Beyond Books: Local Libraries with a Twist

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You go to the library to check out books. But you can spend just as much time checking out the scene. At certain extra-special libraries in Chicago and the suburbs there are educational toys, engaging activities and interactive atmospheres that entice kids to hang out for hours. Whether you need a rainy day getaway or want to make the case that reading is cool, these spots are great places to start.

sulzer-libraryphoto: Chicago Public Library

Sulzer Regional Branch – Chicago Public Libraries
This Chicago Library branch has a kids’ section that really bustles first thing in the morning. Half of the ground floor is dedicated to little readers and offers not only books, but blocks, LEGOs and puzzles. Special programs include everything from toddler crafts to family game nights. More than 20 kids’ computers await hours of happy tapping in this warm environment where everyone is encouraged to take their time.

4455 N. Lincoln Ave.
Lincoln Square

Budlong Woods Branch – Chicago Public Libraries
The library named after pickle farm founder Lyman Budlong has become a stable of west Rogers Park, and its original kids’ programming makes it a standout. In addition to hosting story and craft hours, it offers field trips to Chicago landmarks like the Goodman Theatre (parents or caregivers must accompany children). Plus, on top of having computers and a great selection of picture books, Budlong Woods also has a picturesque outdoor reading garden.

5630 N. Lincoln Ave.
Rogers Park

Bezazian Branch – Chicago Public Libraries
Multicultural resources abound at this lively branch. There is a particularly large Vietnamese, Chinese and Spanish language section perfect for families that enjoy expanding horizons. Occasional programs take place in the onsite auditorium, while the everyday hangout for little bookworms is the cozy kids’ corner. Packed story times are known to focus on multi-culti literature.

1226 W. Ainslie St.

evanston-libraryphoto: Evanston Public Library

Evanston Public Library
The kids’ room of this North Shore gem has the chill vibe and originality of your favorite coffeehouse. Kick back on an oversized cushion, play with puppets and toys, and chat with friendly employees. The nearly 5,000-square-foot space devoted to littles is set aside from the main library on first floor and makes all ages feel welcome. Its events calendar bubbles over with activities like programs geared toward STEM learning, scavenger hunts, The Young and the Restless sing-a-longs and more.

1703 Orrington Ave.

La Grange Public Library
When three-year-old Tyler Duelm lost his battle with brain cancer, his family created the Tyler Duelm Activity Room to facilitate fun and unique library programming in his memory. Thanks to the family, hundreds of kids have enjoyed story times, after-school programs and summer reading programs in a cozy, welcoming space. Besides the Tyler’s Time programming, the library has colorful wall murals depicting animals and a fish tank if you prefer gazing at the real deal.

10 W. Cossitt Ave.
La Grange

Hanover Park Branch – Schaumburg Township District Libraries
As part of the Schaumburg library system, the Hanover Park branch gives you the benefit of shared materials yet it has its own engaging children section. Along with books and computers, there are fun surprises like a faux T-Rex protruding from the wall and a replica of a mummy coffin. You can also nose around the mini castle complete with a train set and king’s chair. Despite all the eye candy, this is a fairly quiet place to pass the hours.

1266 Irving Park Rd.
Hanover Park

oak-park-libraryphoto: Oak Park Public Library

Oak Park Public Library
With techie amenities like a wide-screen TV with video games, this family oasis is an easy win. Its vaulted ceiling and natural light help grownups relax, while kids love their own level that’s complete with a wooden toy boat climbing structure, art alcove, toddler tree house and three gerbil mascots named Henry, Ralph and Mudge. Right next to the library is Scoville Park, grassy plain perfect for post-reading romps.

834 Lake St.
Oak Park

Edgewater Branch – Chicago Public Libraries
After two years of constructions, Edgewater’s gem went up with the help of a $13.7 million budget in 2013. You’ll appreciate that they invested in the kids section: The entire first floor is devoted to young ones and is full of new materials. There are about 30 computers just for juvenile use, plus an impressive picture book area. Look for lots of games, with craft activities coming this fall.

6000 N. Broadway St.

Bucktown-Wicker Park Branch – Chicago Public Libraries
The kids’ section, encompassing part of the first floor, has activities for all ages, including regular story times, LEGO story times where kids are read a book and asked to build a solution, and unstructured play days. Toddlers have their own area with LEGOs and board books, while older kids get their brainy fix with educational computer games. This is a calmer library that lends itself to a quiet afternoon in an active part of the city.

1701 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Wicker Park

downers-grove-libraryphoto: Downers Grove Public Library

Downers Grove Public Library
Go here for the Early Literacy play area, where kids in second grade or below can learn about a special topic, which changes every two months. The library’s Mouse House is an inviting cottage nook with pint-sized furniture, providing a peaceful place for kids to kick back with a book. There are also two train tables and a story time room. There programming is robust, with activities liked guided STEM time, paleontology digs, Pokemon play days and more.

1050 Curtiss St.
Downers Grove

Skokie Public Library
This destination feels like a play space meets theater meets book nook — all with the cool vibe of an Apple store. Imaginations fly when kids set their sights on the puppet stage, craft room, computer lab and digital media lab furnished with Mac products. For littler ones, there is preschool play area surrounded by picture windows and outfitted with LEGO tables, a play kitchen, puzzles and educational games. A large world languages section offers books in everything from Hebrew to Hindi.  On Thursdays, they host POP! Parents of Preschoolers. While the kids get their story time fix, the library shares parenting resources and tips over coffee and cookies.

5215 Oakton St.

Harold Washington Library Center – Chicago Public Libraries
The crown jewel of Chicago libraries is known for both for its outstanding Postmodern architecture and breadth of programs. Its enormous second-floor Thomas Hughes Children’s Library is currently under construction, but keep your eyes peeled for the new and improved space expected to reopen in early summer.

400 S. State St.
The Loop

palatine-libraryphoto: Palatine Public Library

Palatine Public Library
This treasure lures with a first-floor Early Literacy Area that’s interactive and welcoming. Go there for games, activities, puzzles, puppets and computers — all designed to encourage and develop learning skills. Be sure to check out the Museum Pass program, story times, drop-in craft projects, LEGO building sessions and kids’ chess matches.

700 N. North Ct.

Lake Forest Public Library
This gorgeous domed building was dedicated in 1931 and has been continually renovated. The basement is where you’ll find the kid fun, including a beautiful tree-like structure to gather around, as well as a stage equipped with hand puppets. In addition to books, you can get lost in puzzles, educational computer games, craft projects and scheduled calendar events, like pajama story times.

360 E. Deerpath Rd.
Lake Forest

Arlington Heights Memorial Library
This is one of only five Illinois libraries to receive five stars, the highest of Library Journal’s national public library ratings. The first thing you might notice about it is its size — it’s huge, taking up almost an entire city block. A large portion of the first floor is for kids. Kids delight in the open puppet theater with audience seating for parents. There’s also a toy area for younger kids and computers for all age groups.

500 N. Dunton Ave.
Arlington Heights

Did your favorite public library make our list? If not, let us know what your favorite library is in the Comments section below.

— Maria Chambers & Jessica Smith

Pop By! Our Favorite Drop-In Classes for All Ages

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As soon as they start to babble, they can dabble. One cool thing about being a kid is the chance to try all sorts of activities, from music to movement to art. And that’s where drop-in classes come in. Drop-ins often don’t require registration and never make you commit long term. Just pop by and let your little co-pilot soak up the fun. Here are our favorites.


This fitness and wellness center for moms, babies and kids has a workout room, spa-like lounge space and studios where classes are held. Go for Away We Play, a class where you play alongside your child (ages 6-36 months) and meet new friends. Smiles break out as you jump, march, sing and get messy with paint. For older kids (ages 3-5), there’s Bollywood Dance, which explores the fundamentals of Indian traditions like Bhangra, Garba and Launi. For this class, parents can drop off their kids and hang out in the lounge, work out or even get a massage.

409 W. Huron St.

Sprout San Francisco
Sprout is a children’s boutique that sells organic and natural baby and toddler products. It also does a bang-up job of interacting with the local community through various drop-in workshops. The Chicago store offers three or four drop-in activities a week. Music Class With Mr. Dave gets toddlers moving all around, improving coordination and balance in the process. If you need postpartum support, go to Lactation Consultants’ bi-weekly breastfeeding clinic where you can ask questions and interact with lactation experts.

1943 W. Division St.
Wicker Park


CrossFit Kids
The CrossFit craze isn’t just for grownups. The strength and conditioning program incorporates jumps and lifts with kettlebells, sandbags and other non-traditional weights. Kids get in on the action in a safe, age-appropriate way. Atlas Performance, a local fitness studio, offers Sunday drop-in sessions at 12:30 p.m. for all levels, ages 5 and up. Coach Libby gets her eager crowd warmed up with games and stretching, and the workout changes every week. Positive reinforcement and teamwork are big parts of the program. Parents and kids are welcome to watch a class, and your first class at Atlas is free.

1030 N. Larrabee St.
Lincoln Park

Stock up on everything you need for baby and find a supportive community at this boutique, which has two locations in the city. Most of its classes are drop-in, and many are free. While the schedule changes frequently, you can expect to find everything from infant CPR classes to story times to music jam sessions with teachers from Bubbles Academy.

1117 W. Armitage Ave.
Lincoln Park
1751 W. Division St.
Wicker Park


Hyde Park Art Center
The non-profit organization connects artists with the local community — and, luckily for your little one, also helps budding artists forge new skills. Every second Sunday of the month during the school year, it hosts a free community art workshop for kids and families. Activities vary, and have included print-making, collage-making and card-making. There are usually two art activities going on at a time during the sessions, and they are for all ages.

5020 S. Cornell Ave.
Hyde Park

Color Wheel Studio
Imaginations run wild at Bucktown’s oasis founded by artist and dad Donald Jackson. Operating on the principle that children should be exposed to and experiment with art, the studio offers classes for ages 2-12. If you just want a little creativity break, the drop-in Open Studio Time allows for three hours of unstructured fun to create whatever your heart desires. Starting September 2, it happens every Mon., Tues., Thurs., & Fri., from noon to 3 p.m. Smocks and art supplies are included.

2016 W. Concord Pl.

wishcraft-dropoffThe Wishcraft Workshop
Crafty kids orbit this Roscoe Village studio, enjoying everything from camps to scheduled classes. Now that school’s back in, take advantage of Merry Pop-Ins (happening late weekday mornings for ages 3-5). The drop-ins give kids access to ad hoc instruction and art/craft materials. Older kids (grades 3-8) can pop by for the same experience as part of Pincushion Social Club (held Mon.-Fri., 4-6 p.m., starting September 16). Take advantage of discounted punch-card rates if you think you’ll keep coming back. All participants must have a registration form and release on file.

2312 W. Roscoe St.
Roscoe Village

Dance to Evolve
The mobile dance studio holds classes at gyms across Chicago, including Cheetah Gym and The Mercury Method. Enthusiastic instructors get little feet moving with Ballet, Baby Boppers Hip Hop and You & Me Movement (a mommy-and-me for ages 14 months to 2 years). Parents are encouraged to try a drop-in trial class with their kids. While advance registration is not required, you’ll be asked to fill out a registration form and waiver before the class. Check the website for dates, times and locations.



DuPage Children’s Museum
Families from across the western suburbs and beyond come to play and learn at this three-story wonder. Plan a visit around drop-in classes at its onsite studio. Themed activities change weekly and include things like Rocket Design and Space Station Creation. There are also one-time special classes like Insect Zoo, at which kids learn about how bugs affect the world; and Glow Art, at which kids create illuminated oeuvres. Classes are included in the museum’s general admission and are held Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m.-noon & 1-3 p.m.

301 N. Washington St.

Wonder Works
The Oak Park children’s museum has increased its number of drop-in workshops that involve music, art and creative play. Upcoming classes include Beginner’s Art Studio (every Wed.-Sat., from 10:30-4:30 p.m. & Sun., 12:30-4:30 p.m.), an open-ended art-making experience; and the Interactive Music Show (Thurs., 11:15 a.m.) which immerses kids in melody and movement. Drop-in classes are included in the daily admission fee. All kiddos must be accompanied by a parent.

6445 W. North Ave.
Oak Park

multilingual-chicagoMultilingual Chicago
It’s never too early to soak up a new language. Aside from classes for babies all the up to tweens, this language and translation center offers drop-in Spanish story time, a 30-minute excursion through a Spanish-language book with the bonus of organic snacks served on the side. Any of the regular session classes can be attended at a drop-in fee; call ahead because the schedule changes frequently.

2518 W. Armitage Ave.
Logan Square

Nibbles Play Cafe
Special drop-in events are scheduled nearly every day of the week at Wheaton’s play space and cafe. Time your visit right and you could enjoy a concert by Miss Jamie from the Farm (she ropes you into a fun, country-themed hootenanny) or Activity Time with Ms. Fran (the former Jewish Community Center pro does interactive stories, games, crafts and more). Every Friday at 10:30 a.m. is “Fun Friday” and there’s always something fun in store. Sometimes, Elmo stops by for stories and laughs.

13 Huntington Ln.


Bubbles Academy
It’s the 10-year anniversary of this haven that’s known for play-based learning experiences that encourage family bonding. Over the past decade, it’s built up a lot of trust among parents. See for yourself during classes that range from music to creative movement to preschool prep (they’re broken down by age and cater to babies up to age 5). Every class can be purchased at a drop-in rate, although calling ahead to secure a spot is required because space fills up fast. Also, a free trial class is offered to any Bubbles first-timer.

1504 N. Fremont St.
Lincoln Park
Gorton Community Center
400 E. Illinois Rd.
Lake Forest

Little Beans Cafe
In addition to its sunny cafe, ice cream shop and play space, Little Beans keeps kids going with special events and drop-in classes. You can find lifesavers for parents like potty training or lighter fare like Kidding Around in Yoga and Singing Beans (a music class). Play space admission is free for an hour before or after class, so make a fun day out it.

1809 W. Webster Ave.
Lincoln Park

Have you tried a drop-in class? Tell us about your experience in the Comments section below.

— Jessica Smith

Photos: Courtesy of CocoonCare, Atlas Performance, Hyde Park Art Center, The Wishcraft Workshop, DuPage Children’s Museum, Multilingual Chicago, Bubbles Academy