Ah, if only we could run our houses on the energy output of an average three to five year old. While we wait for technology to catch up with that idea, we can take our little ones to some of the many local “outlets” that are great for absorbing some of that excess verve.
Here is our list of the top 10 local places to take preschoolers:
10. Local libraries
Many area libraries have a combination of programming for children and special play areas that are aimed at the preschool-and-under crowd. Certainly the two biggest libraries in the area–Champaign’s and Urbana’s–have these, but you may want to try taking the family to some of our other great area libraries from time to time. My family is particularly fond of the Paxton Carnegie Library, one of several libraries that was funded by Andrew Carnegie in the early 1900s.
9. Free/cheap kids’ movies
The Savoy 16 has ongoing discounted/ free shows for the younger crowd (concessions are extra). These are all shows that have already come out on DVD, so you can preview any of them to make sure they will work for your kids (you can’t, however, preview the previews as easily).
8. The Orpheum Children’s Science Museum
As I’ve written before, I’m a huge fan of the Orpheum. Compared with other children’s museums, it’s on the small side–but, that’s precisely why I love it. For the preschool crowd, a rainy afternoon at the Orpheum is a little slice of heaven. It’s never too crowded, and all of the lovingly crafted exhibits are well received by it’s little patrons. BONUS: check their schedule for weekly “animal encounters.” See our post on the Top 10 Things to Know About the Orpheum Children’s Museum here.
7. Homer Lake/Playscape/Woods/Interpretive Center
A short drive from C-U, Homer Lake practically begs for younger kids to come play. The Interpretive Center (think a condensed version of The Orpheum) is always a welcoming spot for little ones curious about the great outdoors. My kids especially enjoy the “Which animal left this scat?” game that lights up when you get a correct answer. The outdoor playscape at Homer Lake features a stream kids can explore (if you embrace your helicopter parent tendencies, plan on a one-to-one adult to kid ratio for this). The best part? Everything there—hiking, fishing, getting wet—is FREE.
Picking your own fresh fruits/veggies certainly isn’t free, but you get a lot of value for those bucks when you choose this ever-popular activity. Really, the appeal is universal: even if your kid is the most avid of screen-time aficionados (I have one of those), he is likely to thrill to the simple delight of plucking an apple from a tree.
No, seriously; some of our area grocers do a pretty good job of catering to families with young kids. The free cookie and pony ride at Meijer (and a quick browsing trip through the toy aisle) have been lifesavers for me. Other area grocery stores that are ready for young visitors are Schnucks with its race car carts and the County Market on West Kirby which has a few kid-sized shopping carts they get to push (BONUS: take the kids to Pet Supplies Plus first to see the cute animals for free). Word on the street is that Schnucks and County Market will also give your little one a free cookie if asked.
4. Your favorite park
No duh, right? But I’m including the most obvious place to take a preschooler on this list for several reasons, which are all a part of one larger reason: our local park districts RULE.
Most of them have great picnic spots and a mix of equipment and facilities that draws in folks of all ages, from birth through adulthood. You really have to check each of them out; I’d lay odds that your family will find one that feels as if it was built just for you. Plus, Hessel and Scott Parks in Champaign double as a free place for kids to splash in water on hot days.
This item may have rated higher on the list if it were open year-round and more hours in daily. Sadly, it sticks closely to the typical summer break schedule and is only open from 1:00-7:00 p.m. (petting zoo hours are 3:00-5:00 p.m.). On the plus side, it’s a very pleasant—FREE—place to spend an afternoon, and the resident farm never fail to delight.
A McMillan family favorite, this is the go-to place for every type of day. There are animals and interactive exhibits to engage youngsters inside the nature center, and a wonderful, paved woodland trail that will take you safely through Busey Woods with no possibility of getting lost. My favorite feature is the make-it-yourself hot cocoa they sometimes provide in the colder months (donations accepted). (FREE)
1. The Indoor Playground at First Christian Church, Champaign
In C-U, there’s no need to skip the playground, no matter what the weather’s like. Freezing and snowy? Blisteringly hot and sunny? This is the (again, free) place to take the little ones to burn off some excess energy without having to over-bundle or apply sunscreen. It is ambitiously built and lovingly decorated to look like a city park. The only improvement it could make, in my opinion, is to add a café for the parents (but you can certainly bring your own beverages). OK, the merry-go-round terrifies me, too. Other than that, it’s perfection.