The capacity to fall in love with nature lies dormant within all of us, waiting to be reawakened. We’re closer than you might think to rebuilding a country of naturalists.
If I say the name Scott D. Sampson, odds are it might not ring any bells. But if you have young kids with even the slightest interest in dinosaurs, chances are very good you’ve heard of Dr. Scott the Paleontologist. If you’ve ever seen an episode of the PBS Kids / Jim Henson show Dinosaur Train, then you’ve seen Dr. Scott. He appears at the end of every episode, talks about the science behind each story, makes connections between the prehistoric world and the more familiar world in which kids live, and ends every episode by encouraging kids to “get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!”
Dr. Scott isn’t an actor. He’s actually a real, live paleontologist who also happens to be vice president of research and collections and chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
He recently published his second book (though his first targeted to a general audience) about how to connect kids with nature: How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to read it.
The present-day gap between kids and nature emerges as one of the greatest and most overlooked crises of our time…. Helping children fall in love with nature deserves to be a top national priority, on par with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving species and wild places.
Very quickly, Sampson makes a compelling case for connecting kids to nature. Not only does a nature connection benefit the world in obvious ways (e.g., if kids have positive experiences with nature when they’re young, then they’re more likely to care about and want to preserve it when they grow up), but it also has a powerful effect on the kids themselves. A strong nature connection has direct ties to better health, enhanced creativity, a well-developed sense of responsibility and independence, and a strong social and emotional core.
(I won’t lie; he may have also won a few unintentional brownie points by mentioning and citing the perennially popular GeekDad article about the 5 best toys of all time.)
With this book, Sampson attempts to ring an alarm bell and broaden awareness about humanity’s disconnect from nature in general, to explore the process of nature connection, and to help parents and educators become nature mentors for the children in their lives.
That third goal — helping parents become nature mentors — constitutes the bulk of the book and is where it truly shines. The book begins by making the case that “wild” nature is not simply important to preserve; it’s also critical to our continued survival as a species. It turns out that wild nature, which is defined as nature not controlled by humans, has the greatest influence on connecting kids with nature (more so than domestic or technological nature).
It’s important to point out that this doesn’t necessarily mean wilderness. A backyard can be plenty wild to a preschooler, whereas older kids benefit more from a visit to a park or, yes, a trip to the wilderness. The notion of wildness changes as kids grow up.
Separate chapters are devoted to mentoring children at various ages: early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence. Sampson weaves his tapestry by layering concrete ideas for getting your kids outdoors with examples of what people are doing around the country to help facilitate that process with the 30,000-foot view of where we are as a society (and how easy it can be to get to where we need to be).
One of the greatest challenges before us, then, is ensuring equal access to resources, including healthy foods, safe neighborhoods, unpolluted environments, quality education, and access to parks and other green spaces.
Each chapter ends with a “secret for raising a wild child” and a series of nature mentoring tips, which provide realistic, practical ideas you can implement right away. For example? Invite the wild into your yard, visit your local nature institutions, become a hummingbird parent, make nature the place for adventure, and make a nature film.
Throughout, Sampson’s ideas remain (mostly) grounded in reality. He realizes that many parents might not feel entirely comfortable in nature themselves or feel confident that they have the answers to many of the questions their kids will ask. He also realizes that the demands on parents’ and kids’ time is more intense than ever, and getting outside to explore nature might not be near the top of everyone’s list. But he makes a compelling argument for how and why it should be.
He also recognizes the challenges presented by technology and urban/suburban life. For the former, there’s a way the two (nature and technology) can complement each other. But too often, the position is taken that one necessarily cancels out the other. For the latter, the truth is that the children in nature movement is largely a white, affluent movement. That needs to change, and this book is absolutely a step in the right direction.
Sampson has compiled a wealth of evidence to support his arguments, and some of the research he cites is downright startling:
- The average American child spends less than 30 minutes a day outdoors but devotes more than 7 hours a day to staring at screens.
- Children can now recognize more than 1,000 corporate logos but fewer than 10 plants native to their region.
- By the time most children enter kindergarten, they have consumed over 5,000 hours of television, which is enough time to earn a college degree.
On the surface, the challenge of getting kids into and loving nature are great. But they don’t have to be. How to Raise a Wild Child presents relatively simple steps that any parent can follow. It takes commitment, sure, but so does every other aspect of parenting.
Scott Sampson has succeeded here in being both inspirational and pragmatic. He ably sets up the challenges we face as a society and then delineates the possible solutions with such ease that you’re left chomping at the bit to get started. Individually, there is so much we can do.
And it all starts with getting our kids outside. Simple, isn’t it?
Nothing, absolutely nothing, will spark your child’s passion for nature more than your own embodies passion for the natural world.