Free things to do with kids this summer

From music to history to far-out adventure, here are some awesome free things to do with kids this summer in Chicago

Photograph: Daniel X. O'Neil
Maggie Daley Park

Kids are expensive. Between all the gear they need, food they eat and how quickly they grow, there is no shortage of spending on the little ones. Luckily Chicago offers tons of free things to do with kids this summer. From free museum admissions to lively outdoor concerts, here are our favorites around town.

Lincoln Park Zoo

Take the kids to marvel at some 1,200 animals, from apes to zebras, at the oldest and one of the last free zoos in the country. Attractions like the Kovler Lion House and the Regenstein Center for African Apes pack a big punch.

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Lincoln Park Free

Maggie Daley Park

Your little ones will love the new Play Garden, featuring enormous slides and whimsical climbing structures. The play structure is like none other with a giant pirate ship, kaleidoscope and mirrored maze. Adventurous types will love the climbing wall too.

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Loop

The 606

With a car-free place to toddle, plenty of parks and playgrounds to monkey around in, and tons of programming for the whole family, the new Chicago park space is a little one’s dream. The formerly abandoned stretch of elevated railway track that runs through Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Wicker Park and Bucktown found new life in June when it reopened as the 606.

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Bucktown

Green City Market

While it may be next to impossible for you to get out of the market without dropping some cash on produce, your kids can have all of the fun they want for free. Sit on the lawn and listen to the bongo drum man, who brings instruments for the kiddos as well. Club Sprouts always has a fun little “cooking” project for your pint-sized chefs too. Check it out on summer Wednesdays and Saturdays from 7am–1pm.

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Lincoln Park

Bubbles concerts

This may be a kid’s haven for music classes throughout the year, but this summer the venue is taking the show on the road. Head to The Roosevelt Collection plaza (inside if it rains) on Tuesdays and Saturdays at noon this summer to jam out with all of your favorite teachers and eat free snacks. 

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Lincoln Park

Chicago History Museum

Critics' pick

Kids under 12 are always free here. The whole family will love the new Chicago experience (opening July 4), which features a state-of-the art movie presentation highlighting major events in Chicago’s history. It’s the perfect way to spend a rainy day.

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Lincoln Park

Build sandcastles at Montrose Beach

Summer isn’t official in Chicago until you hit the beach, and we are lucky enough to do it for free. Bring along a pail and shovels and let the kids dig to China. It’ll keep them entertained for hours without spending a dollar. 

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Uptown

North Park Village Nature Center

With 46 acres of preserved nature and an education center, this Chicago Park District facility has plenty for kids and adults to do. Check out the hands-on discovery tables and interactive displays. The nature center also offers workshops and camps throughout the year.

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Northwest Side

Millennium Park Presents

You’ll probably spend most of your summer at this park anyway, what with its spitting water at Crown Fountain, The Target Family Festival and more must-experience activities. But you’ll also want to check out the various shows (some without kids, but most with) like the Lang Lang Foundation International Music Summit Concert with Midwest Young Artists, featuring stellar young pianists from around the globe.

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Loop Free

Navy Pier

There may be a million ways to spend money on the pier, but one of the most spectacular fireworks shows in the city is absolutely free twice a week. Sure, it may be past the kids' bedtime, but it’s worth letting them experience it—just this once.

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Streeterville Free

Chicago Children's Museum

Critics' pick

The children’s museum is always fun for kids, but it's even more fun for mom and dad when it’s free. Admission on Thursday nights from 5-8pm is always free. And the new summertime exhibit “Boats” will make your little shipmates feel like they are sailing the high seas of Lake Michigan.

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Streeterville

Museum of Contemporary Art

Parents with kids of all ages will enjoy the free days at this contemporary art museum, which provides popular guided morning tours for moms and dads with strollers in tow. There are also themed family days throughout the year with different crafts and projects. The MCA is open until 8pm every Tuesday, when the museum hosts special evening programs. Programs are free with museum admission (admission is always free for Illinois residents on Tuesdays).

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Gold Coast

Movies in the Parks

Critics' pick

From June through September, families can join together to enjoy the more than 240 free movies that will screen in parks all over Chicago as part of the city's annual Movies in the Parks program. From recent blockbusters like Maleficent and Gravity to classics like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and Space Jam, you're sure to find good something to see beneath the stars. Screenings typically begin at 8:30pm each evening.

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Various venues Until Thursday September 3 2015 Free

Lululemon Bucktown

The yoga pants may cost a fortune but to take your kids to yoga—absolutely free. Once a month (schedule varies so head to their website) Lululemon Bucktown offers a fun morning class for kids to stretch like Gumby.

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Bucktown

Storytime at Farm in the Zoo

Join Mr. Singer for a rockin' good time at the main barn in the Farm at the Zoo for a fun storytime and sing-along.

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Lincoln Park Zoo Wednesday July 1 2015 - Wednesday February 17 2016 Free

Chicago Air and Water Show

Critics' pick

Don't be surprised if you get a neck ache from looking up during this two-day event. Join throngs of people at North Avenue Beach and surrounding areas to catch air and watercraft demonstrations, including the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the U.S. Army Parachute Team Golden Knights.

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North Avenue Beach Saturday August 15 2015 - Sunday August 16 2015 Free

Garfield Park Conservatory

You can always find something for the kids to do here, from classes like Morning Glories (which includes planting and soil-digging projects) on Mondays from 10am–noon to the new Play and Grow Garden, featuring mud pie-making in the soil kitchen and building a fort out of fabric and natural materials.

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Garfield Park Free

Historic Wagner Farm

The kids will learn a little while having fun here, as Wagner Farm offers educational programs and summer camps focused on agriculture and family farm life.

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Glenview

Dancin' Sprouts

See some of the best kindie rockers do their thing this summer. Pack a picnic and be prepared to rock out to free shows from Miss Jamie, Laura Doherty and Mister G.

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Chicago Botanic Garden Wednesday July 1 2015 - Wednesday August 26 2015 Free

Adams Playground Park

When the weather warms up, kids head to this park's water playground. The fieldhouse holds summer classes for both kids and adults. There is a well-shaded playground that kids can explore on their own as well as a sandbox and picnic area.

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Lincoln Park

Chicago fire stations

In case you haven’t heard, kids love fire trucks. So what could be better than getting to see one up close and personal at your neighborhood fire station? Most stations welcome kids during the day, and firefighters are often amenable to tours and photos on the truck—if they aren’t out fightin’ fires, of course.

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