Sustainability Center

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The Sustainability Center makes sustainability efforts approachable for Illinois residents and visitors of all ages through interactives and resources that encourage local action to build resilient and sustainable communities.

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Time of Year
Year Round
Level 2

Engage with our interactive gallery and rotating displays highlighting practical ways everyone can make an impact at home or in their community. Get a look at how sustainability practices impact the whole world on the larger-than-life central globe. Then, go local and explore the four components for sustainable living—food, water, economy and culture, and energy.

Get inspired by real-life success stories of conservation impact on Chicago communities, learn how you can get involved in sustainability projects in your neighborhood, check out sustainability resources from the digital library, or explore in-house resources from our partners at the Lincoln Park Branch of the Chicago Public Library.

Access to this exhibit is included with Museum admission.

Keep Exploring

Talking to Kids About Climate Change

Teaching children about nature and our climate from a young age helps them develop a sense of responsibility and passion for the world around them.

It lays the groundwork growing children will need to understand the scientific issues, like climate change, that will affect them throughout their lives. It’s not just possible, it’s critical to engage children in thinking about our environment at every age, and that includes the challenges climate change presents our environment today.

It can be overwhelming determining how to talk to children about climate change, which is often a difficult topic of discussion for adults. Climate change is complicated and often extremely abstract, and it can be intimidating or even frightening to think about. What’s more, children at different developmental stages engage with these issues in very different ways.

That’s why we’ve developed these age-appropriate guides that provide ways to start simple discussions about environmental impacts with children. Using authentic connections and experiences with nature as a strong foundation, children can gradually build towards more complex ideas about the ways that humans and the environment affect one another.

We share our homes with nature.

Introducing very young children to nature from the start will provide the groundwork for a growing understanding of the environment as they get older. Concrete, familiar ideas such as home provide a starting point for very young children to engage with nature on a personal level.

Help children recognize the ways and places nature is present in their own lives and homes. Talk about nature in and around your home. Look in your backyard, out your windows, or in familiar nearby outdoor areas. Talk about how these spaces that feel like home to you might also feel like home to other animals.

Guiding Questions

Which animals live in our backyard? Do we share our home with any plants or animals?
What do you think ‘home’ looks like to them? What makes that place a good home for them? How does that home help them live and be comfortable? How do our homes help us live and be comfortable?


Birds, squirrels, and insects are common visitors or inhabitants of parks and yards. Birds build nests that are safe and comfortable using twigs and other materials they find in their habitat. Squirrels also build nests; bugs might build hives or burrow in the ground. All of these animals use what the environment provides in order to have a home that is the best fit for the way they live.

Activities at Home

Go on a nature walk and search for animal homes in your area.

Gather natural materials and build your favorite animal home. Use those materials to build a model house that a person might like to live in. How do people and animals use things from their environment to make homes they want to live in?

What we do in our homes affects nature, and nature affects our homes.

Children of this age level are old enough to start exploring cause and effect: the ways nature affects their daily lives, and the idea that humans can also impact nature. Start with simple causes that have clear effects. For instance, weather events (such as rain, snow, a very cold or hot day) can lead to conversations about how weather, as part of nature, affects your day-to-day lives. Meanwhile, human actions like cutting down trees or picking up litter have obvious and direct impacts on nature.

This is a good time to introduce the idea of climate (what the weather is “always” like, over a long period of time) as an early prelude to discussing how climate can change.

Guiding Questions

Does the weather ever change what you do? What would you do differently on a sunny day than you would on a rainy day? What about a snowy day?

Are there places you like to go to be in nature? What do you do there? Does it look the same every time you visit? What is the same and what is different? Do you think nature notices that you were there? What are ways that you help protect nature when you go to a park?


Heavy rains can cause floods in your own house (nature affecting a human). When people use lots of water during a rainstorm, they add a lot of water down the drain and flooding can get much worse (humans affecting nature). Using less water when it’s raining is a good way to help nature and ourselves.

Activities at Home

Set up a rain catcher or a thermometer at home. Keep a weather journal, or just check to see how the weather changes from day to day. Does weather in Chicago follow any sort of pattern? How can we find out about these patterns?

The climate is changing and we can too.

By this age, children are generally ready for conversations specifically about climate change. Begin with honest, simple facts: human actions over a long period of time have changed the climate around the world, and it will continue to change in the future. Together you can gradually explore more details about which human actions have created what changes and how.

Focus on empowering your child with actions they can take. How can you adapt to live with a changing climate? Talk about specific human actions that can impact the climate, like energy use and transportation, and choices you can make in your own lives so that the climate doesn’t change even more.

Guiding Questions

What would it be like if it rained all the time? What would happen to your neighborhood and everything that lives there? What are some good ways to deal with all the problems that arise from too much rain? What if it never rained at all?

What are some things we use electricity for? Can you think of ways to do those things with less electricity?


Climate change can make summertime even hotter, so we want to use our air conditioners a lot. Unfortunately producing electricity has a big impact on climate change and air conditioners use more electricity than almost anything else in our houses, so turning on the AC can make the problem even worse. Luckily, there are other ways to cool down: building well-insulated houses, using fans, or only air conditioning a few rooms instead of a whole house are all good ideas.

Activities at Home

Talk about things that your family does every day that might have an impact on climate change. Decide on a few things that you can do differently together that will help reduce climate change in the future. How do you make a plan that’s good for the environment that you can stick with over a long time?

Native Gardening

Here at the Nature Museum, we use native plants extensively in our exterior landscaping.

The use of natives is growing in popularity everywhere, and for good reason. Not only are natives often beautiful and durable, they provide tangible benefits for local wildlife. We get many questions from visitors on this topic. We’ve tried to answer some of the more common questions here.

Native plants are those species which had been growing wild in our area at the time when scientists first began observing and cataloging them. These plants evolved in conjunction with local animal life, forming a complex network of interdependence. Native plant species form the foundations of local ecosystems such as the tallgrass prairie.

Catalogs and guidebooks often tout low maintenance as a benefit of gardening with native plants. While it’s true that native plants are adapted to our yearly temperature and precipitation regimes, it is an over-generalization to say they are always easier to grow than non-natives. The true secret to low maintenance gardening is matching the plants you are growing to the specific conditions you are growing them in. For example, native Swamp Milkweed requires very little care if sited in full sun with moist soil. Plant it on a sandy slope, and it will require near-daily watering in the summer. The old mantra holds true for all plants, native and non-native: Right plant, right place. It’s worth noting that there is one plant virtually all homeowners grow extensively that is rather poorly suited to our environment – lawn grass. Replacing lawns with properly selected native plants will reduce maintenance, beautify, and benefit local wildlife.

The environmental benefits of gardening increase substantially when natives are used. This is because local species are adapted to make use of native plants for food and shelter. For example, many species of insects rely exclusively on a single native plant species for food. The plants provide food for bugs; bugs are food for songbirds; songbirds are food for hawks, snakes, etc. Simply put, the chain of life in local ecosystems begins with native plants.

Garden centers and nurseries are increasingly catering to customers who choose native plants. There are also many sources online. It’s a good idea to do a little research of your own before you begin, however, because retailers sometimes define “native” very loosely. A good place to start seeking information is your local native plant society.

We gratefully acknowledge and thank:

Anonymous Donor

“Public Museum Capital Grants Program”
Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois State Museum

Nature Museum developers, fabricators, designers, and installers led by:

Dr. Nancy Tuchman
Aaron Durnbaugh
Alvaro Ramos
Deb Lahey
Erin Amico
John Aldridge
Jennifer Olson
Tara Preston

Exhibit development partners:

Turner & Townsend Heery
Luci Creative
Norcon, Inc.
Solomon Cordwell Buenz (SCB)
Wheaton & Associate
Balance Studios

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