BOOK REVIEW: How to Raise a Wild Child, by Scott Sampson (and giveaway)

Last year I had the fortune of reading a draft of a forthcoming book about connecting children to nature. Geared toward mentors – be they parents, teachers, or other adults in a child’s life – this book captured for me a wonderfully blended mixture of nature experience how-tos, succinct overviews of relevant research about nature connection, and personal anecdotes about growing up with a love of nature and passing that on to the next generation. The author is none other than everyone’s favorite dinosaur expert, Dr. Scott Sampson of PBS Kids’ program Dinosaur Train. While a practicing paleontologist and museum administrator, Sampson also advocates for getting kids outside (and “making their own discoveries”) through the television program, through social media (FacebookTwitter, and Instagram), and now as Nature Rocks’ first Program Ambassador.

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Scott Sampson, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), 352 pp.

Publisher’s description American children spend four to seven minutes a day playing outdoors—90 percent less time than their parents did. Yet recent research indicates that experiences in nature are essential for healthy growth. Regular exposure to nature can help relieve stress, depression, and attention deficits. It can reduce bullying, combat illness, and boost academic scores. Most critical of all, abundant time in nature seems to yield long-term benefits in kids’ cognitive, emotional, and social development. Yet teachers, parents, and other caregivers lack a basic understanding of how to engender a meaningful, lasting connection between children and the natural world. How to Raise a Wild Child offers a timely and engaging antidote, showing how kids’ connection to nature changes as they mature. Distilling the latest research in multiple disciplines, Sampson reveals how adults can help kids fall in love with nature—enlisting technology as an ally, taking advantage of urban nature, and instilling a sense of place along the way.

There are many books on the topic of children and nature – do we really need another? I think so. In his introduction, Sampson lays out the goals of his book:

– to raise awareness about the disconnect between children and nature
– to explore the process of nature connection
– to help parents and educators become nature mentors

Through ten chapters Sampson does all this and provides a wealth of stories from his own life and folks across the country who are working to make nature part of the everyday lives of children. Sampson believes that “[m]any more kids need to experience a bootfull of pollywogs.” And I don’t think he means this in a literal sense. While not every kid will have the opportunity to put on some rubber boots and wade into a pond a little too deep so as to let the pond water full of metamorphosing frogs fill up the boots (Sampson did when he was a young child, with his mother and close to home), it is an experience like this – personal, triggering one’s senses, and perhaps a little dirty – that will leave an impression on a young child.

As a parent who gets his own two kids outside on a regular basis, trying to instill in my son and daughter a love for nature as much as I can, I know that How to Raise a Wild Child was not written for me. While I have a lot to learn about the natural world myself, it is the act of exploring in nature with a child, asking questions and seeking out answers, that makes a parent, educator, or other adult in a child’s life a successful mentor. This book is for those who wish to become mentors, or perhaps those who have never thought about doing so and just might come across Sampson’s book at a store or library (or even better, receive it as a gift).

In chapter 1, Sampson takes on the task of defining nature (wild vs. domestic vs. technological nature) and asking why humans need nature in their lives (what are its natural benefits?). He addresses the lack of nature connection in today’s youth, and describes how, in centuries and decades past, learning about “natural history” and perhaps even being a “naturalist” was part of everyday life for Americans. (As a student of history myself, I appreciated Sampson’s quick romp through the role of nature study in American history; see here for some books specifically on that topic.) He notes that while visiting large wilderness places (like national parks) are a great thing to do, more frequent visits to wild places closer to home will leave a deeper impact on kids. The chapter ends, as they all do, with a short list of “Nature Mentoring Tips,” ideas that prospective mentors can do with their children or students to foster nature connection.

Chapter 2 looks at the notion of place and living in proximity to nature. Sampson describes traits of humanity that allow for adaptability in different environments: large brains, prolonged childhoods, and ability to collaborate with others. Humans had to know nature in their environments in order to survive. This natural knowledge became ingrained in us as a species (and since lost in a majority of the species). But that connection remains, even if suppressed by modern distractions and responsibilities. Sampson shares his idea for a Topophilia Hypothesis – it proposes that “humans possess an innate bias to bond with local wildlife and landscape, inherited from our foraging forebears.” Again, he stresses that for the development of children, regular experiences in nature near home are more powerful than periodic trips to wilderness areas. And those experiences are often best when accompanied by an adult engaged in “playful, side-by-side exploration” and unstructured time outdoors with an understanding of big ideas about the world we live in.

Sampson describes how to be a nature mentor in chapter 3. I don’t want to share too much from this chapter, except that Sampson hits on something I’ve always known when out and about with my kids: mentors “are not the people with all the answers.” I am not a biologist, and although I have a strong passion about science and the natural world, I don’t know everything about what my kids and I see when we’re out exploring. And that’s okay. Asking questions and thinking of the big picture is more important, as well as knowing where to seek out the answers.

Chapters 4 and 5 address some of the big ideas that mentors should know about and be able to share with the children they are helping to connect to nature: ecology and evolution. Falling in love with nature depends on “felt encounters,” and Sampson wonders why, growing up in the northwest, learning about the water cycle never involved actually stepping outside of the classroom and feeling part of it. The best place to teach kids about the ecology of the natural world is in it, but Sampson notes that “public education in North America today is still geared toward control, obedience, and self-restraint much more than engagement, inspiration, and empowerment.” We are a part of nature, and connected in a variety of ways to the other life and physical environments around us, and teaching about nature should reflect this embedded relationship. He describes some ways that ecological topics are taught in engaging ways, such as forest kindergartens and school gardens. While ecology is about relationships, evolution provides the story – a multi-billion year narrative of the history of life on our planet, and where humans fit in the tree of life. Not only are we connected to nature through our actions toward it, but by sharing common ancestry with all the other organisms we share this planet with. Going even further, we are connected to the universe because, as Carl Sagan popularized, we are indeed “star stuff” – the atoms in our bodies were forged in stars billions of years ago. Sampson says, “Alongside the horizontal connections viewed through the temporal snapshot of ecology, evolution offers us vertical, transformational roots in deep time. Whereas ecology addresses how nature works at any given moment, evolution focuses on how nature came to be.”

About one-third of the book, chapters 6, 7, and 8, covers the differences in connecting different age children to nature – young children (2-6), middle childhood (6-11), and adolescents. Young children are natural born scientists, and play is learning. Open-ended play with loose parts that can be found outside fosters imagination and the use of the body. (Never underestimate the power of a stick for play!) And getting dirty outside actually benefits young children’s health in the long run. For kids in middle childhood, having a sense of independence and freedom in nearby nature, such as a neighborhood creek, is crucial. This is also the age where kids become overscheduled, overprotected, and over-screened, so it becomes difficult to provide kids with the time and freedom to explore on their own. A solution, says Sampson, is to plan for family time in the outdoors, but to allow some freedom on such outings for kids to take some risks. For adolescents, connecting to nature means connecting with peers on riskier and longer outings in nature – rites of passage. Also, volunteering in environmental projects are a great tool for this age group.

The topic of technology and nature is addressed in chapter 9. Since technologies will be everywhere – they are not going to disappear – mentors need to know how to best utilize technologies for nature connection. While learning is best when we engage with all of our senses, technologies minimize the number of senses used. So, a balance between technology and nature is needed. Smartphones can be used for geocaching, photography, natural history identification, citizen science projects, or using Google Sky Map to see what that planet showing in the evening sky is. All good things, but crucial to keep it to a minimum. The gadget is a tool, not the experience. Take a picture, look up a bird, then put the phone down. “The quintessential 21st Century digital naturalist may once again carry binoculars in her backpack,” says Sampson. “But the pen and notebook will be long gone, as will the guidebooks. In their place will be a single hand-held digital device with built-in phone, camera, video, magnifying glass, and various field guides, ranging from plants and animals to rocks and stars, making identifications a cinch.”

In his final chapter, Sampson discusses connecting to nature in urban environments. From seeding cities with native plants and putting nature back into schools to providing nature programs to the underserved and putting parks within an easy walk from peoples’ homes, the idea of rewilding cities is growing. And the folks behind such efforts will be nature mentors of all varieties.

Want to connect kids to nature, and not sure how to go about it? Picking up How to Raise a Wild Child is a great start. Read it under a tree. And take Sampson’ advice: “Get used to dirt.”

On Sampson’s new website for the book, you can find a list of 10 nature mentoring tips and details about a current photo contest. And finally, here’s a nice little video made to promote the book:

The giveaway:

To enter for a chance to win a copy of How to Raise a Wild Child (courtesy of the publisher), please comment on this post telling me about a favorite nature experience from your life. From the entries I will randomly pick a winner. The contest will be open until Monday, April 6, midnight PST. If you would like to enter without commenting on the blog, you can send me an email at darwinsbulldog AT gmail DOT com. Good luck!

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18 Responses to BOOK REVIEW: How to Raise a Wild Child, by Scott Sampson (and giveaway)

  1. Megan says:

    Some of my favorite memories of childhood are of those hours spent in the woods with my sisters and cousins exploring “new” lands and creating our own world. Funny, but I don’t remember any grown-ups being a part of our expeditions. Now as a mother, I am making sure that my kids have the time and space to do the same (and sometimes they even let me tag along).

  2. My favorite childhood memories are of staying with my Grandparents who lived in the woods. We were free to explore the woods, play in the creek, and catch crawdads. I loved hunting for fossils and other special rocks with my sister and cousins. Now I love to take my children out to walk in the creek near our home and go rock hunting and see them try to catch crawdads. There is nothing that compares to spending your days in the wild.

  3. Molly says:

    This sounds so ideal for my delightful wild children! I’m always trying to learn ways to nurture their natural proclivities, and my four-year-old daughter is absolutely in love with animals and dirt and my two-year-old son shouts, “Outsie! Outsiiiiie!” all the time. We live along the Mississippi in Minnesota’s bluff country.

    For myself, I grew up in Tennessee in the valley of some fantastic mountains. We had a field next to our house (an empty lot that our neighbor loved for us to play in) and woods at the end of the street. My father took me on walks down there all the time. We were allowed to romp quite often solo, so my sister and I would play at living on the prairie and searching for fossils and all kinds of other imaginative play.

    We were quieter kids than my own; I married into some serious mountain goats, and I love it. They get a drive for curiosity from both sides of the family and we try to get them outside as much as we can, regardless of depth of snow!

  4. Sue Penix says:

    Hi, my name is Sue and I grew up in Baltimore City, every Sunday my family would take a walk in the woods a few blocks away from the house. My fondest memories are of my Dad gently turning over rocks and logs to show us kids the bugs and salamanders, he would let us hold them and talk to us about what they were. We would gently return them to their home. He encouraged us to sit quietly and listen to the sounds of the woods and we would try and guess what the sounds were. I grew to appreciate nature through my Dad, and found that I would take my own sons when they were young to the woods to explore and find natures creatures. This has carried over into my work with inner city child care programs, I am constantly encouraging providers to take the children out of doors, to bring nature into their programs. I have begun a “Little Explorer’s Club” where I take artifacts into programs so these children who would not have an opportunity to experience items found in the woods can have an opportunity to explore and hold them. I also read stories about animals, trees, birds, frogs, etc to the in the programs I work with. If the program is willing I have them meet me at a local park to explore nature first hand. It is so rewarding to see the children’s faces light up when they climb over a log, turn over a stone to look for creatures. All of this stems from my Dad and his love of nature and how he guided us to explore the outside world.

  5. Erika says:

    Excited to read this. My favorite memories growing up are hiking & camping and I hope I can help my son create his own memories and a solid connection to nature. My dad would point out the names of the plants as we hiked (he was a botany/forestry major). I loved learning the names so I could identify them myself the next time – knowing their names made them more special to me.

  6. Kaleigh says:

    One of my favorite nature experiences was hiking with my dad in the Rocky Mountains during my teen years. I remember being so proud of scaling some high mountains at a young age. My dad would point out animals and plants or we would look out over incredibly beautiful views. I hope to do the same with my son!

  7. Margot peek says:

    Scrambling over rocks, catching blue-bellied lizards, following goat trails, racing to the top and to the bottom in an attempt to be the best “trail finder”…growing up In The high desert of the Sierra Nevadas afforded all of this and more!

  8. Liz says:

    When I was a kid we would take weeks-long camping road trips to state and national parks every summer. I loved the hours spent exploring unfamiliar trails and swimming in lakes and rivers. My sisters and I would spend hours roaming the area and making friends with the kids from neighboring campsites. I can’t wait to give my daughter the same experience!

  9. Kelly says:

    So many memories of being a “Wild Child”! I never saw the connection until I got older and had kids of my own! Being apart of nature/the environment is how we PLAYED. Swimming in waterholes with frogs, canoeing to a small island in the middle of a lake, collecting crayfish in the river, wearing my bathing suit in the rain, looking for elves in the woods, walking in a snowstorm, crossing a frozen lake, smokin by waterfalls, diving into ocean waves and hiking to the top every mountain in my way. One of my favorites though is seeing shooting stars in the sky in upstate NY!

  10. Mark Lind says:

    I learned to love the outdoors at summer camp- a great break from the Eastern urban environment where I was raised. Later, as I gained my independence, I’ve gone on to seek a deeper connection to Nature as a regular part of my lifestyle.

  11. Grace says:

    The first nature memory that came to mind happened just this morning. One of the classes at the preschool where I work was visiting the school garden, and I was there to assist the garden specialist as needed. Not much is growing in the beds yet, but I saw some dandelions growing along the garden’s edge and decided to pick and eat a leaf.

    A two-year-old boy saw me and seemed interested in imitating me. I tore off a teeny-tiny piece of dandelion leaf for him, expecting him to spit it out as soon as he tasted the bitterness… but he ate it and said he liked it! We spent the next few minutes feeding each other pieces of dandelion leaf.

  12. Carla G. says:

    I love exploring nature with mid kids. Seed dispersal is fun, watching cattails, milkweed, and dandelions drift off in the wind!

  13. taryn oakley says:

    Sounds like a great book!
    I guess my favorite nature experience (as a child) is not one particular experience, but just my favorite thing to do outside as a child. We would play outside all day every day during the summer. One of my friends lived at the end of a development with lots of woods around her home. We would play out in those woods for hours and hours— making forts, deciding which plants made good toilet paper, turning over rocks to look for bugs. We had our own little homestead of sorts out there, and there were no adults to interfere or tell us to stop getting dirty or to be careful. We were in charge of ourselves and we did what felt right.
    I miss those days and that place. Today, I am sure it is filled in with houses and those woods probably no longer exist. I wish that I could give my children that experience, but we live in a city lot and there are no woods outside our front door.
    We do go into nature a lot, but I think, as a child, having that “alone” time in nature, without parents looking over your shoulder, is so important.
    thanks for the chance!

  14. Erika says:

    The Blizzard of ’94 was brutal. I was 12. My dad had given me an old army belt that had all sorts of pockets and canisters attached. After filling it with snacks and water, we hiked several miles up to an abandoned rock quarry. I don’t remember being cold. Not even in the slightest. I just remember standing at the top of the quarry, peering down to the bottom, which had a thick layer of ice covering it. I don’t remember seeing any color. It was incredible. It was like I was inside an Ansel Adams print. The dormant trees shot out of the ground like black lightning. It was an incredible stark contrast to the sugary snow, coating everything it could cling to. I don’t remember hearing anything. The sound of silence the snow created still resonates within my adult ears. I remember how much in awe I was, seeing the lack of color, hearing the lack of sound. I can only describe it as surreal…although even that word isn’t able to effectively communicate what feelings I experienced. I never could’ve been moved like that if it weren’t for nature, and my father’s love for it.

  15. Amanda says:

    I have and continue to create great memories with my son walking in the woods and talking.

  16. Dan Human says:

    Though I look back among my outdoor adventures, like thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail or climbing the Adirondack 46 High Peaks, my favorite moments are closer to home. As a dad to an adventurous toddler, watching him discover the outdoors on our hikes, rekindled my own sense of wonder.

  17. Jeanne says:

    Wow, how do I pick just ONE!! Probably the most loved adventure was learning to keep a nature journal at age 50! I had never thought I could actually draw something that resembled anything….definitely surprised myself!

  18. darwinsbulldog says:

    Thank you everyone for sharing some memorable moments in nature. The giveaway deadline ended last night, and out of the 17 entries I received, the random winner is Dan. I sent you an email Dan asking for your mailing address. Congrats and thank you all for participating!

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