Nature In the Northern Suburbs

Chicago and wilderness don’t really go together. But nature is less than a gas tank away. Really.

School’s been out for a month, and your kids may be asking for all-day marathons of TV Land or Playstation. It’s hard not to cave once in a while, but if your parental guilt is getting the best of you, get your kids outside.

“A growing body of research is telling us that time spent outdoors in nature is critical to children’s physical, social and emotional development,” says Melinda Pruett-Jones, executive director of Chicago Wilderness, a regional alliance dedicated to promoting nature and enriching life.

Unstructured playtime in nature fosters a caring for the environment, creativity, emotional well-being, independent learning and problem-solving. And it’s worth mentioning that if you time it right, your house will stay clean for a few more hours.

Need a few fresh ideas besides the beach or your local playground? Try:

River Trail Nature Center

Kids of all ages could learn a thing or two about the importance of the Des Plaines River to our region’s history. At the River Trail Nature Center, there are maps for self-guided walks, naturalists on hand to answer questions and a small collection of native furry and winged friends to see up close.

What we like: The inexpensive programming (some programs are just $1!) offered through the Forest Preserve at River Trail. We’re especially intrigued with Survivor!, a three-day mini-camp that teaches a few basic survival skills.

Chicago Botanic Garden

A nature no-brainer, the Chicago Botanic Garden offers loads of children’s programming, is a bike ride away for many North Shore residents and is free—minus the parking fee.

What we like: Let the kids count the fish just off the Esplanade, fly a kite or dance ’til they drop. The Model Railroad Garden is also a must-stop-here moment, and the English Walled Garden is the place for killer kids’ portraits.

Coming up? Try the Sixth Annual Kite Festival or Model Sailboat Sunday.

Wagner Farm

It’s one of Cook County’s last working dairy farms—and just minutes away from any North Shore address. Kids can tour a farmhouse, learn about the care and keeping of farm animals, and even be a farmer for a day.

What we like: The Wagner Farm’s Sweets & Treats Shop, open on the weekends, featuring hand-dipped cones, floats, shakes and Homer’s Ice Cream. Who says nature is uncivilized?

Heller Nature Center
Highland Park

Located amid the tall oak and hickory, this 97-acre nature preserve is home to natural wetlands and tall-grass prairies, an old-fashioned log cabin and 3 miles of marked trails.

What we like: The bird-watching here is the best on the North Shore, and Heller has an amazing array of family events. If you like your nature at night, try the Old Fashioned Family Campfire.

Lake Forest Open Lands
Lake Forest

A Lake Forest treasure founded in 1967, Open Lands consists of several properties, including the Open Lands Park, close to town and nature; the Preserves, which include Middlefork Farm, Derwen Mawr, the Skokie River, Everett Farm and Mellody Farm; and 12 miles of year-round walking trails.

What we like: You can’t miss Bagpipes and Bonfire 2010. It’s all about men in kilts!

Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve

Included in the 258-acre complex that once was Fort Sheridan, the Forest Preserve offers up spectacular lake views and access, natural bluffs and ravines and a healthy dose of military history.

What we like: The life-sized hawk’s nest and skipping stones along the lakefront and the yes-you-can-touch-them military installations that make the preserve very kid-friendly.

Crabtree Nature Center

What used to be prairie, forest and marsh has been foever altered by natural and man-made history—the Crabtree Nature Center sits in an area made up of more than 1,000 square acres slowly returning to its natural state after years of farming, plowing and draining.

What we like: It’s the place to go for birding—grab your binoculars and see how many of the 263 bird species that have been observed at Crabtree.

Independence Grove

There’s no shortage of fun at Independence Grove, part of Lake County’s Forest Preserve—consider making this a day trip, complete with beach time, canoeing, fishing and evening concerts after walking the trails!

Try: A mid-week picnic and concert with the Libido Funk Circus.

Lincoln Park Zoo

Yes, you can get back to nature even when you’re surrounded by skyscrapers. Lincoln Park Zoo’s new Nature Boardwalk offers a close-up glimpse into an urban ecosystem.

What we like: The music—the Jammin’ at the Zoo concert series is one of the more interesting, and inexpensive, ways to catch a great band on stage.

Have a favorite outdoor spot for you and your kids that we didn’t mention? Share it as a comment below.

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