Why your childhood fort is so memorable

We asked Exhibit Development Director and forts aficionado Katie Slivovsky to share her insights with us. Here’s what she had to say.

Does the word “fort” spark memories of secret hideouts you built in your closet, living room or yard?

Our childhood forts still evoke powerful memories, though they probably weren’t much to look at or particularly well-constructed. In fact, if we saw them today, we might think, “Someone needs to clean up that mess, pronto!”

We don’t remember our forts because they were impressive—we remember them because they were ours.

Forts were both sanctuary and home base for our developing imaginations.  We built them, we made the rules (including who could enter), and because of that we were the landlords and we were empowered.  Forts also provided comfort—a calm place just for us in the midst of a sometimes chaotic world.

As adults we may forget that children need a break too. Kids are aware of what’s happening around them, for worse or for better, and between challenges at school and demanding schedules, their worlds can be stressful. Forts provide a much-needed respite—if they get to design and make it themselves.

That’s why we created our Forts exhibit—to provide a space specifically designed for children to build the forts of their dreams. In doing so, we’ve learned a few things that can help parents and caregivers encourage kids to create their own sanctuary through fort building.


  1. Fort-building materials are not the same as a fort-building vision.

At home, adults usually provide fort-building materials: blankets, pillows, furniture and the space to build. At Chicago Children’s Museum, we’ve created a space totally dedicated to fort-building—our walls have hooks, our blankets have loops and every piece of furniture there is up for grabs.

But that doesn’t mean we control the vision—in fact, it’s just the opposite. Even though we designed the space, we love to be surprised at how our visitors configure it. It’s probably our favorite thing about the exhibit—at any hour of the day, the space looks totally different because the kids are in charge.

Parents and caregivers can provide materials and space (with limits, of course—not all your furniture need be up for grabs), but the kids should control the vision and direction of their fort. When parents and caregivers exert too much control, the fort becomes less about the kids building it and children lose the sense of control that is so integral to creating their own sanctuary.


  1. “No grown-ups allowed” is more than okay—it’s a good thing.

You’ve probably noticed that sometimes children don’t want grown-ups in their forts. In fact, sometimes we literally don’t fit—and that’s okay. A kid-sized fort that fits only one or two little ones shows that the child has been able to build a space just for them.


By letting children control the forts they design and build, they most certainly won’t be adult-sized. Remember to sit back and let children build forts that reflect their kid-sized view of the world—even if you can’t be a part of it.


  1. If you are invited, it’s a huge compliment—just don’t overstay your welcome.

At Chicago Children’s Museum, when one of our child visitors invites us to play, it’s the greatest compliment a museum staffer can get. Our space—including our Forts exhibit—is designed for kids to be in charge of how they play. If they want a grown-up to come along, we’re ready and excited, but realize that we’re guests in their world.

When a child extends an invitation into their space, it means they feel safe and comfortable to share their world with you. It’s a compliment for sure—but be sure to be a gracious guest and leave them to the world they’ve created for themselves.


We love forts because of how incredibly powerful they can be for children. When they build forts, children design and construct their own sanctuaries. They set the boundaries. They get to be in charge. They can be whoever they want to be, and gain confidence as they make their own rules.

When you come to our Forts exhibit, kids can get that experience in a space designed just for fort-building—and the best part is, we’re in charge of cleaning it up.

Katie Slivovsky is the Exhibit Development Director at Chicago Children’s Museum and spent her childhood building forts in the woods behind her house on the edge of a small town in eastern Iowa. Katie has developed several exhibits at CCM and at Brookfield Zoo, including the Hamill Family Play Zoo. FORTS is one of her favorites because children have complete creative control of the space. Her daughter, Leah, is quoted in the exhibit and pictured in a fort built for her dog, Midnight.

Once Upon a Castle: Going beyond boy/girl story lines

In our current exhibit, we focused on removing the gender stereotypes from castle play. Here’s what happened.


You know the scene: a woeful princess cowers in a castle tower, every strand of her blonde hair perfectly in place, her waist impossibly small in her pink dress. Soon, some bright-eyed prince will come rescue her with his cartoonish biceps and flash his pearly whites, and if she hasn’t already fallen in love with him as he scales the castle walls, she will once he whisks her away on his horse.

As adults, it’s a story we’ve been told over and over again.

Children, on the other hand, may not be used to it yet—or the stereotypes that come along with it.

That’s why, when we designed our Once Upon a Castle exhibit, we wanted to take back the castle narrative from this cliché. We wanted to ditch gender stereotypes so that children could create their own stories and come up with their own characters. We set out to create a space where any child—no matter what their gender—could put on any costume, pick up any prop, and play however they want to play.

To begin, we made costumes children can wear regardless of gender, included a wide range of fabrics and colors (not just pink or blue), and coached staff to use neutral language like “your majesty” to make everyone feel welcome. Here’s what we learned.


It took weeks to tweak and finalize our ads.

Ditching gender stereotypes in our marketing proved more difficult than we’d assumed. We struggled to find the right way to get our message across—how to be clear while showing off everything the exhibit has to offer. But when you remove the gender from something, often you remove what’s stereotypically considered “feminine.” We began to wonder: Is it okay to strip the feminine from something just to resist gender stereotypes? Will girls still feel welcome?

Our goal wasn’t to exclude anything stereotypically feminine because it’s bad—we love pink! Instead, we wanted to make sure what we included wasn’t so strictly gendered that a child might get picked on for choosing the “wrong” thing—like a little boy in a pink costume getting made fun of by his friends, or worst yet, scolded by a parent/caregiver.

And the girls who visit the exhibit have no problem picking up the wide array of props and costumes and having a blast—even without a tiara in the mix.


Children know exactly what to do—but parents get confused.

Children don’t seem phased by the lack of pink or tiaras in Once Upon a Castle, however some parents have a harder time adjusting.

On one particularly busy day, a little girl around five years old starting asking for a tiara. We didn’t include tiaras in the exhibit because of how strongly associated they are with cartoon princesses—a gendered stereotype we wanted to avoid. It isn’t that we don’t like them, but rather that we wanted to encourage the children who visit to invent their own characters and stories instead of rehashing the ones they already know.

When her caretaker couldn’t find one, the child seemed disappointed for a moment, then scooped up the nearest crown, hopped on a stick horse, and charged toward an available sword at the other end of the exhibit.

Her caretaker, on the other hand, kept searching and asking for a tiara, not even noticing that the girl had moved on so quickly. It just goes to show you—sometimes kids adapt better than grownups.


Ditching stereotypes opens a whole new way to play.

Taking away existing rules lets kids make up their own. Since Once Upon a Castle opened, we’ve seen children switch from playing knights to jesters to chefs to wizards in a matter of seconds—they don’t have to be pushed or led in the right direction or follow any prescribed rules.

In fact, a lot of the time, it’s better not to prescribe, because that’s when their imaginations really shine.

So why does it matter? Our big takeaway from this process has been that too often we lead kids without watching to see what they do. Letting children lead is a cornerstone of Chicago Children’s Museum experiences. Children often have a better route. Sometimes it’s better to stand back, watch, and let them show us.

It’s what we try to do every day.


Visit our website to learn more about Once Upon a Castle or how you can join us in ditching gender stereotypes.


How parents and caregivers can move beyond gender stereotypes

Is what we think of as “for boys” or “for girls” written in stone? Some childhood development experts argue that children learn these stereotypes from grownups, and that it starts at a very young age.

Take gender-specific toys: Toys directed at boys tend to have more to do with visual spatial skills and active/physical play, whereas toys directed at girls are more focused on language arts and social skills. Children can take cues from those focuses, form their own gender stereotypes, and grow up thinking that certain skills are reserved for boys, while certain skills are just for girls. This can limit children’s perceptions of what they’re good at, what they’re capable of, or even what is possible for them.

But kids don’t necessarily have to live by those strict stereotypes—just ask Riley:

Riley Video

As parents and caregivers, you can help prevent kids from forming and internalizing some of these gender stereotypes. Here’s how.


Think beyond two groups.

It takes a little thought and practice, but avoid reinforcing the gender binary—the idea that there are only two distinct and opposite genders, masculine and feminine. Not everyone fits into one of those categories.

Instead, try to think about gender identity as a spectrum with characteristics that intersect and overlap. Remember that there isn’t one way to be “male,” one way to be “female”—there’s a wide range of ways to express gender.


Avoid assumptions.

Making assumptions about gender is something we’ve been taught to do since birth, so it can be tricky to stop. However, gender isn’t always cut and dry—take the recent uproar about Garfield’s gender identity.

Instead of making your own assumptions, try not to label a child’s stuffed animal or toy a particular gender—let the child do that and support their decision. Additionally, if children are playing together, avoid gendered romantic labels like “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”


Create a new greeting.

One way to resist the gender binary and avoid assumptions is to avoid gender in a greeting.

For example, when you greet a group of children, instead of saying, “Hi boys and girls,” which reinforces the gender binary, try, “Hi friends,” or address a group of children based on what they’re doing: “Hi artists/climbers/explorers,” etc.


Don’t let gender make the rules.

Children enjoy and benefit from all kinds of imaginative and creative play—regardless of gender. When hosting playdates and parties, don’t let gender determine the activity.

Instead, offer art, active play, dress up, superhero play, dance, etc. to all children, regardless of the gender of your guests. Playing dress up and playing superhero have much in common, and all children can benefit from (and enjoy) many different ways to play.


Ignore blue and pink.

There are an awful lot of ways that stores and manufacturers gender the toys they make—so much so that it can be obvious which store aisles are “for boys” and which are “for girls.” But like Riley asks in the video above, who makes those rules anyway?

Ignore those rules and, when purchasing gifts for your kids, relatives, or friends, don’t limit yourself to toys labeled “boys” or “girls.” All children deserve (and want) the opportunity to explore a variety of interests—regardless of gender.


Read more about how Chicago Children’s Museum tries to remove gender stereotypes from our exhibits and why.

Talking to kids about social injustice and discrimination

As a cultural institution and a place for children, Chicago Children’s Museum is constantly thinking about how kids understand and interact with the world around them, and how that world impacts them. Kids’ ears can pick up bits and pieces of the most complicated conversations, which in turn can prompt adult-sized questions.

Regardless of your political beliefs, these conversations can bring up questions and concerns about discrimination and fairness, and it can be challenging to know the best ways to tackle it with your kids.

We’ve put together some ideas for parents and caregivers to have meaningful conversations with children of all ages about issues of equality and diversity, and how to get those conversations started.


Teach them empathy.

Being able to empathize with others who are treated unfairly is an early step in understanding the damage that is done by discrimination and inequality. However, kids need to learn empathy—we’re not born with it. Parents and caregivers need to talk about what it means to empathize, encourage their kids to work toward it, and model it themselves.

Sometimes books can be great discussion tools. Stick and Stone by Beth Ferry is a great story to kick off conversations about empathy.


Relate larger issues to their smaller worlds.

Children may not be able to understand the details of civil rights, but they can understand why it isn’t fair to cut in line for the playground slide. Kindness and fairness are ideas that kids understand and relate to very early on. Show kids that their worlds and the world around them are related.

The book What Does It Mean To Be Kind by Rana DiOrio talks about kindness in a world that kids understand: the classroom.


Help them explore difference—without generalizing.

We ask kids to point out which block is red and which block is blue, but when it comes to people, we insist we’re all the same. Kids notice differences—be honest and encourage them to explore those differences in positive ways.

The book The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler (and published by Chicago Children’s Museum) teaches kids to not only acknowledge difference, but to celebrate it too.


Hold yourself accountable—but not to the level of perfection.

Nobody’s perfect. We all have our own biases, and children hear what we say and take it all in. Avoid speaking in generalizations about other people and question others when they do so. If you do speak unfairly about a person or group, openly acknowledge the mistake.


Continue the conversation—but avoid oversharing.

Listen carefully to children’s questions and take cues about what they want to talk about. As adults, we have a tendency to provide too many details and concepts that may well be beyond their comprehension. Try using open-ended questions like “What are you curious about?” to get to the heart of their concerns. Then you can help them find more information about what they would like to know. And if you’re not sure how to start the conversation, you can always turn to books like the ones we listed above.


Talking about prejudice and discrimination is not something we can check off a list—it’s an ongoing conversation. Help your children see the world through a lens of compassion and kindness throughout their childhoods that will last well into their adult lives.


The mercury is rising, and you’ve got a whole week off for some family fun.

Whether you’re a local or traveling from out of town, these simple tips will make your Chicago Children’s Museum visit a springtime breeze!

Pick Your Time

If you can’t get yourself and the kids out of the house before noon, you are in luck. Weekdays after 1 pm offer four hours of quality family time and fewer school field trippers.

Prefer the mornings? Stay apprised of field trip bookings by signing up for our weekly Groups Forecast email. You’ll know which days the museum is hosting large school groups and can plan your visit accordingly.

Park with Ease

Indoor parking is a great perk for every Navy Pier visit. Check out our tips for navigating Navy Pier like a pro!

Feed Them First

Stave off the “hangries” (a condition whereby a hungry child is overcome with irritability and inconsolable tears), and fuel up the kids for hours of uninterrupted play.

Take the Scenic Route

Avoid the need to say “no” to your little ones’ plaintive pleas as you walk by the many enticing vendors. Instead, take a walk outside along the pier and behold the breathtaking skyline views, check the progress of the new Ferris Wheel, and enter the museum through the South Dock entrance.

Make Art Your Last Activity

There’s no better way to wind down after an energetic day of play than an engrossing, family workshop in the Artabounds Studio. Just pick up a free ticket outside the studio door, available one hour before each workshop.

Kids Create, every Wednesday from 10 am-1 pm, features drop-in art activities especially for the five and younger crowd—no tickets required.

Now that you have the scoop, you’re all set for a great day of play!

Teachers’ Choice: Candice Bor

Homeschooler and city Mom


Candice is a bona fide Chicagoan and city mom who lives in Streeterville with her husband and five-year-old son, Tyson. Always outfitted in fashion forward eyewear and positive energy, Candice thinks of Chicago Children’s Museum as an extension of her home classroom, “a fantastic place for play-based learning and exploring at its best.” 

How long have you and Tyson been members of the museum? 

Tyson may have been one year old. We would come periodically to Pritzker Playspace.  It gave me a chance to drop in and connect with people on a more personal level, instead of a scheduled class.  The museum was really great for us right from the start.  As he gets older, his interests are expanding to include any hands-on activity that allows him to be creative.  From Skyline to the art projects in the studio, Tyson can flow freely through the museum and truly be in his element.

Other than the museum, what other activities do you enjoy together?

If we’re not here at the museum, I have a group of mom friends who get together and create activities for our kids.  We are always looking for stuff to do in the city that has an educational bent, but still hands-on. We also do a little traveling and make use of the freedom homeschooling provides us.

Our goal is to be a child’s first museum.  Do you think Tyson is getting that experience?   

For sure.  That is why we come here. I feel very connected.  I grew up in Hyde Park and remember coming downtown all the time.  I loved the children’s museum as a kid.  We did not have a membership when I was a kid, but we would come regularly on the free days.  


So, you’re definitely a city person.

Yes, Chicago is an amazing place for us to raise our son.  My son is mixed, his father is Asian and I’m African American.  He doesn’t feel any difference; he doesn’t question anything because everybody doesn’t all look the same.  Everybody is just out here living and comfortable in their own skin and he feels like that’s how it should be, which is awesome.


9 Ways to Encourage Math Play


Kids learn the basics of fractions with the aid of our giant pizza pie in Fraction Action Pizza.

It’s Mathemania here at Chicago Children’s Museum. Throughout March and April, we’re featuring daily activities calculated to inspire a love of math in every child. Kids will send shapes soaring through the air, measure, mix, and make their own play dough, divide up a giant pizza, and more. This hands-on math play encourages a child’s natural curiosity about early math concepts, which begins building a foundation of math skills kids need.

You can get your child excited for a day of math play at Chicago Children’s Museum by starting with some simple activities at home. Here’s how:


Babies are learning math from the time they start exploring their fingers, toes and environment. Even in the first few months, babies can tell the difference between a few  (1 or 2) and many (7 or 8).


Life is full of opportunities to categorize and organize. Invite your child to help you fill up the toy bins and other de-cluttering tasks. Play a game of matching socks.


Children recognize sequences through daily routines, groupings of familiar objects and playing games.


Completing puzzles, building with blocks or drawing a map of the houses on your street are activities that enhance children’s understanding of spatial relationships.


Try Chutes and Ladders, hopscotch, Bingo, Go Fish—any game that involves counting, moving spaces and comparing.


Children often learn to count by rote. Touching or moving the items as they count helps them understand what the numbers mean.


The right answer is not as important as understanding how you got there. Encourage children to explain their logic.


Calling out the math in favorite books and games creates a pleasurable association to math for your child.


Take care not to pass along any “math anxiety” you might have developed as a child. Avoid making gender-based assumptions regarding children’s interests or abilities in math.

funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation



Teachers’ Choice: Sarah Steiger

10686918_10102477887275999_4506267972529449417_nSarah, mom and educator  

Early education is a passion for Sarah Steiger. As the Learning Resource Center Director in Glenview‘s Public School District 34, she shapes imaginative projects for children in pre-k through second grade.  Sarah brings a multidimensional experience to learning and every other aspect of her busy life juggling the roles of mom and educator

Finding the right place to bring her girls, seven-year-old Azalea and two-year-old Willow, is a challenge. But when she walks into Chicago Children’s Museum, Azalea can build away in the Skyline exhibit and pretend play in the Kids Town’s market, while Willow heads straight to the wet fun of WaterWays.

Why do you like bringing your kids to Chicago Children’s Museum? 

It’s hands-on, and my kids love it, especially the ability to make and create things. The learning experience provided by Chicago Children’s Museum is unique and developmentally appropriate for them.


What do you enjoy the most about the visit? 

I like the storytelling exhibit. It’s unique, special, and a fantastic opportunity to relive the experience. I really appreciate the integration of parents into the activity.

Story Hub is Chicago Children’s Museum’s newest movie-making exhibit that opened last fall. The multimedia stations set the stage for capturing a two-way conversation between an adult caregiver and a child about their latest museum visit.  Complete with photos, video footage and music, the mini-movie is delivered via email the following morning ready to relive the experience.

IMG_2245What makes the Chicago Children’s Museum experience distinctive?

I like that the museum repurposes materials in so many surprising ways. It teaches children that with a little imagination items can be reused to become something completely different and extraordinary.  I try to inspire this type of creativity with my kids at home and my students at school.

If you are not in a museum, how does your family spend time together?

We spend a lot of time outside, regardless of the season, ice skating in winter or hiking in the summer and playing games together.


Brain-Powering Toy Guide

Do you get overwhelmed in the toy aisle?  You are assaulted by multicolored packages blinking, buzzing, and sometimes crying, to capture your attention, convince you to take the toy off the shelf and bring it home with you.  Avoid a frenzied experience in the toy aisle this year with the help of our in-house experts who scoured the Internet and toy fairs to recommend their top toy picks.  These curated selections are sure to inspire creativity, imagination and brain-building play for infants, toddlers and grade schoolers.

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When it comes to artistic exploration for children, Josh recommends time, space, a few supplies and getting out of the way.  As our Artabounds studio manager and lead educator of the Chicago Children’s Museum Arts and Culture team and an artist in his own right, he knows what he is talking about.




When the art supplies come out, do you begin with the list of restrictions…”Don’t spill…not on the walls, or the carpet or…”?  Why not create a space perfectly sized for them to let their imaginations run wild, without making you wild with worry.

Art Table


Link: http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/50178411/

Try a table and chair set that is just the right size. Grab a roll of drawing paper and a couple of buckets for crayons and colored pencils, and you have everything you need for an art studio fit for your little Matisse. 

Collapsible Easel


Link: http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/50021076/

Short on space?  Try an easel.  It is collapsible and keeps your little one standing up and stretching out to get to the tippy-top spot of every masterpiece.  Not to mention, it is proven that being upright while “working” helps a child use more brain power than sitting down and focusing at a desk. For even more space economy, check out a desktop version http://www.dickblick.com/products/tabletop-easel/

SmartMax Blocks


Link: http://www.smartmax.eu

If your little one is a 3D artist, I like SmartMax for its simple design and abstractness of the pieces.  It is more than just blocks—with the addition of magnet balls a child can create complex structures or, dare I say, sculptures. 

Laura R head shot 2010Laura

Simplicity in parenting is Laura’s philosophy as she raises her own preschooler. With more than 15 years of experience designing art-filled, playful experiences at Chicago Children’s Museum, Laura is always on the lookout for child-centered toys that foster a love of learning at every age.




When shopping for my son, I always lean toward toys that have a timeless beauty about them, durability (so I do not have to contend with pieces carelessly scattered all over my home that end up in the trash bin ) and allow a little one to lead every play experience.  

Shakers and Rattles


Link: http://www.westmusic.com/s/kids-shakers

For babies, there is no better sensory treat than a rattle. In every culture, rattles are used to entertain and stimulate babies.  And the sensory developmental gains of rattle play for infants are invaluable.  I am partial to the wooden ones, but rattles come in every shape, color and material imaginable.

Jenga Blocks


Link: http://jenga.com/

Jenga blocks are great for all ages!  Preschoolers can use them as classic blocks for building and creative play.  As kids grow older, the stacking game promotes critical thinking skills and provides a great way to tune into each other and have some fun.  It can be played solo or with several others.

Lap Harp


Link: http://www.hearthsong.com/lyrical-lap-harp

I like real materials and real tools for kids. And believe me, kids appreciate real stuff too.  So why not give a child a real instrument rather than a toy sound maker? This lap harp is the perfect size for a preschooler to learn to discern sounds and fill your home with music.

Lauren is Chicago Children Museum’s early education math expert.  As she puts it, she “aims to meld formal and informal learning” in the traditional classroom setting.  As the manager of Playing with Numbers, the museum’s math training program, Lauren teaches K-1 educators how to integrate play into early education math curriculums.  

Make or Break Game


Link: http://www.amazon.com/Ravensburger-Make-Break-Family-Game/dp/B0002CYTXK

The biggest misconception about math games is that they must center on numbers.  For early learners, math is truly about concepts and vocabulary – front/back, circle/square and straight/diagonal.  I like Make ‘n’ Break, a game heavy on spatial development and reasoning.  In just a few minutes, children will be using spatial vocabulary to explain how each block has to be placed to complete the card formation in the allotted time.



Link: https://www.fatbraintoys.com/toy_companies/fat_brain_toy_co/inchimals.cfm

Inchimals explores numerous mathematical concepts from measurement to algebraic thinking.  Using different lengths of animal blocks, children discover which combinations of blocks are equivalent in size to others. I really like this game because it involves abstract and critical thinking, as well as language development, as children explain the thinking and reasoning behind their animal measurement.

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What are they laughing at? LOL 101 for Grownups

There’s a lot of learning going on when little ones are laughing. Here are some tips for engaging children in silly behavior at each developmental stage.

Laugh.Shack.2014a.9844-1.300d.RGB1.  Babies and Toddlers love surprises!
These little guys are learning a lot about how the world around them works, so unexpected actions can really crack them up.

Put a shoe on your head.
Quack like a duck.
Make funny faces.
Gently tickle tummies or chins.

Caregiver Tip: Tricks that bring giggles one time may bring tears the next. Be sensitive; babies get overloaded, and toddlers are a tough crowd.

2.  Preschoolers love nonsense!
Three- and four-year-olds are starting to see that jokes follow a format. To you, their punch lines might seem to need a little work, but they find them utterly hilarious!

“Knock knock,”
“Who’s there?”
“Spaghetti monster! Ha ha ha!”

Caregiver Tip: Super-silly stories and taboo topics (like potty humor) are also big at this age. Hang in there, parents!  Most outgrow this by age 20.

3.  Ages 5 – 7 love MAKING SENSE.
They’re learning the twists and turns of language and understanding the double meaning of words in riddles and puns:

Toy store sign: “Don’t feed the animals, they’re already stuffed.”

Caregiver Tip: Get used to hearing the same old joke! Young comics must hone their timing and delivery skills.

4. Ages 8 – 9 love SOCIAL HUMOR.
At this age, they’re having fun sharing humor with friends. They especially enjoy looonger jokes, funny books and videos, quick and witty comebacks, and, oh joy, sarcasm.

Caregiver Tip: Help children understand that hurtful and demeaning humor is never okay.

Through Labor Day, hone your funny bone and get seriously silly at the Laugh Shack, Chicago Children’s Museum’s pop-up comedy club just for kids!