Nature Centers in Chicagoland: Bring the Outdoors Inside

Nature centers offer a dose of the great outdoors, even when the weather isn’t cooperating. I had no idea these existed until recently, when we were driving past the new Knoch Knolls center and stopped in to explore. Now I know the secret: nature centers are a great source of (usually free) fun in any weather! These Chicagoland nature centers that have walk-in visitor centers where kids can explore exhibits, meet animals, and more, depending on the spot.


Knoch Knolls Nature Center in Naperville

Knoch Knolls Nature Center

320 Knoch Knolls Road, Naperville, IL
Hours vary by season; see website for details
This newer center sits on the edge of the DuPage River and has a large deck that extends out over the water for fabulous views. Outside, there’s a really neat mud-free playground; inside, there are exhibits about the river, a huge aquarium, a “living wall” of plants, a hands-on display of natural objects, and more. Check out their calendar to search for kid-friendly events.


Hal Tyrell Trailside Museum

738 Thatcher Avenue, River Forest, IL
Hours vary by season; see website for details
Kids can see live native animals, tour wildflower gardens, learn about local wildlife and their habitats, and more—all inside this historic  Victorian mansion from the 1870s. Check the calendar to find events like their regular free Nature Story Times for kids 3–6, which are followed by a craft and snack.


Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center

3609 Spring Road, Oak Brook, IL
9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily
This spot made our list of the 5 Best Nature Centers with Free Admission! Annie wrote: “The treehouse is a big draw for kids at Fullersburg, along with many hands-on activities, such as making animal footprints in putty and birds hanging from the ceiling that kids can make fly by pulling on the cord. The trails around the nature center are also winding and beautiful. You can admire the fall colors, ducks and waterfall along your journey. This forest preserve also made the top of the list of the Best Forest Preserve Trails For Kids.”


Lyman Woods Nature Center

901 31st Street, Downers Grove, IL
Hours vary by season; see website for details
This sustainably built center has grass growing from the roof in spring, when you can also catch the butterfly garden in bloom. Check out the landscaping and rain gardens outside, then head inside to tour the exhibits, see an active beehive at work, or borrow an Adventure Pack for exploring the woods.

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Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center

9800 Willow Springs Road, Willow Springs, IL
Hours vary by season; see website for details
This spot made our list of the 5 Best Nature Centers with Free Admission! Annie wrote: “The original Little Red Schoolhouse building, built in 1886, is still on the property, however a new large building was built in 2010 and is full of learning opportunities, activities for children and space to walk around and explore. On the right when you walk in, there is a large activity room where kids can play and events are held. To the left you can find a replica of a wigwam, live and taxidermied animals, a ramp with footprints from throughout the ages, a turtle habitat and many tanks with live animals. There are more birds outside as well as winding paths.”


Hidden Oaks Nature Center

419 Trout Farm Rd, Bolingbrook, IL
Monday–Saturday 9 a.m.–4 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.–4 p.m.
This big, fun center boasts interactive exhibits and hands-on discovery.  Kids can explore the Habitat Tree exhibit, match up animal sounds and scents, or check out rotating activities in the Discovery Room. There’s a rooftop garden with cafe tables that’s gorgeous in warm weather. Outside, you’ll find an intricate Wooly Mammoth statute made from twisted reclaimed steel, a buried car, and a nature-themed playground.

Get a full view of Hidden Oaks Nature Center in our review for all seasons!


Lake Katherine Nature Center & Botanic Gardens

7402 Lake Katherine Drive, Palos Heights, IL
Weekdays 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; closed Sundays.
This spot made our list of the 5 Best Nature Centers with Free Admission! Annie wrote: “The grounds around this nature center are beautiful. You are welcomed with a stream leading to a pond and as you follow the path around you see huge flowers around the building. On the top floor inside there are interesting displays, such as sand from around the world and different types of rocks. There is a reading and activity corner as well as a lower level with animals, including many snakes, a bunny and other interesting creatures.”

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Creek Bend Nature Center

37W700 Dean St., Saint Charles, IL
Monday–Thursday 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 12–4 p.m.
Creek Bend has interactive displays and hands-on exhibits centered around local ecology, including a Prairie Ecology exhibit starring a bison from the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.


Willowbrook Wildlife Center

525 S Park Boulevard, Glen Ellyn, IL
9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily
This spot made our list of the 5 Best Nature Centers with Free Admission! Annie wrote: “This nature center is free, however requests a $1 donation as they take in and rehabilitate over 8,000 animals each year. In lieu of cash, items are also accepted such as paper towels, pet food, acorns and others from their wish list. This forest preserve district location is the only one that welcomes injured animals and also has the most live animals inside and outside for your kids to watch and learn about. When we were there we had the opportunity to watch a baby squirrel feeding, which was fun. There is a great circular path that leads around the outdoor animal cages, a butterfly garden where there are laminated sheets to identify butterflies and a sensory garden.”


Sagawau Environmental Learning Center

12545 West 111th St, Lemont, IL
9 a.m.–4 p.m. daily
The center has a big, cozy space filled with tables and chairs, as well as a couch by the fire—perfect for getting warm after a winter walk through the woods. The displays, which span topics like geology and habitat management, are mostly text and pictures. It’s not little-kid-centric; the center focuses on educating students from junior high on up.


Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago - photos of butterflies and koi fish in a pond

The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

2430 N Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL
Monday-Friday 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday 10 am–5 p.m.
$9 adults, $7 students and seniors, $6 children 3-12, free for children under 3. Thursdays are always free.
The crowning jewel of this museum is its 2,700 square foot greenhouse with more than 1,000 butterflies fluttering among trees and above a koi pond in a mini tropical paradise. There are tons of other kid-friendly exhibits, including RiverWorks, a really cool working river that lets kids reverse the flow of the river, turn it into a lake, and more.

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Bartlett Nature Center

2054 W. Stearns Road, Bartlett, IL
Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m.–1 p.m.
The seasonal exhibits at this indoor center include reptiles, amphibians, and insects. In warmer weather, butterflies flock to the natural garden out front.


North Park Village Nature Center

5801 N. Pulaski Rd. Chicago, IL
10 a.m.–4 p.m. daily
This Chicago nature center features a discovery room, a table for hands-on play with natural objects, and interactive displays. Outside, trails cover a wide range of scenery, from wetlands to savannas.


Red Oak Nature Center

2343 S. River St., Batavia, IL
Monday–Friday 9 a.m.–4:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
Start off with a video narrated by Parker (Red Oak’s fox mascot) before heading to the Sense the Seasons interactive exhibit for all ages. Red Oak’s Wildlife Room includes a 500 gallon turtle and fish habitat, as well as frogs, salamanders, snakes, and more.


Spring Brook Nature Center

130 Forest Ave, Itasca, IL
Hours vary by season; see website for details
Kids can check out a big aquarium with fish and turtles or put together free crafts inside this nature center, which looks like a big red barn. A butterfly and hummingbird garden grows in warmer weather.


Wildwood Nature Center

529 Forestview Avenue, Park Ridge, IL
Check the website for nature center hours, Nature Nook hours, and animal feeding times
Live animals, a turtle pond, and an environmental-themed playroom make Wildwood worth the drive. The animal exhibit room houses more than 35 animals, including snakes, rabbits, an iguana, and prairie dogs. The Nature Nook playroom is stocked with books, puzzles, puppets, games, and activities. Plan to come during feeding time on Wednesdays and Saturdays, or come for the Saturday morning Critter Connection, a short, family-friendly presentation on a different animal each week. (Check the website for event times.)


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.

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