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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden Oaks Nature Center
419 Trout Farm Road
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

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.”

Creek Bend Nature Center

Creek Bend Nature Center
37W700 Dean Street
St. Charles, IL

Monday–Thursday 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 12–4 p.m.

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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

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.”

Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum

Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum
Benedictine University
5700 College Road
Lisle, IL 60532
(630) 829-6545

September through April
Monday – Thursday, 1:00 – 5:00 pm
Friday – Sunday, 2:00 – 4:00 pm

June and July
Tuesday – Thursday, 1:00 – 4:00 pm
or by appointment

May and August by appointment only.

Check out their impressive collection of over 3,500 mammals, birds, sea creatures, reptiles, amphibians, insects, skeletons, and more to examine and learn about throughout the museum! They also have Discovery Boxes to check out and guided tours for groups and families by appointment. Click here to read more about Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum.

Sagawau Environmental Learning Center

Sagawau Environmental Learning Center
12545 West 111th Street
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.

The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

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.

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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.

Bartlett Nature Center

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

North Park Village Nature Center
5801 N. Pulaski Road
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

Red Oak Nature Center
2343 S. River Street
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.

Katie visited this nature center with her kids! Click here to read her full overview of Red Oak Nature Center.

Spring Brook Nature Center

Spring Brook Nature Center
130 Forest Avenue
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

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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