Are you ready for the gray, chilly days that lay ahead? We’ll try to help you through them with our Indoor Play Guide. Here’s a new addition to the list; it just opened last spring, and it's free!
Name: Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a 10,500-square-foot building on the west side of St. Charles designed to showcase the natural treasures in the Fox Valley.
Location: 3795 Campton Hills Road in St. Charles in James O. Breen Community Park, the same park that is home to Otter Cove Aquatic Park. The easiest entrance to Hickory Knolls is on the south side of Campton Hills Road, just west of Peck Road. The center’s phone number is 630-513-4399.
Hours: Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays. Open noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays.
Amenities: Live animal displays, indoor turtle pond, a giant rabbit, a teepee, canoe, coloring station and a large room that can be rented for special events (and is good for letting energetic kids blow off steam!) The restrooms have a diaper-changing station. While there is no nursing area, it would be easy to find a semi-private place to breastfeed. The St. Charles Park District offers a number of programs at Hickory Knolls, too, but they do require advance registration. Check the current park district catalogue for events; here's a link to programs scheduled at Hickory Knolls during the winter of 2011-2012.
Price: Admission is free.
Good For: Crawlers and beginning walkers (lots of nice, new, padded carpet!) , young and school-age children, field trips, moms desperate for a free indoor play solution on a rainy or chilly day. The center offers 90-minute nature-themed birthday parties that sound like a lot of fun. It also has a kitchen, and offers several room configurations for weddings, reunions, business meetings, etc.
Our Experience: My daughter and I first visited Hickory Knolls Discovery Center in the spring, when it first opened and some work was still being done on the inside of the building. So I decided to wait to write about it until that work was finished. We made a return trip in October, and we had a great time with some friends we met there.
We first visited the giant rabbit that lives in a large cage in the lobby.
My daughter and I rested on the floor of the Native American wigwam and read stories. (The center has books on a shelf nearby.) She sat at the coloring table and made nature rubbings, pretended to paddle in the canoe and peered into the wetland display to try to spot the Blanding's turtles that live there.
There is one large room full of live animal displays, with glass cases housing snakes, insects and amphibians. That room also has several comfy chairs facing the windows where you can sit and watch birds come eat from the bird feeders hanging outside.
The nature center also has a very large carpeted room that can be rented out for parties. But it was not in use during our visit, so I let my daughter just dance and play for a while – she ran off some energy with her little friend, and I got to sit on the floor with my own friend and actually catch up for a few minutes.
The Takeaway: Hickory Knolls reminds me of an updated version of the Red Oak Nature Center in North Aurora. Hickory Knolls has floor-to-ceiling windows, a neutral design palette and has been certified for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).
You are not going to spend a whole morning or afternoon at Hickory Knolls. But it does make for a fun hour-long outing, and a wonderful place to plan a playdate. The huge windows let in tons of light – even on a gray day, like the one on which we visited.
When you enter the lobby, you’ll see the desk where the nature center’s staff sits. They are very friendly, so make sure to stop by and see if there are any special events going on that day, or to let them know if you have any special interests. When we were there, for instance, young visitors could try to spot some toy frogs hidden around the center and a staff member offered to bring out an animal for us to see up close.
If the weather is nice enough, the park also includes the 131-acre Hickory Knolls Natural Area featuring restored wetlands, woodlands, savanna and prairie. The area has hiking trails and a picnic pavilion, and it’s on my list to check out soon -- or at least next spring!