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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Interact with Local Wildlife Indoors : AT REGIONAL MUSEUMS

Dec 26, 2018 06:40PM ● By Sheryl DeVore

Photo courtesy Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

On particularly cold, snowy days when spending time outdoors seems uninviting, youngsters and their caregivers can still enjoy nature indoors. Chicago regional nature museums offer fun and educational activities, including up-close views of live animals.

Prairie Grass Nature Museum

At the free Prairie Grass Nature Museum, in Round Lake, youngsters can pretend to be a muskrat. The museum is undergoing a renovation, and a life-size muskrat den is one of the new experiences scheduled to be completed by March. “They can play with muskrat puppets and pretend to collect shells, mussels and clams,” says Christine Kustra, recreation supervisor for the Round Lake Area Park District, who oversees the museum.

        During the renovation, children will still be able to see live animals, including a corn snake, two box turtles, three aquatic turtles, an eastern tiger salamander and an American toad. They can enjoy playing hide-and-seek, looking for the critters and learn that some of them hibernate in winter, Kustra notes. “Aquatic turtles are always up and about. We have a big, tall aquarium where kids are able to see the underside of their shells and how they swim.”

        Children also can color nature-based scenes such as snowflakes, play with stuffed animals and learn about bees and spiders through a talking microscope. “What’s really unique about this space is that two of our four walls are large windows, giving people great viewing opportunities into Hart Woods [next to the museum],” says Kustra. Visitors can borrow binoculars and watch indoors as cardinals stop at feeders or a deer runs in the woods. “Children learn winter isn’t a dead season. It’s a quieter, different season and it has its own special magic,” she explains.

The Grove

Another great place for kids to explore indoors during winter is at the indoor interpretive center at the Grove, in Glenview. Free and open daily, the center offers visitors a chance to see not only an impressive alligator snapping turtle, but also live snakes and fish native to the region kept in special tanks, according to animal care supervisor Patti Kuntzmann.

        A natural science classroom inside the center is open on weekends featuring hands-on exhibits such as how owls find their food and discovering animals living in the soil. Interpreters answer questions and guide children to appreciate and learn more about the natural environment.

        The Grove, owned by the Glenview Park District, was once the home of John Kennicott, an educator and horticulturist who brought his family to the region from New Orleans in 1836. His son, Robert Kennicott, became an accomplished naturalist, and some of his plant and animal specimens are housed at the Smithsonian Institute. Others can be found at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, in Chicago, another place to explore nature indoors in winter.

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

One of the most popular indoor activities in winter at the Notebaert museum is exploring the indoor Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, says John Bannon, director of marketing. “It’s a tropical relief from the cold winter in January,” he says. “Having a 70-to-80-degree tropical experience in winter is really special and different.” Visitors can see up to 1,000 individual butterflies, including a clipper butterfly, with wings of blue, green and orange.

        Dora and Diego: Let’s Explore runs through January 27 at the museum. “It’s a hugely popular exhibit based on the Nickelodeon character Dora,” Bannon explains. “The exhibit is about exploring different environments and caring for animals.” It involves role-playing and problem-solving and appeals to children from 1 to 6 years old. He says, “It gives them a chance to run around and burn off some energy.”

        Visitors can meet a live animal at noon every day. “We also have animal feedings daily,” Bannon says. “We do a butterfly release daily. We have story times daily. Any time you’re here, you’ll get an experience.”

        Bannon advises that although the museum is in the middle of the city, it’s situated inside Lincoln Park, so visitors can hike just outside the museum to see nature outdoors in winter.


Sheryl DeVore is the author of four books on birds, including Birds of Illinois and Northern Flights. She also writes nature and science articles for national and regional publications. Contact her at [email protected].


Hours and Locations for Museums Kids Will Love


The Grove
1421 Milwaukee Ave., Glenview
Hours:  8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. weekdays;
9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends, year-round. Free.


Prairie Grass Nature Museum
860 Hart Rd., Round Lake
Hours:  10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues and Thurs, 11 a.m-2 p.m., Sat and Sun. Free


Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum
2430 N. Cannon Dr., Chicago
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m., weekdays;
10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends
Prices: $9 for adults;
$7 for students and seniors age 60 and up;
$6 for children ages 3-12;
free for children under 3;
members always free;
Illinois residents free Thursdays.