If the spring showers are getting to you, find a way to enjoy water inside. Chicago-area children’s museums are overflowing with water tables, where kids can make water slosh through wheels, spurt out of pipes and wind around homemade dams.
Water is a kid magnet, says Barb McMillin of the Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn, where kids can play with plastic ocean critters and squirting fountains in the leaf-shaped “Pond” exhibit. “It’s another medium,” she says. “They’re not just playing with blocks.”
Water can even be an adult magnet. Cynthia Mark-Hummel of the DuPage Children’s Museum (which we think has some of the best water tables around) has caught quite a few moms and dads “helping” their kids stack sandbags and rein in water flow. At DuPage, parents and kids can also crawl underneath the water tables and watch the water flow above them. “It’s a very different and wonderful way to look at the world,” says Mark-Hummel.
For more water fun, fill a huge bucket and use pulleys to slosh it out at the Chicago Children’s Museum’s “WaterWays” exhibit. Or direct the spray through pipes at the Exploration Station in Bourbonnais. You’ll get a whole new appreciation of a plumber’s job.
Don’t forget—kids often direct water spray at themselves. Some (usually boys) come out looking like they jumped in a swimming pool, says the Exploration Station’s Diane Carson. So wear smocks and bring an extra pair of clothes. And save the water tables for last.
If it’s warm outside, check out the 500-gallon outdoor tables at Discovery Center Museum in Rockford, which start flowing in mid-March. Turn on underwater faucets to create whitewater, race boats or spray each other with water jets.
Between all the splashing and pouring, kids might even pick up a few scientific principles. Point out that sieves let water through, pails don’t, and that some objects float while others sink.
With the help of air-bubble-buoyed octopi, kids can also learn that air is lighter than water at the Kohl Children’s Museum’s “Water Works” exhibit in Glenview. And as they use water jets to propel balls across the room, they’ll be exploring water pressure.
Some kids might even be inspired to bring their water skills home. That’s what happens after Glenview mom Beth O’Connor’s kids—Morgan, 9, Michael, 8, and Brian, 5—hit the water tables at Kohl’s: “They want to fill the bathtub and see how fast they can make the boats go,” she says.
Chicago Children’s Museum
700 E. Grand Ave. at Navy Pier Chicago
Ages: 10 and under
Hoist a teetering bucket and use pulleys to splash the water out. Or help boats navigate down the river by using dams to change the water flow. Kids can also direct water through pumps, pipes and a gigantic water wheel. Despite the smocks, kids will probably get wet, so save this exhibit for last and bring a change of clothes. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday. Admission: $7, $6 seniors, free kids under 1. Free 5-8 p.m. Thursday and the first Monday of the month, when the museum is open 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn
9600 E. Shore Dr., Oak Lawn
Use your net to scoop plastic squid, whales or flounder out of the pond, which is about waist-high and shaped like a leaf. Experiment with water through sand toys, containers and a fountain. Bring extra clothes. Hours: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Call ahead on Saturday, because the museum sometimes closes for private parties. Admission: $3.50, $3 kids 1-16, free kids under 1.
Discovery Center Museum
711 N. Main St., Rockford
Ages: Outdoor tables for 4 and up Indoor tables for 5 and under
With 50 feet of stainless steel and wood, a gigantic water wheel and 500 gallons of water, these outdoor water tables are hard core enough for older kids. Make whitewater by activating underwater faucets, race boats and spray each other with pipes and water jets. If the weather is dreary or you have toddlers, head inside to the Plexiglas tank where young kids can aim water without spraying themselves and create a dam. Between the waterproof aprons and hand dryers, kids are usually dry by the time they leave the indoor tables, but save the outdoor tables for a warm day. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Noon-5 p.m. Sunday. The outdoor tables will be turned on in mid-March; call ahead. Admission: $5, $4 kids 2-17, free kids 1 and under.
DuPage Children’s Museum
301 N. Washington St., Naperville
Ages: 10 and under
Encase yourself in a bubble, pump water over a wheel or build a series of tubes at the water tables here, which are some of the best Chicago Parent has seen. Small children learn what floats and what sinks, while older kids (and parents) can dam up water in the big holding tank. Smocks are available, or dry out in the wind tunnel and with hand dryers. The supervisors here are exceptionally helpful and trained in child development. Hours: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday. Noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $7, $6 seniors ages 60 and older, free kids under 1.
1095 W. Perry St., Bourbonnais
(815) 933-9905 or (815) 935-5665
Ages: 18 months-11 years
Kids control the flow of water at this table, which looks like a crab cove. See how water sprays through a series of pipes, watch it change shape in containers or experiment to find out which toys float. If kids wear the provided aprons, they shouldn’t get too wet. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $5, $4 kids 1-17 and seniors 55 and older, free kids under 1.
4701 Oakton St., Skokie
(847) 674-1500, ext. 2700
Ages: 2-8; Family Fun Nights for kids 12 and under
Dance in a strobe light that shows rain falling down, stick your finger in a bubble of water and float ducks and toys down three levels of stainless steel rivers. Green raincoats provide good protection. The water tables aren’t the highlight here—they’re OK for toddlers, but won’t keep school-age kids amused for long. Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. Admission: $6 kids, $4 adults, free kids 1 and under. $2 discount for Skokie residents.
Kohl Children’s Museum
2100 Patriot Blvd., Glenview
Ages: 8 and under
Children can make balls fly across the room; let boats sail around a river; shoot streams of water at cowbells, chimes and pinwheels; and create bubbles of air that will let a group of octopi float to the surface. The scientific principles are all posted on the exhibits, allowing parents to teach their kids and giving older kids motivation to use their reading skills. Kids shouldn’t get too soaked unless they stand underneath the big teetering bucket full of water. But the small blue aprons don’t provide much coverage. Hours: 9:30 a.m.-noon Monday. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $6.50, $5.50 seniors 55 and older, free kids under 1.
My Corner Playroom
2121 N. Clybourn Ave., Chicago
Ages: 6 and under
This is a very small water and sand table. It’s best for toddlers. Smocks available. Call ahead to see if the table is available for open play. Hours: Open play, 8-9 a.m. and 12:45-5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-noon Saturday. Admission: $15, $9 additional siblings, free kids under 1 with paid sibling. Free parking.