By Rachel McMillan
Editor’s Note: This list is certified 100% grocery store-free.
Before we get to the listings, a few housekeeping notes: First, by school-aged kids, I mean mostly those in grades K-5, although quite a few of these suggestions would work for younger/older kids. Also, I am not including the libraries, the parks, or the aquatic centers (we’re all pretty familiar with those by now, yes?).
And, of course, feel free to comment if there’s something I forgot.
Don’t be like me and go 14 years without realizing that Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and Krannert Art Museum are actually two separate facilities. KAM is a treat for the senses, and they host a free event every few months for families and kids wherein special activities for little ones are set up in different galleries. Throughout the year, KAM will schedule kid and family-friendly events.
What we don’t have in this town is a ton of great natural scenery (yes, there is definitely some, and I’ll get to that later). The trade-off is that we’ve got a good assortment of first-rate cultural experiences (I’m thinking mostly of the food-centric ones), the likes of which it’s usually hard to find in the middle of corn/bean fields. Want your child to taste authentic Chinese food? Korean? Mediterranean? Latin American? We can totally hook that up. If you’re raising a budding foodie, you’re doing it in the right town.
The Orpheum is a good place to take kids starting at the toddler stage, but I’ve found the experience only gets better as they get older. School-aged kids really take the imagination factor to new levels in the castle or vet clinic and have the planning skills to do more than just get drenched in the dam/water play area. You need to either purchase a one-day pass or a membership to go, but consider getting a Super Family Pass—this will get you into the Orpheum for a year as well as some big-city museums (like the Field Museum, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago) for free.
Whether a Krannert Center for the Performing Arts production, a play or musical put on by one of our excellent area schools, or a free/cheap kids’ movie at a theater, there’s enough here to keep any young lover of stage and screen satisfied. In years’ past the Savoy 16 Theater has shown free kids’ movies in the summer and at various other times throughout the year, and the Carmike Theater in Champaign has had great deals on movies in the summer which include a drink and popcorn.
6. The beach
The beach at Clinton Lake has been a favorite spot for the McMillan family from the time the little ones were big enough to safely handle some water exploration, and it definitely gets better as they get older. The water is warm (the purpose of the man-made lake is to cool the generator at the nuclear power plant), and there are gentle waves made by boats that pass at a safe distance. It’s a cheap day out, too; the cost is $2 per person to swim, and even if you spring for ice cream at the Boondocks Grill, a $20 bill will likely cover the day’s outing for a family of four. (Open Memorial Day-Labor Day)
If teaching middle school history has taught me anything, it’s that sometime between second and sixth grades your little one is likely to start to develop an interest in Greek Mythology. When he/she does, head to Spurlock. Their Mediterranean cultures gallery will help bring all of those fabulous stories to life. The rest of the museum is pretty great for budding historians as well, with ample opportunities for hands-on exploration and special programming throughout the year.
As far as free family outings in C-U goes, this ranks among the best. The staff at the nature center are always very friendly and helpful, the live animals never fail to thrill, and the well-maintained walking trails are beautiful year-round. Again, it’s good for little ones, but just gets more fun as they get older. Bonus: they will often have hot cocoa for patrons in the winter (bring a buck or two to leave in the donation tin).
A short drive from my alma mater—Eastern Illinois University in Charleston—the cabin is actually a replica of the one Lincoln’s father, beloved stepmother, and step-siblings lived in on the same spot where the original stood. Lincoln himself didn’t live there, but would visit when he rode the circuit back in his lawyering days. The museum on the premises is small but wonderfully done (reminiscent of the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, which I would recommend for older kids). Check the events schedule; it’s well worth your time to plan a visit for when the interpreters are there. Make a day of it by stopping for lunch at the Burger King in Mattoon (NOT the Home of the Whopper; you can read about its interesting history here). Best burger around, period.
Click on the links to register your kids for free skating and/or on the one to register for free bowling, and the websites will walk you through the steps. There is one skating facility in the area (Skateland in Savoy), but three different bowling alleys (Arrowhead and Western Bowl in Champaign and Old Orchard in Savoy), so make sure you know which one you’re interested in joining before you click. In all of the programs kids up through age 12 are eligible to receive two free games of bowling per day or skating sessions per week (shoe/skate rental is extra, but you can bring your own).
1. Champaign County Forest Preserve Sites
We flatlanders can still escape to some pretty scenic places with just a short drive. Two local sites maintained by the Champaign County Forest Preserve and which are especially great places to spend time with school-aged kiddos are: Homer Lake Forest Preserve and Interpretive Center, and Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve/Museum of the Grand Prairie in Mahomet. There’s too much to see and do here to sum up in a paragraph; just take my word for it and check them out ASAP.