Benefits of Family Time in Chicago Wilderness

by Liza Sullivan, co-founder of ThroughPlay

Climbing a tree_Credit Liza SullivanAs an early childhood educator, it was important to me that my twin’s pre-kindergarten years were filled with plenty of time for free play. They are now 5 ½ and our family has spent the last few years exploring Chicago Wilderness parks, nature centers, forest preserves, playgrounds, beaches, and museums. I grew up in Wilmette, my husband in Iowa, but it was not until we were parents that we became aware of the astounding number of diverse, cost free, year-round family resources in and around our community.

Looking back on these experiences, I realize that these times have not only changed my children, but me as well.

First, my children. Regular outdoor play opportunities in Chicago Wilderness have helped my twins become:

  • Strong, fit, and healthy. Their strength, agility, coordination, and endurance have increased dramatically. They push their bodies and minds to new limits, as they climb trees, jump from rocks, walk down trails, and play on equipment in different ways.
  • More able to appropriately assess risks. Joan Almon, Executive Director of Alliance for Childhood, encourages parents not to make play risk-free, but rather to allow children as much risk as they can handle. I try to follow this advice. When my kids ask me if they can get hurt, I warn them that falling is a possibility, but that I trust them to make decisions based on their own abilities and comfort levels. They do just that, without injury, but with growing self-confidence, pride, and ability to coach themselves through difficult personal challenges.
  • Curious leaReading outside_credit Liza Sullivanrners. My children have learned to slow down, observe, and notice details. Their wonder about their world seems boundless. After an outing, we visit the library in search of books with more information, and this piques their interest in reading. Many nights I write down their experiences and reflections they dictate to me; then they illustrate on paper their most vivid memories. These are natural, fun ways to reinforce the benefits of outdoor play, foster art and pre-literacy skills, and encourage their innate desire to learn.
  • One with nature. Over the years I have noticed my twin’s growing awareness and love of nature. I try to foster affection and fascination for living things by observing with them and often sketching treasures we collect. For instance, when my daughter once found a dead dragonfly, we took it home and drew it. Examining it led them to notice its intricate, patterned wings. I believe that this and other direct experiences in nature at a young age will promote a later commitment to preservation and conservation of our natural resources.

Flower Crown_credit Liza SullivanNow to me. My great surprise is that time enjoying Chicago Wilderness has changed my life. I find myself unwinding in nature and becoming a kid again by hiking, fishing, climbing trees, playing hide-and-see, rolling down hills, weaving daisy-chain crowns, wishing upon dandelions, and building forts. I engaged in many of these same activities when I was young, and reliving them with my children has made me nostalgic and has given me a sense of family continuity.

But most importantly, I have learned to slow down, avoid pressures to over-schedule, and enjoy my children’s youth. Our family adventures have brought us very close and have allowed us to build a treasury of cherished memories.

I encourage you and your family to explore Chicago Wilderness’ bountiful resources, experiencing firsthand the benefits to all your family members.

About the Author:
Liza Sullivan is the co-founder of ThroughPlay, the co-chair of the Alliance for Early Childhood’s Let’s Play Initiative, and a Principal Investigator for the Global Play Memories Project. She was formerly the Associate Vice President of Education at Chicago Children’s Museum. Liza holds a B.A. in Elementary Education and a B.A. in Psychology from the University of Iowa and a M.A. in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. To contact Liza, email:

Photos by Liza Sullivan

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