North of downtown, the Lincoln Park Zoo and Peggy Notebaert nature museum are located very close to Lake Michigan. The zoo is always free, and so it is a go-to for us if we need to get out of the hotel and the weather is nice. Parking is expensive right around the zoo, but just north of the zoo, there is street parking for free. Ever since Landon was little, I’ve parked by this museum and thought maybe one day we would tack on a visit here after the zoo. Well, we never have time and so we had never been before! Unlike the downtown museums, Peggy Notebaert nature museum has Illinois resident free days every Thursday! We made sure to get to the museum early enough to snag a free street parking spot, and we were well on our way to a completely free outing!
This museum focuses on nature and environmental science, focusing specifically on the midwest and Chicago areas. We stopped first in the water works exhibit. Both of my boys love playing in the water, and I liked that they were also learning about rainfall, the engineering behind the Chicago river flow reversal, and flooding. There were several stations set up so that many children could play at the same time. Owen needed a stool to reach everything, but he managed.
Next, we checked out the reptiles and amphibians are and learned about the museum’s efforts to preserve the Blanding turtle, a local endangered species. Female turtles lay their eggs in special laying bins in the wild, then the eggs are brought to the museum and hatched in incubators. They use one-way glass so that we can watch the turtles without them getting used to humans. Once they reach a certain age, they are released into the wild. Each turtle was numbered, and along with some older turtles in a large aquarium they had several bins of smaller turtles in their labs. We could peek through the window and see them swimming around.
Although the museum itself is relatively new, having opened in 1999, it stems from the Chicago Academy of the Sciences, which was one of the first museums in the west, and has a huge collection of specimens from nature. We were able to enjoy and touch a few of those with a docent. She had furs of some of the animals that are native to the Chicago area. She asked Landon to guess each animal before she told him what it was. She tried to give him obvious clues so he could guess. He had a really hard time guessing simple animals like raccoon and opossum! That’s when I began to realize that Landon knows more about Asian animals than American animals! On our way back from Vietnam last year, TV screens were playing a National Geographic documentary about American animals and a bison was on the screen. Landon asked, “Mommy, what is that weird animal?!” I guess we need to teach him more about his native land!
Let’s talk about Owen and bears. His favorite book right now is Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? So, when he saw the giant polar bear near the entrance, he immediately ran up to it, pointed and said, “BEAR!! BEAR!” No matter how many times I redirected him to other areas, he always went right back to the bear, until I put him in the stroller to move ahead into other areas of the museum. He loves bears!
Also on the first floor is a model home exhibit, showing ways to make things more energy efficient, and a relatively small children’s play area. There were several school groups there when we visited, and so at times the kid’s play area got a little chaotic. I had to watch Owen (15-month-old) carefully so he didn’t get trampled by the grade schoolers, but Landon held his own. Owen spent much of his time climbing up the stairs and going down the slide, while Landon wore a beaver costume and devised an elaborate imaginary beaver world.
After a short lunch break at the snack tables near the entrance, we headed upstairs to the butterfly garden. We passed by a few cases of notable and interesting specimens from the Chicago Academy of Science’s collection. Landon was anxious to go inside the butterfly exhibit, but then did not spend much time inside. Inside the butterfly garden were tropical flowers and plants, and many different kinds of butterflies. There were laminated sheets available with pictures of all the different butterflies, but we did not get our hands on one until both boys were done with it. Landon liked chasing the butterflies around, and one briefly landed on me!
Our last stop was the outdoor bird watching walkway on the 3rd floor. We under-dressed because it was supposed to be a pretty nice day, but down by the lake it was cold and windy and we didn’t really wanted to be outside for too long. We looked for birds through the binoculars, but I think it was just a little too early in the season to see many birds out and about. I can imagine this being a wonderful place to just sit and eat a snack and bird watch in the spring, summer, or fall, though!
The Peggy Notebaert nature museum was a nice free half-day educational diversion in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. We learned a lot about our local wildlife and habitats, and how to help preserve it. I think when our kids are a little older, we can attempt the museum and Lincoln Park zoo in one day! For visitors to the Chicago area, I would recommend visiting one of the more iconic downtown museums over this nature museum, but for those living in the area, this is a great place to take the kids!