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Wild Side: Nature is for kids — both small and big

My new motto: Weekends are for camping. Our family took the opportunity this Memorial Day weekend to head to the woods and check out some of the public lands in the Illinois Valley. My wife and I thought it would be great opportunity to get our two small kids some quality time in nature. 

Let’s face it. Screens are everywhere. Laptops, iPads, iPhones, TVs — at home, in cars, on the sidewalk, everywhere. Like the Sirens of Greek mythology, these beautiful but dangerous creatures lure us in with their enchanting music and voices (or beeps and ringtones). They sing to us, “Check your messages” —  “You’re missing out.” 

Children are easy targets of these techno-Sirens. The oft-heard mantra around our house is, “I wanna watch something!” And for busy parents, it’s all too easy to give in and let them play with a phone here or turn on the TV there. The next thing you know, your kid is a mindless zombie staring into the digital abyss. 

But once our kids are out in nature, the rocks, sticks, water, plants and critters take on a life of their own. Instead of reciting the plot from the most recent Hotwheels episode, the child in the woods creates her own world with all of the “loose-parts” toys of nature. 

In his book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," author Richard Louv makes the case for the critical role nature has in our children’s lives, and how a lack of time spent in the natural environment leads to an array of problems — physical, mental, and even spiritual — in our children. 

Louv discusses the work of researchers in this field who theorize that it in nature, where “loose-parts” toys abound in the form of trees, flowers, ponds and creatures, that intellectual development, creativity and imagination take root. 

Natural playgrounds are abundant in our ecoregion, not just in the form of neighborhood parks, but giant swaths of public lands for kids to learn and explore the wonders of nature. 

Chock full of rivers, rare plant preserves, campgrounds and ample opportunities to explore public lands, the Illinois Valley is a special place. The Illinois River offers deep, clear holes for swimming on a hot summer day. Unfortunately, the Illinois River can get so busy that it’s hard to find any spots that are family friendly. 

So we decided to head to Sucker Creek, which is a large tributary to the Illinois River. Portions of the Illinois Valley are defined by sparse, but beautiful vegetation where rare plants are commonly found on rocky soils commonly called serpentine. But towering ancient trees more akin to a coastal rainforest define the Sucker Creek drainage (the area receives 60 inches of rain per year, compared to Ashland’s 20 inches). 

My 4-year-old loved his time next to the creek. Driftwood and sticks became boats of varying size and speed. Mud puddles became giant lakes where he docked his boats. So immersed in his newly created world, and sandy and wet up to his waist, he didn’t even notice one of his prized flip-flops had gone missing. He saw caterpillars, water striders, snails, tiny fish and even chased a snake slithering along the rocky shore. 

My son was delighted with his experience at this natural playground. He was beaming. Radiant with joy. Much happier than after I gave in and let him watch a screen. 

If you go: From Cave Junction, take Highway 46 toward the Oregon Caves National Monument and Preserve. The Grayback Campground is near milepost 11. It is a host campground with 39 campsites, each costing $10 per night. Day use is available. Cave Creek Campground up the road close to the Oregon Caves is also a gem. 

But you don’t need to go all the way to the Illinois Valley, your backyard or local park is just fine too. Just get kids outside. And adults too. We need nature. 

Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.