It took my kids 5 minutes home from school today to start fighting and less than an hour to complain of boredom. Good thing we live in a world class city.

Following are 10 ideas to keep your kids busy, which just might keep you sane. You’ll also create memories to last a lifetime. And since my summer fun budget is pretty small, you can be sure that they’re all cheap (or better yet–free).

1. Whealen Pool: Only a few miles west on Devon, in the Forest Preserve, this pool is as fun as the Skokie pools but much cheaper. Adults are $6 and kids (4 and up) are only $4. Be sure to wear a swimsuit, even if you don’t plan to swim, to be admitted to the facility.

2. River Park: I mentioned this pool and bike path in my biking post, but it’s worth mentioning here again. The pool is free and close to home, and the park and splash park are fun too (but check their weird schedule). Bring your bikes and a picnic and make a whole day of it. Don’t have a bike? We do. We’ve got a bike gemach at your service.

3. Bowen Park: This park in Waukegan is worth the shlep! It’s great for kids of all ages and unlike any park I’ve seen locally. We add strawberry picking at Thompson Farms and make this a full day. Call ahead to check on the picking conditions.

4. Head to a free concert:

  • Wednesdays on the Green: Skokie offers 12 summer weeks of free family shows on Wednesdays at 7PM by the Skokie Public Library on Oakton. check out their schedule online.
  • Starlight Concerts: The Evanston series features 13 free outdoor concerts at seven park locations throughout Evanston. It is presented by the City of Evanston Cultural Arts Division. All concerts take place from 7:30 to 9PM. See their schedule online.
  • Millenium Park Target Family Fun Festival: The free daily festival at Millennium Park offers interactive activities, arts and crafts and games for kids of all ages. In addition, enjoy a mix of live music and interactive dance performances each day at 1PM that are sure to have you up on your feet. You might also catch a lunchtime rehearsal for one of the Park’s evening concerts, if you’re lucky.

5. Millennium Park via the Metra and Water Taxi: This is a fabulous (and cheap!) day for all ages. I recommend doing this with a friend or spouse for the first time, because it can be intimidating on your own. Pack lightly because there’s a lot of public transportation. Here’s how to go, step by step:

  • Park on Lunt, Greenleaf Ave. or Ravenswood, near the Rogers Park Metra station at Ravenswood.
  • Take the train headed downtown (east set of stairs). Check the schedule before to decide which train to take. The train is $3 each way for adults, half-off for kids under 7 and free for younger kids.
  • Walk to the head of the platform toward the inside of the building. When you arrive, buy your return ticket home at the station, to avoid the $3 surcharge.
  • Pass the escalators and head to the left to walk across the enclosed glass bridge, leading to 2 Riverside Plaza (ask if you’re confused, because everyone there will know where this is).
  • Exit at the doors all the way at the end and walk 10 feet to the Water Taxi. Head down the long flight of stairs to get on the boat. You can buy your tickets ($3 for ages 3 and over) on board. Take the taxi to the Michigan Avenue stop.
  • Head up to Michigan Ave. via the stairs or elevator and head to the right (south) to Millennium Park. (or you could go left to the Hershey’s store).
  • Spend the day there listening to the live music, splashing in the fountain and playing in the museum tents.

5. Loyola Beach: This is not the most glamorous beach along Lake Michigan, but hey, it’s home. You can bike here, it’s so close. And with half a mile of beach front, it’s easy to find an uncrowded spot. I like to park near Greenleaf or Pratt, when I don’t bike there.

6. The Lincoln Park Zoo and Wednesday Farmers’ Market: Who hasn’t been to the zoo?! But have you been there on Wednesday mornings? Across from the farm, on the south side of the zoo, is arguably Chicago’s best farmers’ market. And Wednesdays in the farm features a great storyteller/singer for young kids.

7. Indiana Dunes: If you’ve lived here for at least a few years and haven’t visited the Indiana Dunes, shame on you. Only a little more than an hour away, this National Park feels like a vacation. Go for a hike through the natural sand dunes or park yourself on the beach and watch your kids (or spouse!) roll down the dunes. As long as you’re there, add berry picking at any one of the pick-your-own farms in the area (Lake County).

8. Canoeing/Kayaking in Skokie Lagoons: Even if you have no idea how to canoe, if you’re up for an adventure, you’ll have a blast. Only a few minutes north on the Edens is the Chicago River Paddle on Tower Rd. (it’s on Oakton too, but the river smells there!). Rentals are a mere $15 an hour, and an hour is plenty for most kids.

9. Visit our incredible Forest Preserve. Take a walk, ride a bike, do a nature scavenger hunt. whatever. You’ll have a blast.

10. Botanical Gardens: The Botanical Gardens are free, but they make you pay $25 to park, which is not so free after all. Beat the system and have a better time taking the train there. The Garden is located near the Braeside Metra train station on Metra’s Union Pacific North Line (see my train instructions above, but take the train on the other side of the platform that heads north to Waukegan. It’s about a mile to the gardens from there, but guess what? You can bring your bikes on the train.

Got more ideas? Post them below!

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