. Any park is a new park if you haven’t been there before!
  13. The beach! – We had so much fun I didn’t even realize we’d been there for 5 hours.  I wore my new high-waisted bikini and got in the water so much, we had to shower for hours to get all the beach off.  So good.  My mom-tan (you know, just the top part of you gets tan, but never the bottom half) got the once over that day.  Even my legs got some color!  I haven’t sat down in 4.5 years, so my legs have some catching up to do. As an added bonus, a thing my girl likes to do lately is get all wet and sandy and THEN have to go poop.
  14. STAY THE EFF HOME AND INSIDE FOR ONE DAY WILL YA?  Do laundry. Go to the library. Feed the cat. All the screen/book time. Rest.

    Butterfly scavenger hunt at the library! Just an ordinary day at the extraordinary library.
  15. Brookfield Zoo! – I think I started bringing the babes to the zoo when they were a couple weeks old.  I mean I breastfed them there 100 times.  Our other membership is here, and to say it’s worth it doesn’t do it justice.  We picnic, we walk, we play, we splashpad, we know the animals by name.  This is a second home to us and I’m so thankful for all the amenities and memories created here throughout the year.  If we don’t get to Lincoln Park or Brookfield zoo at least once every 3 weeks, we get twitchy. Also, they helped me find my boy.
  16. Garfield Park Conservatory! – this place is extraordinary in the winter for the warmth and gorgeous in the summer for the beauty.  Year round lush. PLUS it’s a Chicago Park District facility, so it’s free!  Well, a donation is requested and we can certainly do that.
  17. Blow up a pool or turn on the sprinkler! – Right in your own backyard. Or alley. Or balcony.  BONUS POINTS FOR WATERMELON DRESSES.
  18. Renaissance Faire! – we did this for the very first time as a family with friends last weekend and it was something else!  I mean, our friend is a professional costumer for the Chicago theaters so she HOOKED US UP with costumes for the kids and the adults.  I’d really like my husband to dress this way all the time. It was HOT, so we ditched them halfway through but we had a blast.  This one can get pricey though as you have to pay for every little thing, so just be warned.

    Ye royal husband and wee ones.
  19. Park District Splash Pads! – Chicago Park District has 142 facilities with water features.  142!  That’s amazing!  Plus plenty of pools as well. Going along with any new park is new to us, so are these splash pads.  And they’re free!  Explore! Get wet!

Bonus: You’ll want to cultivate a Songs of Summer playlist, and I’ve found the best way to do that is to organically listen to the radio and see what’s out there right now in this moment so that we will always remember this particular Summer.  When I was growing up, I remember there were always a few songs each Summer that still to this day take me right back to that moment in time and it’s a magical thing.  I hope these kids have the same experience in the future.  Bruno Mars, Chance the Rapper, Florence and the Machine, and Coldplay/The Chainsmokers are the tops with us in this very moment. It is pure joy when I glance in the rear-view and see sunny happy bouncy kids chair dancing and enjoying their summer.

‘Cause I am done with my graceless heart
So tonight I’m gonna cut it out and then restart
‘Cause I like to keep my issues strong
It’s always darkest before the dawn – Florence and the Machine (Shake it Out)

This summer, I’m more peaceful and content, as are they. I’m working on extending grace and kindness, especially to those closest to me, but to those outside our bubble as well.  I’d rather we spend our time walking and talking and eating and exploring new people and things. I’m not in a good place when it comes to the horror show this nation is participating in, so I’d rather meet and greet folks one on one and see that we are far from all bad. These kids bring out the hope and the joy and kindness. If I can be part of that, well then that’s what I choose. Stay sweaty and hydrated, my friends.


A road trip story: To the farm!

Charging the Atlantic: My Dad and our Vacations to Cape Cod

The Truth about Vacations with Kids

Welcoming Summer – A quite bad poem


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