After spending a few years parenting in Alaska, where indoor play options in the winter are limited, especially for very small children, living in Milwaukee has been a veritable wonderland of choices. When the weather is cold and miserable here, instead of wondering “What are we going to do today?” with a sense of desperation, we wonder “What are we going to do today?” with all the delight of people who now face a range of choices that rivals the breadth, scope and variety of the menu at The Cheesecake Factory. And come summer, the list just straight-up explodes with options.
Still, we have found a few places that we return to again and again, mixing it up with new joints when we need a change of pace. Along with recommendations from friends and old reliable Google, Miltown Moms has been a tremendous resource, and I check it routinely to research activities or find out what’s going on around town for little ones.
I’ve literally just barely scratched the surface in this list with some favorite spots to which we’ve gone back again and again. We’ve also done lots of one-off activities and day trips, and there are still a million things we want to try. And that’s before we start talking about the wealth of children’s activities located just down the road in Chicago.
Kith & Kin
Our home away from home, Kith & Kin was a lifesaver especially when we were living in a very small apartment and needed an escape where the kids could run around and make a mess in a safe environment. Even though we’re in a more spacious living situation now, we’re still at Kith & Kin at least once a week for a class or just to hang out. A bright and airy space that looks like it tumbled right out of an Instagram post, Kith & Kin is a play café with a good selection of books, art supplies, and toys that encourage imaginative play. We pay about $300 for an annual membership that allows us unlimited playtime plus discounts on food, drink, classes and events. The menu is small and high-quality. New toys rotate in from time to time, but there are always some favorites available, like a climbing structure, art supplies, musical instruments, puzzles and costumes. We had both kids’ birthday parties here last year and it was ideal for adults and kids (and NBA mascots) alike.
Betty Brinn Children’s Museum
The kids and I made our first trip to Betty Brinn when we visited Milwaukee in advance of our move, and although the baby was too little to appreciate it at the time, Reilly was mega into it. Betty Brinn has a variety of exhibits, including a kid-sized neighborhood where you can shop in a Sendik’s grocery store, work at a bank or construction site, and drive a bus. There’s a “pocket park” area for little ones and an outdoor space that’s open seasonally, plus an interactive health and fitness exhibit, a maker space, and a “factory” space that incorporates lessons in language and literacy as well as coding and graphic design. We try to go early in the day on weekdays to avoid the weekend crowds, although there’s always a chance you’ll run into visiting school groups.
Kids In Motion
Located a bit out outside Milwaukee proper in New Berlin, Kids In Motion is a huge space with themed play areas — a theater, a diner, a submarine, a dig site, a climbing structure and more — plus laser tag and a contained space where babies can play safely. We like to get together here with friends so the kids can run around like lunatics while we sit on the comfortable adult furniture. (JK I just watch everyone else sit I have a toddler I never sit down.) Our kids are really into the bubble machines that go off at regular intervals. Kids In Motion can get a little crazy on the weekends, especially because it’s a popular spot for birthdays, but we’ve had some really pleasant, calm weekday afternoon play sessions. I’m always really impressed by the staff, who are constantly picking up, replacing items, and cleaning the play space.
Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory (The Domes)
Whoever came up with the idea to build giant glass domes in the middle of Milwaukee with warm-climate ecosystems set up inside was a genius-level humanitarian who definitely deserves some kind of major award. My kids could care less about the actual horticultural value of a visit to the Domes, but they love (a) the fish in the rainforest dome; (b) the lizard in the desert dome; and (c) whatever fancy adventure is going on at any given time in the Show Dome. Paths to explore + warm weather year-round + animal friends and sometimes trains = kid success and Maia sanity.
Let’s talk about how I’ve spent all my life in coastal states and had to move to the Midwest to live someplace where I could hop in the car and be on a sandy, swimmable beach within ten minutes. In some ways, living in Milwaukee actually feels like living closer to the ocean than Anchorage or New York, considering there’s no opposite shore within sight.
We didn’t actually get a real “beach day” in last summer (largely because Bruce is a maniac around water and I’m terrified to have him in a swimming situation without another adult), but we did make a few of trips to Milwaukee’s largest public beach just to play in the sand and splash a tiny bit. An early fall weekday seemed to be the perfect time — almost no one else there, but it’s still warm enough to enjoy yourself.
Obviously we have a favorite sports team in Milwaukee. But if there’s a second place, it goes to the Brewers and Miller Park, which is super kid-friendly. At their first game, our kids got commemorative certificates and packs of baseball cards. There’s a great playground outside the park and some fun activities inside (including a kid-sized replica of the terrifying giant slide that Bernie Brewer slides down when a player homers).
I don’t want to be That Mom, but Bruce did get on the JumboTron at his very first game.
This is Seth’s favorite place to take the kids. Besides IKEA (which I’m pretty sure will become our go-to lunch hangout when it opens in Oak Creek this spring). The playground on its own is pretty great, but then you can walk down the bluff to the beach (and there’s a playground down there, too).
Milwaukee County Zoo
I’m told there are animals at this zoo, but I can’t vouch for that personally because we spend most of our time here zipping from activity to activity.
JK I know there are animals. I’ve seen the giraffes from the spot where the Sky Safari does its turnaround. And Reilly always wants to go see the snakes.
The kids are big fans of the zoo train and the carousel, and Reilly is really into the ropes course (there’s a special setup for small kids). Personally, I’m obsessed with the vintage Mold-A-Rama machines located around the zoo, injection molding vending machines that make $3 plastic animals right in front of you. The selection rotates and I just read on the Mold-A-Rama website that they’ve installed credit card readers on the machines at the zoo, so our next visit’s gonna be lit.