25 Free Things To Do in Chicago on Cold and Rainy Days: Indoor Places To Play

Tiny Picassos can enjoy different activities every day at the Art Institute’s Family Room. Photo by Maureen Wilkey, for Mommy Poppins
Tiny Picassos can enjoy different activities every day at the Art Institute’s Family Room. Photo by Maureen Wilkey, for Mommy Poppins
1/19/24 - By Maureen Wilkey

Looking for FREE things to do indoors in Chicago? Check out our list of free indoor playgrounds and more.

With winter comes the inevitable cabin fever of having small children cooped up inside. Whether your kids enjoy exploring nature, climbing, or curling up with a good book, we’ve got 25 FREE things to do so you can get them out of the house. Besides our favorite free indoor playgrounds, we've found cool things like seasonal flower shows at the Garfield Park Conservatory, a place where kids can gaze up at a woolly mammoth, and a great spot to play giant Jenga with a friend. You can even do some shopping at IKEA! 

Looking for more free stuff to do? Check out our free museum days all year round or our favorite outdoor skating rinks or sledding hills for winter fun. 


We recommend checking each venue's website for hours and potential weather-related closings before taking a trip outdoors: Nothing is worse than spending 20 minutes getting little hats and mittens on only to discover that the place you were hoping to go is closed. Be sure to brief yourself on parking availability or public transportation delays before you hit the road, and have fun!

Free Play at Museums and Cultural Attractions in Chicago

1. Garfield Park Conservatory — Garfield Park

The Elizabeth Morse Genius Children's Garden space is currently being renovated. Check with Garfield Park Conservatory to make sure the Genius Children's Garden is open before you go. Housed within the Garfield Park Conservatory, the Elizabeth Morse Genius Children’s Garden provides a little patch of green on gray winter days in Chicago. Kids can learn about plants and gardening through large sculptural displays that show plant birth, growth, and reproduction, or they can climb a giant vine with roots, seeds, leaves, and flowers. Kids might get hungry from smelling the French Fry Plant, learn about evolution by touching the sensitive plant (which retracts when touched), or enjoy the beauty of nature with the Bird of Paradise.

picture of a boy at the Pritzker family play zoo, where there is a free indoor playground 
Pritzker Family Play Zoo. photo by Lauren Laroche, for Mommy Poppins

2. Lincoln Park Zoo Pritzker Family Play Zoo — Lincoln Park

Lincoln Park Zoo offers several opportunities to experience animals indoors, but the Houston Family Play Treehouse is the perfect place for kids to use their energy in an active environment. Kids can pretend they are monkeys by climbing onto treetop platforms. The exhibit is near the wolves and black bears, the river otters, and the beavers, ideal for kids who want to learn more about North American animals.

3. The Artist’s Studio at the Art Institute of Chicago — Downtown

Tiny Picassos can enjoy daily activities at the Art Institute’s Family Room. Check the calendar to find out if a guest artist, gallery activity station, or studio art-making is planned for the day. If it’s warm enough, families can enjoy Millennium Park and its fun winter amenities.

4. Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens — South Side

Chicago Women’s Park and Gardens has a variety of outdoor amenities but also offers a free indoor playground and café featuring a climbing wall and a kids’ science lab. Playhouses and a multilevel play structure help kids get in some physical activity during the cold winter months. The building also has plenty of soft spaces for new walkers to enjoy.

5. Chicago Cultural Center — Downtown

This architectural gem has plenty of free art for viewing and making, as well as free programs featuring music and dance for kids and grown-ups. Visit the Learning Lab to experiment with the magnetic wall or create art at the art cart.

RELATED: Free Museums and Free Museum Days for Chicago Kids

Stores with Free Play for Kids in Chicago

6. LEGO Store at Water Tower Place — Michigan Avenue

Parents eager to get away from the Lego strewn across the floor of their own houses might enjoy a trip to the LEGO Store at Water Tower Place. The location offers millions of Lego for free play with new creative building scenarios each month. Little master builders can check the store's calendar of events to find a date to trade mini figs with other enthusiasts or get free Lego with the purchase of certain sets. Kids can also check out the Build a Mini Tower to create mini-figures or the Digital Box that allows them to scan a set and see it built in real life.

Which is across from…

7. American Girl Store — Michigan Avenue

Kids who love American Girl, Wellie Wisher, or Bitty Baby dolls might enjoy a visit to American Girl Place, across the hall from the Lego store. Kids can read their favorite American Girl books, design a doll or backpack, and explore artifacts from the era of their favorite American Girl dolls. For additional fees, dolls can get their hair styled, have their ears pierced, visit the doll doctor, and have lunch or tea.

8. Learning Express Stores — Clarendon Hills, Countryside, Glen Ellyn, and Lake Zurich

Learning Express knows that kids are spending more time on screens, so the neighborhood stores are encouraging more interactive play at their five Chicago locations. Stocked with everything from slime to Squishmallows to LOL dolls, Learning Express stores allow kids to explore their products. 

9. Anderson’s Bookshops — Western Suburbs

Little readers have frequent opportunities to meet their favorite children's book authors at these local bookstores in Naperville and Downers Grove. Each location has a train table and toy area, along with hundreds of books for kids to explore. Visitors to the Naperville location can check out Anderson’s Toy Store, two doors down.   

10. IKEA Småland — Bolingbrook, Schaumburg

At IKEA in Bolingbrook or Schaumburg, you can sign your child into this in-store play space while you shop for an hour. Kids can play in ball pools, color, try out IKEA toys, or watch movies. Of course, you can also bring your kid shopping; our kids love to try out IKEA train tables and search for new stuffed animals to fill the giant bins in their closets.

RELATED: The Best Indoor Playgrounds in Chicago

Free Mall Play Spaces Near Chicago

11. PLAY at Yorktown Center — DuPage County

Kids of all ages can enjoy a break from shopping at PLAY at Yorktown Center. The 2,000-square-foot play space has climbing structures as well as computer-based games, Duplo bricks, rides, and games that run about $1 each. On the opposite side of the atrium, kids can go to Wendella Park, an area of turf around the fountain, where they can play giant Jenga or Connect Four during some seasons. Kids who get hungry can eat at the Brookfield Zoo Children’s Dining area on the south side of the food court. The tiny chairs and tables even have an adjacent kid-friendly bathroom with a TV, tiny potties, changing stations with complimentary wipes, and a nursing room. A Barbara's Books recently opened near the play area.

12. PLAY at Northbrook Court — Northbrook            

Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago sponsors this fun area full of sensory activities for kids. Little shoppers can dress up in costumes, take pictures at a family selfie station, and scale climbing structures. Pre-walkers can relax on soft seating while playing with safe toys with their caretakers.

13. Gurnee Mills Play Area — Northern Suburbs

This Chicago landmark-themed play area includes replicas of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, Willis Tower, and Navy Pier, along with a giant hot dog for kids to climb on. The outlet mall also boasts two food courts and phone charging outlets throughout the mall.

14. Woodfield Mall Play Area — Northwestern Suburbs

In the midst of one of Chicagoland’s largest malls, kids can meet giant cartoon characters or climb through an 11-piece obstacle course. There’s also an imaginary boat and covered wagon to play on before you visit the new Peppa Pig Play Land or grab some food at Stan’s Donuts or Blaze Pizza. Insider tip: This play area closes briefly for cleaning at 2:30 pm and 7 pm.

Free Nature Center Play Spaces Near Chicago

picture of North Park Village Nature Center, where there is a free indoor playground 
Photo courtesy of the North Park Village Nature Center

15. North Park Village Nature Center — North Park

You don't have to leave the city to experience nature, both indoors and outdoors. North Park Village Nature Center has a hands-on table of natural objects, a discovery room, and plenty of interactive exhibits for kids eager to take a break from a cold-weather hike in Walking Stick Woods. Check the Chicago Park District website for events at the center.

16. Wildwood Nature Center — Northern Suburbs

Kids can check out more than 35 animals at the Animal Exhibit Room at Wildwood Nature Center. Snakes, guinea pigs, turtles, salamanders, frogs, toads, and a ferret all provide opportunities for education and entertainment. In the Nature Nook, kids can enjoy books, puzzles, puppets, games, and activities that explore a different nature topic each month.

17. River Trail Nature Center — Northern Suburbs

Kids can watch animals at feeding time, learn how to make maple syrup, or climb and create at the indoor play area at River Trail Nature Center. Its indoor and outdoor areas host weekly activities for nature lovers of all ages. Families can also enjoy nature walks outdoors if it’s not too frigid.

18. Knoch Knolls Nature Center — DuPage County

The east and west branches of the DuPage River meet at Knoch Knolls Park in Naperville, where kids can celebrate water with a 900-gallon fish tank. The LEED building ancludes a “living wall,” many nature exhibits, and free and low-cost programming for kids and adults.

19. Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center — DuPage County

A 13,000-year-old woolly mammoth skeleton, an animal print-making table, and a larger-than-life bird's nest are just a few of the features kids can experience at the Fullersburg Woods Nature Education Center. Live animals, crafts, and coloring are also available in addition to views of the scenic forest preserve.

RELATED: The Best Indoor Birthday Party Locations for Chicago Kids 

Free Library Play Spaces Near Chicago

20. Harold Washington Library Thomas Hughes Children’s Library — Downtown

Even parents whose kids aren’t school-age yet can have fun weading at the Thomas Hughes Children’s Library on the second floor of Harold Washington Library. Since the kids’ library is organized by neighborhood, kids aged five and under can learn through play with a puppet stage, baby garden, and story nook in the Early Learner Neighborhood. Elementary-age kids can explore STEAM topics through activities in the Elementary Learner Neighborhood. Tweens can check out a digital media space, blue screen, and virtual-reality tools in the Tween Neighborhood. This gives parents the ultimate outlet for all ages of kids on snow days.

21. Arlington Heights Memorial Library — Northwest Suburbs

The Arlington Heights Memorial Library doesn’t just have a kids’ section; it has a Kids’ World. A puppet theater, toy area, and seating for parents complement the library’s programming and computer learning (complete with a filter so your kids won't learn anything they shouldn’t). The library also encourages DIY Kids’ Book Discussions.

22. Oak Park Public Library, Main Library — Western Suburbs

Books are just the start at this near-west suburban library. The kids’ area at OPPL includes a TV with video games, a wooden toy boat climbing structure, toddler tree houses, and an art alcove. Kids can even visit the library’s resident gerbils.

23. Elmhurst Public Library — Western Suburbs

The recently renovated first floor of the Elmhurst Public Library has tons of amenities for children. Its Learning Garden boasts a play kitchen, train table, puzzle table, and a Duplo building table. Older kids can enjoy the Middle School Hangout: it boasts a TV and high-top seating. Kids of all ages can submit stories to Kids Ink magazine to be published and distributed in the library.

Chinatown Branch Library photo by Emily via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

24. Chinatown Branch Library — Chinatown

This Feng Shui-inspired library branch was completed in 2015 and has a first floor devoted to kids. Pick out a picture book, build something fun from a variety of supplies, or attend one of the branch's regularly scheduled family-friendly programs. Teens can also participate in CPL's YouMedia program at this branch.

Just a Free Play Space in Chicago

25. HelloBaby — Woodlawn

This play space on the South Side is designed for underserved families with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. Drop in any day of the week between 9 am and 4 pm to play and build community with other local parents and caregivers. Or pick out a story time or music class to enrich your child's learning.

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