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 (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), and now as Nature Rocks’ first Program Ambassador.
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.”
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!