Frigid February temperatures notwithstanding, it's not too early to plan where to send the kids to camp this summer. Throughout the city and the suburbs, a number of museums, botanical gardens and zoos offer hands-on learning experiences built around scientific and environmental principles. Here are just a few to consider, and if you're interested, don't wait — some fill up before the temperatures rise.
Summer Worlds Tour on the Museum Campus
A joint project of Adler Planetarium, Shedd Aquarium and Field Museum, this camp (or rather, series of camps) is open to kids entering kindergarten through those entering fifth grade in fall 2013. Campers spend a week on the Museum Campus with educators from all three institutions. Each museum develops its own curriculum, usually involving current exhibits, and the counselors are hired jointly.
Melissa Nemeth, senior educator at Adler, says the goal for Summer Worlds Tour as well as Adler's own series of camps for ages 5-14 is "to try to give kids an experience that they couldn't get in the classroom or the home," while using a curriculum that is "as hands-on and inquiry-based as possible. The kids should be in charge of the learning as much as possible." This year's programs specific to Adler look at the question "How do we explore space?" and include projects on the physics of rockets and high-altitude balloons.
Register for Summer Worlds Tour and Adler's summer camps at adlerplanetarium.org. Summer Worlds Tour sessions are July 8-12, July 15-19, July 22-26 and July 29-Aug. 2. Several of the Adler camps are in June. Call 312-322-0329 for more information.
Museum of Science and IndustrySummer Brain Games
The Museum of Science and Industry takes a different approach to summer science education in the Summer Brain Games program, now entering its second year. Instead of being confined to the bricks-and-mortar environment, the museum offers an eight-week series of free family-oriented at-home activities through the MSI website. Bryan Wunar, director of community initiatives for MSI, describes the program as "an effort to try to address the summer learning slide that happens every year." Each week's activity focuses on a different theme, many of them tied into popular summertime activities. A project on hydroponic gardening leads to larger discussions on sustainability.
"We have done summer camps in the past and the numbers we could accommodate were fairly limited," says Wunar. With Summer Brain Games, Wunar notes "We wanted to make sure we were using very accessible, everyday materials. You don't have to be the expert."
Registration at msichicago.org/summerbrain (not yet open for 2013).
Morton Arboretum Summer Science Camp
Al fresco learning guides the camp program at Morton Arboretum, which offers 100 different camps for kindergartners through eighth-graders, including Bugs Abound for insect-obsessed kindergartners and Fishing Fun for older kids.
Hannah Rennard, manager of curriculum and instruction for the arboretum, says: "We are very well aware of the current research that has provided so much information about the benefits of kids being outside and learning science in a very hands-on way. We definitely integrate that into all of our programs. It's also very natural for kids to learn outside."
Public registration opened Friday at mortonarb.org. Weeklong camps run June 10 to Aug. 9, excluding the week of July 4.
Chicago Botanic Garden's Camp CBG
For 30 years, the Chicago Botanic Garden has offered summer educational programming. Currently, through Camp CBG, they offer everything from Bloomin' Garden Strollers for infants and tots and their caregivers to camps on Mad Science and Grossology.
The latter is a particular favorite for Amy Wells, the manager of camp programs. "It's the science behind gross things," she explains. "They will explore gross or stinky natural phenomena, bodily functions." But, she emphasizes, "There is a science component. We tie in mixtures and basic chemistry."
Wells notes that the CBG tag line — "Where science, nature, and fun meet" figures into all their camp programming. "We obviously have (camps on) nature and plants, but we also have science, food and art-based camps."
Registration at chicagobotanic.org/camp. Scheduling options from June 17 to Aug. 16.
With an emphasis on animal diversity and environmental conservation, Lincoln Park Zoo's Summer Conservation Camp (aimed for kids ages 4 to those entering fourth grade) and Zoo Crew (open to kids entering fifth through eighth grades) use the living resources of the zoo to introduce campers to wildlife. One component — "Storybook Safari" — uses popular children's literature such as "Stellaluna" and "Bear Wants More" to help kids tie in beloved fictional animals with facts about the living ones on display.
Registration at lpzoo.org/education. Conservation Camp sessions from June 10 to Aug. 9; Zoo Crew sessions for fifth- and sixth-graders are June 17-28 or July 22-Aug. 2; those for seventh- and eighth-graders are July 8-19 or Aug. 5-16
Zoo Camp with the Chicago Zoological Society begins registration March 13.
Though this summer's topics won't be advertised "due to certain space requirements, staff availability and spur-of-the-moment camp activities," possible topics mentioned on the website include Animal Adaptations, Zooper Heroes, and Myth Busters.
Registration at brookfieldzoo.org for Zoo Camp beings March 12.