10 Free Things to Do Over the Holiday Break

Tuesday, Dec 20th, 2016 by

Here are 10 ideas for free winter fun until the kids are back in school.




  1. Check out some new holiday light displays. The Go West Guide to Great Light Displays in Chicago’s Western Suburbs is a great starting point – and more suggestions from readers are being added in the “comments” section, too!
  2. Visit Cosley Zoo in Wheaton. During its “Festival of Lights and Tree Sales,” admission is free. The 20,000 twinkling lights go on at 3 p.m. each day and stay on until 9 p.m. through Dec. 30.
  3. Check out the Red Oak Nature Center in Batavia, where admission is always free. A renovation a couple of years back opened up the space and added a number of interactive play elements for the kids. If the weather is decent, you can take a hike around the nature center before or after your visit on one of the six wood-chipped hiking trails.
  4. Red Oak isn’t the only great, free nature center around. We also have Hickory Knolls Discovery Center and Creek Bend Nature Center, both in St. Charles. The farmhouse at Peck Farm Interpretative Center in Geneva offers a smaller room with puzzles, puppets and other hands-on activities. Call ahead before your visit just to check holiday hours at all three of these spots.
  5. Mingle with the animals at Brookfield Zoo on a Tuesday or Thursday; zoo admission is free on those days through Dec. 29 only during normal zoo hours. (Note you will have to pay $10 for parking.)
  6. If you don’t mind a drive, you can take a ride on “Holiday Lights Train” at Lions Community Park in the DeKalb County town of Waterman. This is a 1/3-scale miniature train that runs on a track and through a tunnel around the perimeter of the park. During the Christmas season, the owner Pete and his wife Char offer the rides and hot chocolate for free. Note that this is outdoors, and you’ll want to bundle up. I don’t recommend making the trip if the weather is especially frigid – in 2013, we drove out to Waterman, and the train kept getting stuck on a rise in the track. We ended up returning home without taking a ride. But we’ve been on previous years, and it’s a fun, unique experience! The train is open just a few more days this year: Dec. 20, 21, 22 and 23, running from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. each evening.
  7. You can see a family movie on the big screen: The Paramount Theatre in downtown Aurora is showing “E.T: The Extra Terrestrial” at 7 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 26, at 7 p.m. and “Kung Fu Panda” at 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 2. Admission is $1. (Not free, but close.)
  8. Check out what your local library is offering over the break. The Gail Borden Library in Elgin, for instance, has a vintage toy exhibit all about “Star Wars” called “The Nostalgia Awakens.” (Hee, hee.) Its “Winter Family Film Festival” will feature 10 films being shown for free including “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Zootopia,” “Kung Fu Panda 3,” “The BFG” and more.
  9. The Aurora Public Library has a number of holiday activities, too, including several winter and holiday storytimes, craft events and winter break bingo.
  10. Take advantage of milder temperatures and make the trip to the Lincoln Park Zoo, which is open every day of the year (even Christmas) and is always free. My friends at Little Lake County have other suggestions for how to do Chicago on the cheap!
  11. Bonus: Check out our guide to family-friendly New Year’s Eve celebrations – several are free!