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posted: 5/17/2013 6:47 AM

Local forest preserve is the only playground you need

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By Kent McDill

Many years ago, when we kids were all out of the house and out of college, my mom moved from the Chicago area to San Diego. If you have ever been to San Diego for an extended period of time, you know both what my mom gave up and what she got in terms of weather.

After about one year in Southern California, she told me that the one thing she disliked about living in San Diego was that there was no change of seasons. It was beautiful all the time out there, she complained. Breaks your heart, doesn't it?

But I think those of us who appreciate Chicago's ever-changing weather pattern understand what my mom was suffering from. There is nothing much like the feeling here when winter turns to spring, when the weather warms enough that you only need one layer, and when you feel that first moment of fall when the word "crisp" comes to mind.

In Chicago, we only get three or four months of what most Americans would call "summer" and it was always my goal to make sure the kids got the most out of it. The one thing I tried to take advantage of in that pursuit, and the one advantage we have over many other areas of the country, is our forest preserves.

I know what the word "playground" means to most people, but for me, the best playground around is one of the huge open fields that appear as you drive into a forest preserve and break through that first line of trees.

When our kids were little, and I had the opportunity to do so, I would pack up as many food items as I could, bring as many physical activity toys as possible, make sure I had the blankets, and find one of those open spots. Living in the Northwest suburbs, I had lots of choices.

The advantages are numerous. It's a huge area, and the kids can run to their hearts content. It's wide open, so you don't have to worry about keeping an eye on kids. You can't miss them. In most cases, you want to watch them frolic.

With a Frisbee, baseballs and gloves, or a foam football, the boys were endlessly entertained. They had a football field's worth of space. The girls, both of mine being more delicate than the boys, could lay back and enjoy a view you don't get in suburban life: an open, unblemished sky. On a day when there are fluffy clouds, your imagination can run wild.

You set up a little picnic area, and eating outdoors is so great because you can drop a crumb without concern. Food tastes better when eaten outdoors. Get some fried chicken and fruit, or a nicely stuffed sandwich, and you've got yourself a feast.

Once you have eaten, you can pack away some of your stuff in preparation for the second part of the adventure: a trail walk. Strolling through the forest is both thrilling and accidentally educational. You get to see stuff you aren't going to see in your backyard, unless you are one of the lucky ones that have woods as a border to your property. And if you go in deep enough, away from the road that brought you into the park, it's really quiet. (Parents know that quiet is good).

I have two princesses for daughters, and they weren't as enamored of the forest preserve as the boys. When Dan and Kyle got old enough, we would take bike rides through the woods. We are five minutes away by bike to a trail that goes as far north or south as we would want to go. Those bike rides weren't about speed, or who could ride with no hands. They were about fresh air and exploration and what represents adventure for suburban kids.

I'll tell you another great thing about living around forest preserves. Three of my kids either ran or are still running cross country in high school, and their workouts usually include a trek through the woods. I ran cross country for Conant years ago, and I loved our workouts through Busse Woods. With roots and rocks and divots, it was a very tiny bit like a survival run. It was much better, and less dangerous, than running on the streets.

If you have little ones and you want them to get out and stretch their legs this summer, pack them up and take them to your local forest preserve. Let them explore. Let them breath. Let them listen and look and see.

Oh, and I haven't yet mentioned the best part:

It's free.

• Kent McDill is a freelance writer. He and his wife, Janice, have four children, Haley, Dan, Lindsey and Kyle.

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