By Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaff
Today, we have a Q&A with a man some of you may know best as Dr. Scott from the PBS show, Dinosaur Train. His full name is Scott D. Sampson and he has a new book out this month: How to Raise a Wild Child, the Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. As a father, he gives practical advice on how to get back to nature with your kids. And as a scientist, he explains why it’s essential.
What inspired you to write How to Raise a Wild Child? Why this book at this moment?
Inspiration came from a pair of compelling insights. First, the present disconnect between kids and nature threatens the health of children. The average North American child currently spends seven to ten hours each day staring at screens, versus minutes engaged in unstructured play outdoors. This is a dramatic transformation within the past generation. Unsurprisingly, rates of obesity, ADHD, heart disease, and depression in children have been skyrocketing. Numerous studies demonstrate the critical importance of unstructured play for growing minds and bodies. Put simply, kids need nature and they aren’t getting it.
The second insight relates to the human-nature disconnect. How are we ever going to create ecologically sustainable communities if we don’t care about where we live? And why would we ever care unless we spend time outdoors in those places, building emotional and intellectual connections? Helping children fall in love with nature, what I call the nature connection, deserves to be a top national priority, on par with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving species and wild places.
These days it’s easy to learn about nature on a purely intellectual level. Indeed, many people today develop some understanding of nature without ever walking in a forest, on a beach, or up a mountain. Yet there’s another, much more powerful route to learning about nature—direct sensory experience.
Abundant time in natural settings is what fosters a deep connection with nature. These encounters should include plenty of slow time to soak up sights, sounds, scents, and sensations. This is where true nature connection begins. And along this pathway the connection eventually transforms into a persistent passion for nature.
How did you research this book?
Deepening my own understanding of how to connect kids with nature led me down a variety of rabbit holes. I researched the scientific literature on the topic, assessing what we know and don’t know about the way that nature affects humans, and especially children. I conducted numerous interviews, with educators, nature mentors, authors, and psychologists. I took workshops in nature mentoring and studied “bird language” with my daughter Jade. I ventured into backyards, classrooms, school gardens, urban parks, nature centers, museums, and out into the wilderness.
Along the way, I was embarrassed to discover that my own sense of nature connection was—it has to be said—pitiful. So, while writing this book, I sought to deepen this connection, both for Jade and for myself. Ultimately, all this research led me to a series of conclusions about how nature connection really works. The implications of these findings get to the very heart of parenting and teaching, and of childhood itself.
What are the greatest obstacles preventing children today from deeply connecting to the natural world?
In the 21st Century, nature connection is thwarted by several cultural trends. Digital technologies are the most obvious culprit. With so much screen time, children have little time left for outdoor adventures. Then there’s the fear factor. Parents have real concerns that kids will face stranger danger if we leave them unsupervised. Although the rates of child abduction are no greater than they were in 1950 or 1960, we cannot dismiss parental fears.
Another issue is over-scheduling. In an attempt to give kids every opportunity to succeed and thrive, they receive far more homework than was the norm a generation ago. And it’s become the norm to sign them up for sports, music lessons, and other extracurricular activities. Parents and educators are certainly not to blame for this indoor migration. All of us want the very best for our children. But it’s time to pause and contemplate if our efforts may not be maximizing children’s health, happiness, or life potential. Nature is no panacea. But it can turn the tide toward healthy, thriving childhoods.
What, then, are the essential ingredients for connecting children with nature?
To my mind, the process of nature connection comes down to a trio of factors, encapsulated in the acronym “EMU.” The “E” stands for experience, or firsthand encounters that engage the full suite of senses. Nature must be absorbed through our eyes, ears, nose, and pores, as well as our minds. Few of us need to be convinced that holding a slug or beholding a sky full of stars on a warm summer night differ mightily from virtual alternatives. It’s this direct experience that is so powerful in fostering emotional connections.
Next is mentoring. Being a nature mentor does not mean teaching kids to survive in the wild. Instead, nature mentors ask lots of questions and offer few answers. They are co-conspirators, fellow explorers, and chasers of clues, leading from behind rather than in front. Nature mentors value nature themselves, and pass this value onto children. Most importantly, they ensure that kids get abundant, unstructured time in natural settings.
The last member of the EMU trio is understanding. Emphasis here isn’t on accumulating nature facts, like the names of plants and animals (though some of this happens). Far more important is giving children a sense of the grand context of things, helping them to see the deep connections through which they’re interwoven with the natural world. How does energy and matter flow through your local ecosystem? What’s the epic story of your local place? Once this sort of root knowledge is instilled, children can grow lasting insights and meaning.
How does nature connection change as youngsters grow up?
Of course, the kinds of things that appeal to toddlers differ dramatically from those that attract teens. So it is with nature connection. During early childhood—say, up to five or six years of age—the most important ingredient is plenty of unstructured nature play—what psychologists often refer to as “free play.” This means kid-driven, imagination-rich activities that foster wonder. Natural and easily collected “loose parts” like sticks, rocks, leaves, and acorns make great toys at this stage, because they can be used for an infinite variety of activities.
During middle childhood, around six to eleven years of age, the geography of nature exploration needs to expand. Wildness at this phase can mean a walk up an urban creek or exploring the forest in a local park. Meanwhile, kids long for increased autonomy, risk, and competence. Nature mentors can help by giving kids more space and responsibility—for example, sending them off on collecting expeditions, whether for berries, lizards, or photographs. When children return, grown-ups can ask questions and gently pull out stories. For nature connection to persist, it’s important to continue to limit screen time, get kids outdoors, and foster wonder whenever possible.
Finally, during adolescence, the geographic range of nature adventures expands again, preferably to include true wilderness. Thanks to changes in brain development, teens seek plenty of time with their peers in risky situations. Nature mentors can find healthy outlets by providing opportunities for adolescents to take calculated risks with one another in natural settings (appropriately supervised of course). By this age it’s best if children have discovered a nature activity that they’re passionate about, one that requires increased competency over time—for example, skiing, backpacking, birding, or gardening. Service learning, although powerful at any age, offers another powerful pathway for teens to take on responsibility, engage in challenging activities with peers, and fine-tune their moral compass.
How did writing this book change the way you parent your own child?
For me, writing this book has driven home the crucial importance of getting children, no matter what age, out into nature on a regular basis. Like most parents today, my wife Toni and I have struggled to get our daughter Jade outside. We have fought the fears linked with giving her more autonomy. We have sought (not always successfully) to reign in the homework and after school activities. When Jade was younger, we worked to get her more outdoor playtime with friends. Now that she’s a entering adolescence, our emphasis is more on fostering slow, reflective time in nature, in part to give her a break from the crazy pace of life. Meanwhile, Jade and I have built on one of her early passions by becoming novice birders, an activity that allows us to spend quality time together in natural (though often urban) settings.
Most of all, this book has generated in me a strong sense of compassion for parents, teachers, and other caregivers doing their best to raise healthy, happy children. My sincere hope is that How to Raise a Wild Child will be a strong ally in this effort.