The Winners are Here! 9 Best Free Nature Centers in Chicagoland

According to Kidlist readers (thanks, everyone!) these are the nine BEST free nature centers in Chicagoland! Nature centers are amazing destinations for kids to learn more about animals, native plants, geography, and more. Check them out, then let us know how many you’ve visited!

9 Best Nature Centers with Free Admission in Chicagoland

1. Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center

9800 Willow Springs Road
Willow Springs, IL 60480
(708) 839-6897

Your number one pick for the best nature center in Chicagoland is the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center in Willow Springs… and that’s no surprise! This is a huge nature center with live animals, interactive exhibits, indoor and outdoor nature-themed play areas, a historical school, and miles of hiking trails to explore. It’s definitely a local favorite for families. The big indoor space makes it a great year-round destination, too. Read Jill Kowalski’s full review.

Knoch Knolls Nature Center

320 Knoch Knolls Road
Naperville, IL 60565
(630) 864-3964

Knoch Knolls Nature Center is a newer center in an impressive LEED Platinum facility. The building itself teaches kids about sustainability and the wise use of resources: they can see solar panels, a water cistern, a “living wall” of plants, and more in action. Interactive displays rotate out regularly, and there are also small animals to visit. The center itself is on the smaller side and can be explored top to bottom in under an hour. The outdoor playground is nice and big, and Knoch Knolls has great hiking onsite, too. Read my review of Knoch Knolls Nature center.

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Willowbrook Wildlife Center

525 S Park Boulevard
Glen Ellyn, IL 60137
(630) 942-6200

Willowbrook Wildlife Center is an active native wildlife rehabilitation facility where the staff cares for injured or orphaned animals. The visitor center showcases native animals, plus offers a peek inside the kitchen and nursery where baby animals are cared for. There are also animal exhibits outside, as well as a butterfly garden and hiking trails.

Fullersburg Woods Nature Center

3609 Spring Road
Oak Brook, IL 60523
(630) 850-8110

The tree play house is definitely a fun feature here! This nature center also features woolly mammoth bones from more than 13,000 years ago, as well as hands-on activities with microscopes and other equipment. The nature center is a great home base for hiking the preserve. You can also pair a visit here with seeing the Graue Mill and Museum and the Frederick Graue House, which are also within the preserve.

Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens

7402 Lake Katherine Drive
Palos Heights, IL 60463
(708) 361-1873

You’ll find small animal exhibits, nature-themed books, and plenty of natural artifacts inside the Lake Katherine Nature Center. Grab a scavenger hunt before heading out to explore. Lake Katherine itself has gorgeous grounds for hiking, a vibrant butterfly garden, and a lake where you can rent canoes and kayaks!

photo courtesy of the Bartlett Nature Center Facebook page

Bartlett Nature Center

2054 W Stearns Road
Bartlett, IL 60103
(847) 608-3120

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At Bartlett Nature Center, kids can peer through the glass for an up-close look at all kinds of amphibians, reptiles, and insects. Animal bones and pelts on display help teach more about local wildlife. In nice weather, the crushed limestone trails make good hiking for kids. And if it’s snowy, you can rent snowshoes or cross-country skis!

Red Oak Nature Center

2343 S River Street
Batavia, IL 60510
(630) 897-1808

Red Oak Nature Center is really kid-friendly! The interactive exhibits teach about nature through play and exploration. As Katie notes in her review of Red Oak Nature Center, the center’s Wildlife Room is home to a variety of animals displayed at a great level for kids to check everything out without standing tip-toe.

Kids playing a match-the-smell game at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Bolingbrook

Hidden Oaks Nature Center

419 Trout Farm Road
Bolingbrook, IL 60440
(630) 739-2600

Hidden Oaks is another very kid-focused spot. The lower level centers on a huge tree display and is full of interactive exhibits and live local animals. Upstairs, the Discovery Room has materials for reading, coloring, and exploring through nature-themed activities. In nice weather, you can bring your lunch to the rooftop patio or check out the nature playground.

photo courtesy of the Park Ridge Park District website

Wildwood Nature Center

529 Forestview Avenue
Park Ridge, IL 60068
(847) 692-3570

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Wildwood Nature Center has two main areas: the animal exhibit room with more than 35 live animals, and a really cute Nature Nook indoor play area with toys, books, activities, and more. The play area’s theme changes monthly, which is great for mixing things up on repeat visits.


Thanks again to everyone who voted! Be sure to check out our big list of all the nature centers in Chicagoland for more ideas to explore.

About the Author

Rachel Matuch
Rachel is a writer and mom of two boys who lives in Woodridge. She recently moved from Downers Grove and grew up in Naperville, but she and her husband have been discovering new things to do now that they’ve got a toddler and baby in tow. Rachel loves cooking, playing board games, and regularly raiding the Woodridge library. She also volunteers with teens at Four Corners Community Church, which makes her feel like an old geezer.

5 Comments on "The Winners are Here! 9 Best Free Nature Centers in Chicagoland"

  1. dolores Scaletta | September 23, 2015 at 3:23 pm | Reply

    Very interesting.

  2. please come out and see us at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Bolingbrook, we are also free and have activities for children a nature scape play area, live reptiles and trails. Our sister park is Hiiden Lakes Historic Trout Farm.

  3. love these nature centers! I had so much fun with my campers at the Lake View Nature Center, and I’ve brought my share of animals over to Willowbrook from drop offs at my work. But I will definitely have to visit the other two! If you and your daughter are ever near Park Ridge, stop by and visit Wildwood Nature Center and say hi! Thanks for sharing!

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