How to Spend a Day in Chicago Wilderness

One Family’s Approach to Spending time Outside

by Liza Sullivan, co-founder of ThroughPlay

Building a fort in Chicago WildernessMy husband and I wanted to give our twins (now 5 ½-years-old) a childhood filled with opportunities for play, so we often spend our family time exploring Chicago Wilderness’ diverse parks, nature centers, forest preserves, playgrounds, beaches, and museums. As a result of these moments in nature, we have observed a marked change in our children – they appear healthier, happier, stronger, and more self-confident – as predicted by research showing that outdoor play enhances children’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development.

Let me describe our routine on a typical outing day. In the morning, over breakfast we decide our destination together. The children continually amaze me with their suggestions, which illustrate clear memories of and affinities for numerous places across the Chicagoland area. Then the kids help pack our supplies – in the backpack or van go lunch, blankets, books, cameras, maps, binoculars, sketching materials, and the sometimes necessary change of clothes and shoes. The idea is to include items allowing us to stay out as long as we want and use the environment in meaningful ways. We’ve become skilled at transforming a playspace into a home away from home, alternating between active play and quieter activities such as eating, reading, or lying under a tree.

Our approach to the day has evolved over time and through experience. We have learned to have no time constraints or preplanned agenda, allowing the focus to be our children, the destination, and the adventure that unfolds. The pressures of our world stop. We slow down and lose ourselves in the essential experiences of childhood – climbing trees, gathering sea glass, navigating forests, building forts, sledding. The children now call these excursions, “Nowhere to go and all day to get there days.”

We often return tired yet rejuvenated, and the impact of these experiences affects the tone of our evenings. The kids are anxious for downtime to process and make these experiences their own: they draw, create stories, organize shows, and write in their journals. They engage in pretend play, using scenes from the day to invent imaginary worlds.

At dinner, questions triggered from our day provoke natural, lively, and lengthy conversations. This is not necessarily the time for my husband or me to provide answers. It’s about getting our children talking about their age-appropriate theories, nurturing curiosity, making predictions, and essentially asking more questions which generate excitement to visit the library or internet for more information.

As we tuck our children into bed, I am aware of my own growth and my confidence as a parent. I realize I was fully present throughout the day, acknowledging my twins’ accomplishments, and enjoying their youth.

I encourage you to reserve time to explore your nearby natural areas, as well as Chicago Wilderness’ plentiful playspaces. Some recommendations are:

  • Your Neighborhood. Stuff lunch, books, and a blanket into a backpack and walk to the park, farmer’s market, library, or downtown.
  • The Grove National Historic Landmark, Glenview. Hike trails through Illinois’ native habitats. Follow the history of generations at the Grove since 1836. Visit replica of a Native American village. Explore the nature museum for live native birds, turtles, snakes, and fish.
  • Kline Creek Farm, West Chicago. Step back in time experiencing farm life in the 1890s. Tour the farmhouse, participate in hands-on historic activities, and observe the livestock including horse, sheep, cattle, and chickens.
  • Osaka Garden and Wooded Island, Jackson Park, Chicago. Explore the lush Japanese setting of bridges and rock paths to serene Osaka Garden, with the relics of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in the distance. Picnic or walk the island sanctuary at Wooded Island.
  • Wildlife Discovery Center, Lake Forest. Historic Elawa Farm along 670 acres of the Middlefork Savanna. Indoor reptile exhibit, where children can touch and hold turtles, snakes, and iguanas. Outdoor exhibits of hawks, owls, rehabilitated turtles, and Boris the Bobcat – Illinois’ only native wildcat. Large playground with sheltered picnic area and nearby restrooms.

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:

Photo by Liza Sullivan

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