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.

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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



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



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

SmartMax Blocks



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



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



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



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



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.




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!

Why Danger?

Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.

Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.

Kids just don’t have enough “good danger” in their lives these days.

No, really…Hear us out!

Think back to your childhood… What are your strongest play memories? Often, when we at Chicago Children’s Museum ask adults how they played as children, the things they recall most vividly were a bit risky. They climbed trees—or rooftops—and played in alleys. They experimented with tools and took things apart.  They launched things into the air, demolished things, melted things, and (maybe, just maybe) created some minor explosions. Why? Well, because they were curious!

From these experiences, they learned. There were minor cuts, scrapes, and bruises, but, oh, were there also revelations!

Encountering risky, seemingly dangerous situations provide children some of their greatest and most important learning opportunities. From interactions with hot, sharp, breakable, fragile, high up or otherwise strange things, we develop new understandings about the ways of the world. We grasp why some things really are dangerous (to ourselves or others) and how to be safe.  We learn about our own abilities and sensibilities.

As Gever Tulley, author of Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do, says, “While there are aspects of danger in virtually everything we do, the trick is to learn how mastery actually minimizes danger.”

Yes, exploring what is dangerous presents a prime opportunity for children to learn safety and responsibility.  It is also a natural motivator for learning in general. Danger is exciting; therefore, we pay attention.  You can bet that a child who learns about chemistry by creating an explosion is going to remember it far longer than the child who reads about it in a book. The “risk” aspect makes the experience stick.

Here are a few key ways adults can support “good” danger:

Ensure that children have opportunities to take risks that are developmentally appropriate.  For an eight-year-old, using a sharp tool or experimenting with heat could present an appropriate level of risk.  For a six-year-old, swinging on a rope swing might be just the right challenge. For a toddler, exploring a new material or attempting to walk over an uneven terrain may be a healthy risk. Children naturally want to push the limits of their abilities; it’s up to us, as adults, to help them find the right opportunities.

Provide time, space and support. While some “risky” activities require adult supervision (learning to light a campfire for the first time), others are best left for children to explore on their own (taking a leap from the monkeybars). If the worst that can happen is a cut, scrape, bruise, or even a sprained ankle, give children the freedom to do it on their own. Remember, you learned some of your best “lessons” when adults weren’t even looking!

Take comfort in the knowledge that “dangerous” activities help children flourish. Exploring fire, water and other physical phenomena, and using real tools and machines acquaint children with how the world really works. Nothing beats first-hand experience for learning how objects are engineered, why heat transforms water into vapor, what it’s like to drill a hole. Such “risky” physical behaviors as climbing, swinging or jumping from high places build strength, dexterity and self-confidence. Non-physical risks—performing in front of an audience or standing up for a principle—are similarly important learning opportunities. In each situation, children are developing critical cognitive and social-emotional skills: assessing risks, grasping consequences, practicing self-control, taking responsibility.

Exposing children to danger may seem counterintuitive, but when done right, and with the support of caring adults, it is ultimately the best preparation we can give them for becoming resilient, thoughtful and capable human beings.

So go ahead… Take the leap.  Make it blow.  Melt it down. Launch it. Watch it burn.  We’re learning here!

Field Trips and Self Identity

Museum educators Holly Denman and Alexandra Pafilis look at how field trips can provide a special platform for children as they work on developing their unique senses of self. 

Daily, we are reminded that children are individuals, growing into their potential and personality, developing their senses of self. As we watch children enter and explore Chicago Children’s Museum, we are often struck by the varying reactions, interests and temperaments of our field trip visitors. Some children eagerly burst into the nearest exhibit—passionately curious about what it could hold. Others dutifully stick close to their teacher as they look around their new setting. Some express concern about putting their lunch away, looking for reassurance that it will be waiting for them.

Field trips can be a powerful tool for fostering self-efficacy, the feeling of being a “doer” inthe world and capable of success in new situations. We love to watch feelings of self-efficacy bloom as children build structures in our Skyline exhibit. At first, children may puzzle over how to line up the wooden struts, nuts and bolts. After some tinkering, they quickly discover how to assemble the


materials into the frame of a building. As they work with busy hands and minds, they can see the results of their actions—all of a sudden they have a house that they built! Similarly, children have a chance to work with real tools—many of which they are using for the first time—in our Tinkering Lab exhibit. When children swing a hammer for the first time, they often miss the nail completely. But on the tenth, 20th or maybe 50th time, they have the technique mastered and are driving nails into wood like a pro. The healthy pride on a child’s face at that moment is a peek into a bolstered sense of ability, efficacy and confidence.

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The Importance of Imaginative Play

Those of you familiar with Chicago Children’s Museum know that we’re strong advocates of play. See our resident expert Tsivia Cohen’s past blog post on the topic.

According to The American Academy of Pediatrics,

Play contributes to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth.

The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognizes play as the right of every child.


With the recent opening of our Forts exhibit, we’ve been thinking a lot about imaginative—or pretend—play, in particular, and its importance in developing young children’s social, language and problem-solving skills.

In an interview with the American Journal of Play, Dorothy and Jerome Singer, experts in the field of imaginative play, explained why make-believe play is so important for children.

Pretend play is the act of creativity. The child engaged in pre-tend play is engaged in what Piaget called ludic play. She’s playing a game, and by taking a piece of mud and pretending that it’s a birthday cake and putting candles on it, she’s using her imagination. She is differentiating between what is real and what is not real. She knows that this is mud she’s playing with, but it becomes the cake. She knows that a broom is something that you sweep the floor with, but when she wants it to be a horse and rides it, then in her imagination it’s really not a broom but a horse.

At first glance, Forts is a large, bright room filled with usual—and not-so-usual—fort-making materials. But it’s much more than that. Specially designed by CCM’s in-house education and exhibit experts, Forts is a rich, immersive environment that inspires imaginative play in children of all ages—and quite a few adults!