With two young kids who love the outdoors, I am always looking for places where they can touch everything, get a little dirty, and, most importantly, develop their curiosity about the world we live in! It’s also important to me to teach my children to appreciate nature and value its beauty and honor the many benefits it provides. The perfect place to do this is by visiting one of our awesome local nature centers. Thanks to wildlife and environmental professionals, these mini-museums are often interactive, educational, and fun for the whole family! Another bonus is that many are indoor locations so you can visit them year-round.
Crabtree Nature Center
3 Stover Road
Barrington, IL 60010
Bartlett Nature Center
2054 W. Stearns Road
Bartlett, IL 60103
Animals including reptiles, insects, birds and amphibians can be found both indoors and outdoors at the Bartlett Nature Center. Guests are welcome Monday through Friday, from 9:00am – 4:00pm, and Saturday from 9:00am – 1:00pm.
Red Oak Nature Center
2343 S. River Street
Batavia, IL 60510
Red Oak’s Wildlife Room includes a 500 gallon turtle and fish habitat, as well as frogs, salamanders, snakes, and more. Katie’s family visited this nature center a few summers ago; make sure to check out her full overview of Red Oak Nature Center. Current hours are Tuesday through Friday from 10:00am – 4:00pm and Saturday from 10:00am – 2:00pm. Closed on Sundays and Mondays.
This center has both interactive exhibits and hands-on discovery. Bring a lunch or snack in the summer to enjoy on the rooftop garden with cafe tables. Outside, you’ll find a Wooly Mammoth statue made from twisted, reclaimed steel, and a nature-themed playground. For details and photos of Hidden Oaks Nature Center, read Jill’s review here.
Lyman Woods Nature Center
901 31st Street
Downers Grove, IL 60515
This sustainably built center has a living roof, a vegetable garden, an active bee colony that produces local honey for sale, and a toddler-friendly, outdoor play area with wooden house and stage. Inside, you’ll find exhibits, displays, an active beehive at work, and a couple resident amphibian friends. If you go on a day with good weather, explore the woods onsite and be sure to check out a family Adventure Pack to use along the way. Hours are Monday – Saturday 9:00am – 4:00pm and Sunday 10:00am – 2:00pm.
Willowbrook Wildlife Center
525 S Park Boulevard
Glen Ellyn, IL 60137
The visitor center is currently closed as part of an ongoing facility improvement project, and is scheduled to re-open in 2024. Also, as of June 2023 the outdoor exhibits and trails are also closed. However, they are still open to receive wild animals that are in need of rehabilitation. This spot made our list of the 10 Best Nature Centers with Free Admission and we are all looking forward to the visitor center opening up again!
Spring Brook Nature Center
130 Forest Avenue
Itasca, IL 60143
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. The center was recently renovated and is now home to 10 raptors! A butterfly and hummingbird garden grows in warmer weather. Hours vary by season; see website for details.
Pilcher Park Nature Center
2501 Highland Park Drive
Joliet, IL 60432
The first floor of the nature center has an area with turtles by the entrance and tanks and cages of live animals, including snakes, toads, a bearded lizard, and a ferret that was sleeping in a hammock when we were there.
Sagawau Environmental Learning Center
12545 West 111th Street
Lemont, IL 60439
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 (or snowshoe) through the adjacent woods. Informational exhibits and displays include topics like geology and habitat management, and are mostly text and pictures – ideal for elementary-aged visitors and up. Open daily from 9:00am – 4:00pm.
Jurica-Suchy Nature Museum
Benedictine University (2nd floor of Birck Hall)
5700 College Road
Lisle, IL 60532
Check out their impressive collection of over 3,500 mammals, birds, sea creatures, reptiles, amphibians, insects, skeletons, and more! The general public should click here to reserve a time to explore – groups of 5 or more can call ahead, and all visitors should be 5 years old or older. When open, hours vary by season.
Knoch Knolls Nature Center
320 Knoch Knolls Road
Naperville, IL 60565
This center sits on the edge of the DuPage River and has a large deck that extends out over the water for fabulous views. All hands-on displays have been updated for Summer 2022, and feature insects and turtles. Outside, there’s a neat mud-free playground; inside, there are exhibits about the river, an aquarium, a living wall of plants, and more. Check out their calendar to search for kid-friendly events. Hours vary by season, so check the website ahead of time. Currently, the website lists the hours of Monday – Friday from 9:00am – 1:00pm, and Saturday, 9:00am – 3:00pm. They are closed on Sunday.
Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center
3609 Spring Road
Oak Brook, IL 60523
This spot made our list of the 10 Best Nature Centers with Free Admission! There is so much see and do as you learn about native plants and animals – make sure to check out the bird nest! The trails around the nature center are also winding and beautiful. You can admire the 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. Their current hours are 10:00am – 5:00pm, Monday through Saturday, closed on Sunday. Click here for Annie’s combo trip idea so you can get the inside scoop on visiting the mill museum, waterfall, and nature center all in the same area.
Lake View Nature Center
17W063 Hodges Road
Oakbrook Terrace, IL 60181
This hidden gem excels in on-demand group offerings and as such, only opens for park district programming and private group events – click here for more information on scheduling a visit with your friends and family. The facility is home to native animals and critters of all kinds, and also has a geological collection of local artifacts onsite for display and exploration.
Trailside Museum of Natural History
738 Thatcher Avenue
River Forest, IL 60305
Kids can see live native animals, tour wildflower gardens, learn about local wildlife and their habitats, and more—all inside a historic Victorian mansion! Check the calendar to find events like their regular free Story Trails, which includes a craft kit to take home. Hours vary by season; see website for details.
Spring Valley Nature Center
1111 E Schaumburg Road
Schaumburg, IL 60194
Located at Spring Valley right next to the Bison’s Bluff Nature Playground, the Spring Valley nature center is a destination in its own right. A library filled with books on nature as well as baskets filled with activities for kids is a quiet place to wind down from play, while the main area of the center is filled with hands-on displays and recreated habitats. Be sure to check out all of the turtles swimming in the indoor stream! The nature center makes for a great trip combined with a walk on the valley’s trails, which feature ‘natural play pockets’ where kids are encouraged to stop and play. Click here to read about Rachel’s combo trip.
Creek Bend Nature Center
37W700 Dean Street
St. Charles, IL 60175
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. Naturalists onsite can help you take a self-guided hike, or enjoy a scavenger hunt. Guests are welcome from Monday through Thursday 10:00am – 4:00pm, Saturday and Sunday 12:00pm – 4:00pm.
Hickory Knolls Discovery Center
3795 Campton Hills Road
St. Charles, IL 60175
A visit to the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center includes a stop at the turtle pond, as well as countless other native animals. They have a fun squad of Animal Ambassadors that are not to be missed – turtle and snake lovers will especially enjoy this fun feature. The grounds around the center, which feature over 130 acres of land, are full of wetlands, woodlands, and prairies to explore. Current hours are 10:00am – 4:00pm, Monday through Saturday.
Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center
9800 Willow Springs Road
Willow Springs, IL 60480
This spot made our list of the 10 Best Nature Centers with Free Admission, and is a perennial family favorite! 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. Of note is the Accessibility Garden, which is designed so that visitors of all abilities can interact with nature, and it includes a sensory water feature! Hours vary by season; see website for details.
Want to play some more? Give a nature playground a try! Click here to read about Rachel’s fun family outing to Bison’s Bluff in Schaumburg.