Raising a 21st Century “Wild Child”

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I grew up in New York City, in an apartment on the 4th floor. There was no backyard, but my mom, who has always felt a deep connection to nature, made sure that I was always exposed to some form of it. Whether it was days spent in Central Park, weekend trips to the beach, or stargazing on a moonless night, nature was always around. These days, many children in the United States have little to no access to nature, and those who do spend much of their time staring at screens instead of taking in the world around them. Studies have shown that access to nature and unstructured play outdoors lowers stress levels, helps with concentration, fosters creativity and adds to a general feeling of wellbeing. Luckily, there is a movement afoot to try to get children back into nature and one of the men working to spearhead this change is Dr. Scott Sampson. You may know him as the enthusiastic paleontologist at the end of the Dinosaur Train episodes, but Dr. Scott is not just interested in the history of life on our planet, he’s interested in the future of it as well. I sat down with Dr. Scott to find out why this mission to get children reconnected with nature is of such critical importance.

– Julia Storm, Director of Production, The Mother Company

Tell me a little bit about why you are on this mission to get kids reconnected to nature?

Well I see the disconnect between kids and nature as one of the most pressing issues of our time, which sounds like hyperbole but isn’t.  If you go and ask a hundred scientists “What are the most critical issues of this moment?,” you’re going to hear answers like; climate change, species extinction and habitat destruction.  I would agree with all of those things and then I would add that you cannot solve those problems unless people care about where they live, unless they are engaged.  And why would they ever bother to care if they don’t spend any time outside engaging with nature?  So, we now have this issue that’s critical for sustainability; that is the health of the places we live.  But then on the flip side, there’s the health of the children themselves.  There is a recent Surgeon General who said that this generation of kids growing up today might be the first to have a life expectancy shorter than that of their parents. I talk about that in my book How to Raise a Wild Child.  Obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder, depression, diabetes, even myopia — there are a lot of these conditions skyrocketing in youth today. It’s not that nature is going to be a panacea and solve everything, but we know that nature addresses a lot of these issues and that it can be a powerful tool to make kids healthy.  So the fact that kids spend an average of four to seven minutes a day engaged in free play outdoors and seven to ten hours a day in front of screens, is to my mind a crisis and one that we need to address head on.

Can you tell me some of the social-emotional benefits of connecting with nature?

In terms of the social-emotional realm, there’s now abundant evidence to show that play is anything but trivial. We tend to orchestrate kids’ lives today. They do schoolwork and then go to soccer practice and then piano lessons and all of these things where they have no control over the actual process that they’re engaged in. Getting kids outside engaging in free nature play really helps them with understanding who they are and having self-control and the ability to focus on tasks for extended periods.  We often talk about play as something that we do to entertain kids, to fill in the spaces when they’re not doing the important stuff like school and homework and reading and all of that.  But it actually turns out that unstructured play, or “free play,” where kids are driving the show, is absolutely essential to growing bodies and minds.  It’s essential for kids to develop their imagination, their creativity, their social skills, their ability to think through problems, even to understand how the world works. That free play, especially for early childhood, turns out to be absolutely critical.

How can we keep our kids interested in nature as they get older?

At each age we need to respond to the longings that the child feels at that age.  And for early childhood it’s all about play – kids just want to play.  They don’t care if they know the name of the person they’re playing with.  They might ask their age but mostly they just want to be out there playing.  So abundant unstructured nature time is what they need.  Once they get to be about five to seven years old, play is part of it but it’s different. This is what I call the “age of competency,” where kids now have the ability to actually do stuff.  This is the age when around the world kids are put to work, whether they are hauling water or cutting wood, whatever that might be.  We don’t tend to do that of course in this country but kids are longing to show their competency, not just to play, but to show they are mastering something.  So you want to give kids challenges that allow them to go out and master some new thing; whether it’s going to collect rocks of different kinds, going out and picking berries, identifying different kinds of clouds or whatever it might be that strikes the kids’ fancy.  We should try to find the things that kids are passionate about and that can be the kind of thing where they come back and go, “Oh this is great!”  So I think that right around that age when kids start losing that sense of wonder, if we can play into their longing for competency, then we can keep that wonder going.

What are some of the consequences for a child, or adult once they grow up, of a life with no connection with nature?

I think we’re seeing the results of this today. Kids are losing that sense of wonder, they’re not building that imagination, they’re not using their motor skills, they’re not preparing themselves to take the risks that they will inevitably take as teens.  Teen brains are wired to take risks with their peers, and they’re not preparing for that. They’re not gaining any sense of understanding about how their world really works, they get that minimally in school.  Certainly, and maybe most importantly, children are not developing an emotional connection to where they live.  A screen looks the same in Denver or Miami as it does in Timbuktu.  So unless kids are getting out and experiencing their natural surroundings, they’re not going to develop that emotional bond.  A child that grows up with no time in nature is not going to be bonded at all to where they live, and in a sense they’ll be “place-less” in that respect.

In your book you talk about a “21st century wild child.”  What does that child look like?  

Well, it is certainly not a child that never uses technology.  The last thing that I’m trying to argue in this book is that we need to turn off all of our screens and go back to living in nature.  First of all it’s not practical and second of all it’s just not going to happen.  It’s not the best thing for a child necessarily, especially growing up in this culture.  What we need to do is balance technology and nature.  Right now our lives are overflowing with technology and depauperate in nature time.  So we need to bring in and integrate a balance and we can even use technology to help us.  For example geocaching is a great way to use GPS technology to go on a treasure hunt out in nature and find some cool thing.  And parents and kids can do this together.  You can download nature apps onto your phone and it can help you identify rocks and stars and plants and animals and clouds – all these different things you can use.  When you come back from being outside you can use computers to help you understand what you saw out there.  Especially if you used your digital camera on your phone to take pictures.  Taking pictures is another great way for kids to connect with nature.  They can go outside and you can ask kids to find something that they’ve never noticed before and take a picture of it. They can talk about it, they can go and share this in social media, they can create an essay about it, they can do a photo essay for school – all of these different elements.  So this is an opportunity to really leverage all of the technology in our lives to help us connect with the natural world.

Now having said that, there does come a time when you need to turn off the screens and experience nature.  Because it turns out that the way we experience nature is very different from the way we experience technology.  It’s a totally different kind of attention. When we’re looking at a screen, we use a very focused kind of spotlight attention, whereas it’s a much more diffuse type of attention when we’re out in nature.  We tend to open up our senses.  We hear things more, we feel things more, we smell things more as well as seeing a greater diversity of things.  So as a result, our body reacts physiologically.  We relax more, our heart rate slows down, our stress levels go down, cortisol levels and things like that.  So we get all of these benefits.

It’s a matter of finding that balance between the tech on the one side and the nature on the other side – or the screen time and the “green time” as we might call it.

What would you tell parents of kids in nature-poor areas, where there are barely any trees and playgrounds?  What should they do?

One of the problems with the nature movement now is that it’s largely a white/affluent movement.  And of course it needs to be everybody’s movement no matter what their skin color and family income.  So how do we do that?  One of the first things we can do is help kids open up their senses.  It turns out that there’s way more nature around than most of us ever realize.  So just learning to see and take notice of the clouds, and the bugs and the leaves and all of those things, is a big step.  But you are absolutely right there are some urban neighborhoods that are just impoverished when it comes to nature so what do we do in those cases?  Well it turns out gardens can be a wonderful thing; school gardens, gardens in the backyard, even if you just have a stoop where you put out a planter and plant plants that attract insects, native plants for example, or grow vegetables.  Vegetable gardens are a wonderful way for kids to really see and feel how they are connected with the natural world.  We’ve broken this equation that food equals nature even though everything we consume comes from the natural world.  One way to bridge that connection is to plant a garden so that kids can see how sun and water and soil nutrients go into making this food that they then consume.  And by the way kids are way more likely to eat vegetables when they grow them themselves.  The other thing is to plant native plants that attract native insects which attract native birds so even in your own backyard or courtyard or schoolyard, you can start to attract nature or as scientists like to call it, biodiversity.  You can attract it right there in your backyard and it’s as simple as planting some native plants.  That’s a great way to do it and every school in this country should have native plant gardens and vegetable gardens in their schoolyards.  There’s a movement afoot to do just that.

For those who’d like to take a proactive approach to getting their children re-engaged in nature, can you talk a little bit about family nature clubs?

A lot of this is driven by the Children and Nature Network.  I recommend if anyone is interested to go to the Children and Nature Network website and you’ll find a kit to start your own family nature club.  The family nature club is as simple as one family calling up another family and saying, “Hey, why don’t we go to the park next week and hang out?”  And the week after that or the month after that they might go to the museum or to a nature preserve, something like that.  So the key here is to get a bunch of adults and kids going out to do something that has to do with nature where the kids can play on their own and run around and get the freedom to do their nature play.  And the adults meanwhile can hang out with each other and talk “adult stuff,” which of course is what adults want to do anyways.  So it’s this great thing for both the kids and the adults and it turns out that if you get this kind of thing going it often goes viral. It’s just a wonderful way to get kids out into nature that wouldn’t otherwise go there at all.


Scott Sampson is a dinosaur paleontologist, science communicator, and passionate advocate for connecting people with nature. Born and raised in Vancouver, B.C., he serves as vice president of research and collections and chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He is best known as “Dr. Scott,” host and science advisor of the Emmy-nominated PBS KIDS television series Dinosaur Train, produced by the Jim Henson Company. He has published numerous scientific and popular articles, and he regularly speaks to audiences of all ages on a range of topics. Sampson is author of Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life (University of California Press, 2009) and, mostly recently, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for young kids. Check out episodes of our “Ruby’s Studio” children’s video series, along with our beautiful children’s books, apps, music and more. 


This article was originally published October 19, 2015

Posted in: Expert Advice, Health & Wellness, Science

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