by Jennifer Johnson – Many parents of young children are familiar with Dr. Scott Sampson, better known as ‘Dr. Scott,’ a paleontologist from the PBS show ‘Dinosaur Train.’ Dr. Scott always ends each show with the tagline: “Get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!” and earlier this spring backed up this charge with the publication of his book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. I had the opportunity to review the book for my website, The Hiker Mama, and was able to interview Dr. Scott while he was in Seattle for a promotional appearance.
Dr. Sampson begins “How to Raise a Wild Child” by talking about the alarming decline in time children spend in nature. He discusses how humans are historically connected to nature, and utilizes 10 “secrets” for fostering children’s love of the outdoors, breaking down what nature connection looks like at different stages of development.
Sampson also addresses obstacles parents face in the back-to-nature movement, and reminds readers that while parents should lead the way outside, they should also step back and let their kids explore.
Jennifer Johnson: What do you suggest for parents like me with [tweens and teens] who are starting to pull away from [nature] in favor of technology. I’d love to hear if you have the same challenge with your daughter and how you deal with that.
Scott Sampson: Yeah, well first off, the last thing I’m arguing is that we should go back to nature and unplug entirely, but I do think we need to embrace a future that is both techno and nature-rich. Sometimes technology can be used to leverage time outside, like geocaching – looking for treasures using technology, and that’s one way a lot of adolescent males get excited about getting out into nature. Digital photographs, downloading apps to your phone that you can use to identify things, but I would say that the thing that is going to be most successful with adolescents and nature is to come up with activities that allow them to challenge themselves and take risks, whether it’s skiing or snowshoeing or hiking, or climbing. That’s what they’re looking for.
JJ: One of the threads that you have going through the book is this interplay between experience, mentoring and understanding. Can you talk about that a little bit?
SS: I’ve put forward a lot of ideas in the book. One of my favorites is Family Nature Clubs, where you get two or more families, and you just say, “Hey, listen, let’s get together once in awhile, on a weekend or an afternoon, and the adults get to hang out and talk adult talk, and the kids get to hang out and do their thing”. I just love the metaphor of being a hummingbird parent rather than a helicopter parent. Give kids the space, zoom in when you’re needed, which isn’t very often, and then zoom back out to the periphery, and increase the distance between you and them as they get older, because they need that autonomy. If we’re doing that as parents and nature mentors, we’re going to be doing great things.
JJ: It’s hard as a mom to let that go, and to let them get scraped up and all that.
SS: It is! The thing is, clothes can be washed, cuts heal, and we have to remind ourselves that if we’re not letting kids take risks, what are we risking as a result? And I would argue that if we don’t let kids take risks and learn how their bodies work, that they are going to take those risks as teenagers. So better to have them prepared by having experienced it firsthand themselves. There’s data to back this up. If you let kids play in natural areas with logs and balancing and everything, it turns out that their coordination, their balance, their agility, all these things improve, so that later on as teens when they go to take these risks, they’ll be better able to cope because they had the chance to do them when they were young. If we protect our kids too much, we may actually be making it more difficult for them later.
JJ: Can you tell me more about what the adult mentoring part looks like with you or with other people that do it well?
SS: One of the things I emphasize is this: If adults don’t value nature, it’s pretty unlikely kids will. So one way to get your kid to be a nature kid, a wild child, is for you to start valuing it. And it can be as simple as stepping out the front door and stopping and just standing there for 10 seconds and taking in what’s around you. What do the clouds look like? Can you hear any birds? What does the grass feel like? And if you do that, and if kids see you doing that, they’re more likely to value it, too. The other thing I recommend for adults is to think about finding an activity to do outdoors in nature (if you don’t have one). It doesn’t have to be something you do all the time, but something that you’re passionate about that you could take a kid along with you sometimes. The last thing you can try is just starting new habits. We created a website in association with the book called raiseawildchild.com. On the website, I encourage parents to take the Wild Child 30×3 Nature Challenge, and by that I mean, pledge to get your kids outside at least 3 times a week, for 30 minutes each time. It’s just like an exercise program or starting to lose weight. If you start too big, you’re going to fail. So start small. Make it a part of your life. Look for the changes in your life. And then increase it over time. And once again, if you do that, if you create that habit in your life, not only will it be a great thing for you, but you’ll be showing a value to children in your life that nature matters, that nature is a place to go to find refuge and to relax. Kids that have a deep nature connection turn out to be much better able to cope with stress later in life, because they know if they just go outside and chill out for a bit, they can reset the clock, and then go back inside and start again.
Jennifer Johnson escapes into nature with her two kids whenever their homeschooling schedule allows. She’s written articles for Seattle-based magazines ParentMap and AdventuresNW. Follow her family’s adventures at www.thehikermama.com.