Dr. Scott Sampson, a.k.a. Dr. Scott the Paleontologist on Dinosaur Train, has come out with a new book, “How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature,” filled with tips for parents, teachers, and other caregivers to help kids of all ages reconnect with nature. He will be speaking at:
I am excited to share with you an exclusive interview with Dr. Scott Sampson.
What inspired you to write this book?
One of the major crises of our time is the disconnect between people and nature. There are many great organizations in every major city in the country that are connecting people with nature, so I assumed there would be a bevy of books that describe how the process works. But when I conducted a search, I didn’t find any books that take a developmental approach, addressing the changes in nature connection as kids grow up, let alone tips for aiding the process along the way.
What is the link between nature and our kids mental, physical, and spiritual health?
We are a species that was born and raised in intimate contact with the natural world and the fact that we are utterly disconnected from nature is a very recent anomaly. This disconnect is having dramatic impacts in the health of people and the places they live. We know that getting kids out into nature has positive effects that range from reducing stress, to reducing risk of obesity and heart disease, to increasing creativity and engagement. Kids that engage in the natural world are more likely to be life long learners and care about the places they live in.
With parents being so busy and kids involved in school and other extracurricular activities, how do we squeeze nature in?
People often say to me, “How am I going to fit nature into my kids lives? We’re already so busy." I like to think of this challenge as akin to literacy; we recognize the need to teach kids to read and we put a lot of effort into it. Nature connection deserves the same kind of attention. It should not be optional, but rather a vital part of children's lives. In addition to the health of children, the health of the environment is at stake. How are we going to solve the major problems of sustainability—whether it’s climate change, habitat destruction, or species extinction—unless we care about the places we live? And why would we care if we never spend time outside? Connecting kids with nature is right on par with addressing climate change—one of the most critical crises of our time.
You refer to your own personal experiences with your daughter, Jade, mainly referring to the time you lived in Northern California. Can you tell me about the different workshops you attended?
Having Muir Beach and the Marin Headlands as my backyard was wonderful, and offered abundant nature on a daily basis. Even walking to the post box was an adventure in nature connection. In terms of opportunities for Jade, she has attended Coastal Camp in the Marin Headlands every summer for years, and we did a bird language workshop in Point Reyes with Jon Young. We had a terrific time learning how to get a grasp on bird language and to hear the things around us every day that we are missing. Jade attended Marin Country Day School, which also offers up numerous chances to connect with nearby nature.
There is an acronym referenced in your book - EMU. Can you tell me about that?
E = experience—that is, firsthand, multi sensory experience outdoors, with kids driving the interactions. For younger children this usually means unstructured play. For kids in middle childhood it might translate as the freedom to explore a nearby stream. For adolescents, it means engaging locally but also heading out into wilder places with their peers, and preferably some twenty-something leaders to keep them safe. Abundant, direct experience in wild or semi-wild places is a key element of nature connection.
M = mentoring. Here the emphasis is on parents getting kids outdoors, as well as on grown-ups valuing nature themselves. It’s about getting kids outside regularly and asking questions. Many adults worry that they need to have all the answers, but the secret is that they really don’t need to bring any answers. In fact giving answers often kills curiosity, whereas asking questions can build that sense of curiosity and wonder. So when in doubt, see what they are interested in and ask a question. The focus is having that time outdoors with your kids and valuing it. If you value the natural world, then odds are your children will too. They watch what we do more then what we say.
U = understanding. It is more important for youngsters to continually deepen their grasp of two main concepts. The first is how we are connected to everything around us—plants, animals, the air we breathe, the food we consume, the microbes on our body—through the continuous flow of matter and energy.
The second concept involves our connection through deep time. There’s an unbroken line of mothers that connects each of us through hundreds of millions of years to distant ancestors. Right now I am looking at a squirrel outside. You and I shared a common ancestor with that squirrel millions of years ago. If people come to grasp those deep connections, they tend to think of the world as full of subjects rather then objects. And we’re much more likely to build a relationship with subjects. So the key to understanding is deepening that sense of interconnectedness with the natural world.
Is it possible for technology and nature to coexist?
I’m not arguing that we unplug and turn away from technology to a time when we were more deeply connected with nature. Technology is here to stay and we are foolish to think people will abandon or minimize the use of it. The answer is embracing both technology and nature. We currently have a ton of technology in our children’s lives; 7-10 hours per day of screen time for the average American kid. What we need is to balance the screen time with green time and carve out the necessary time to connect with nature. I don’t think it’s bad that they have technology with them when they’re out there. Think about ways to use technology to engage with nature. For example, taking photographs. Ask them to look closely at something and see it in a way they’ve never seen it before. Those pictures might be used to create a photo essay, or shared with friends, or simply document kids’ adventures.
A number of apps now on the market, like iNaturalist, can be used to foster nature connection. Your child or student can become a citizen scientist by observing an animal or plant and uploading their observations with a photograph. The key is to embrace nature and technology. Having said all that, I do advocate for unplugging some of the time when outdoors, because otherwise kids are inclined to stare at screens instead of enjoying what’s around them.
What would you say to a mom who is fighting upstream against technology when their kid claims to be the only one at school that doesn't have technology?
There’s no easy way to tell a child that they can’t have technology when all their friends do. That child is never going to say they’re not interested in technology. They’re surrounded by it at school. One thing you can do is explain why you don’t embrace technology, though this may fall on deaf ears. Another strategy is to show what you do value. If you value nature, then spend time outside with your child. I have never heard an adult say “I wish my parents hadn’t taken me outside so much.”
At first, kids who haven’t had much time outside may say that nature is boring, that there’s nothing going on. But that’s because they aren’t seeing and experiencing what’s really there. They need to build their sensory abilities. So you may have to come up with games and tricks to ignite their interest. In my book, I talk about being a "Coyote Mentor," where you are not overtly teaching kids but rather engaging them with nature in such a way that they don’t even know they’re learning. If you play games to engage with nature and show them how to fuel the fire through various activities, it won’t be long before they say they want to be out in nature. And sometimes they’ll want to venture off a ways on their own. Give them that unsupervised opportunity, that freedom and autonomy to just enjoy themselves. Kids crave time away from grown ups, time when they get todiscover themselves.
I find it ironic that kids have this giant unsafe world in their homes through technology and yet parents do not allow them the autonomy to be independent outside because of “Stranger Danger” fears when we actually live in a much safer world then ever. Abductions are less, kids wear safety gear on bikes and skateboards, cars are safer, etc.
Today many kids reach puberty with barely an unsupervised moment. Compare this situation with the norm just a generation ago, when parents encouraged kids to head out on their own or with friends on a daily basis. Now think about the impact that this indoor, supervised life is having on kids. Yes, there are many obstacles to getting kids outdoors, among them fear of strangers and busy schedules. Studies show that the countries which assign the least homework are often the highest achieving academically and that children thrive best in these systems. We overload our kids with homework and activities and don’t give them time to simply to be kids. For kids in early childhood, unstructured play is what they are built to do. All you have to do is watch a five year old at a playground with other kids; within minutes they’re all playing and creating games.
As the chief curator of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, are you working on programs to bring the museum out and into nature?
One initiative we have recently launched involves connecting underserved communities with nature by working with them where they live. We plan to co-create programs that include service learning for youths in their own communities, as well as opportunities to get experiences up in the mountains. I know that there are many kids in Marin City who have never been to the ocean, even though they can walk there. The same is true in Denver, where a huge proportion of inner city kids have never been to the mountains.
The biggest initiative I am working on right now involves collaborating with multiple organizations to leverage all the good work of each into something much bigger. Today, although every major city in the U.S. has dozens of organizations doing great work connecting children with nature, a strong argument can be made that we’re more disconnected from nature than we’ve ever been. Despite all our best efforts, we’re only reaching a small percentage of kids who need this connection. This situation needs to change. The way to do that is not just to create more organizations, but to collaborate with multiple organizations so as to leverage each other’s unique assets—kind of like tools on a Swiss Army Knife—so that we can accomplish big things that none of us can do alone. In Denver, we’re working to set a national example for connecting an urban population with nature.
What are you hoping to gain from this book?
I hope it motivates people to realize that connecting kids with nature is easy, that anyone can do it. Just step outside, breathe and notice the world. Point out the clouds, animals, trees, and you’ll quickly find that you and your kids are engaging with nature. The other important thing is to build a sense of wonder. All kids have it to start, but we tend to beat it out of them during middle childhood. By the time they hit high school, they typically don’t relate science to the natural world; the two have been severed. If we can foster wonder, ask questions, inspire, tell stories, get kids to tell their stories about their experiences; then very quickly we’ll find that we’re connecting our kids to nature with minimal time commitment. Through the book’s website, raiseawildchild.com, I’m challenging parents to commit to getting their kids outside for 30 minutes, three days a week.
Can you talk about the storytelling component you discuss in your book?
We humans learn though narratives and metaphors, often expressed through stories. For nature connection, two kinds of stories are most important:
1. First are the stories that kids tell us. Sometimes children struggle to tell stories, so we can help by asking questions. Pulling stories out of kids in this way can transform a simple outing into a meaningful, memorable event, one they may just retell throughout their life.
2. The second kind of story are those we tell to children. These stories can come from books, from something cool in the media, or, most powerful of all, from our own personal experience. We are part of the last generation to grow up connected to nature. What’s going to happen a generation from now if parents don’t have these stories? The chances of fostering that nature connection will be even more remote. The narratives you tell might entail catching a lizard, or jumping in a creek. Feature adventures that were fun, and convey the passion that you felt as a kid. Motivate that sense of curiosity and wonder and then challenge them to go out and have some of these adventures themselves.
Did you have a favorite toy as a child?
It would have to be sticks. I was always carrying a stick, hitting stuff, dragging the stick along the ground, or imagining it as a cane or a telescope or a sword. I worry when parents say things like, “Put that stick down, don’t climb trees, stay on the trail, don’t run.” Let kids engage with nature. Nature connection is a contact sport and both kids and nature can take it. We need to be safe and set boundaries, but within those boundaries, let the kids run free and have a great time.
Dr. Scott the Paleontologist from Dinosaur Train would say, “Remember, get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!” What’s your next discovery going to be?
I’m about to head off on a national speaking tour to support the release of my book, which will be exciting. But what I am most excited about is the collaborative work I’m doing in Denver to help connect large numbers of kids with nature. Oh, and I’m still doing Dinosaur Train. I have to say—it’s been an odd transition going from simply a scientist to "Dr. Scott the Paleontologist.” It’s like an alter ego, but I have a great time doing it. The show is now airing in over 100 countries and going strong.
Dr. Scott Sampson is a paleontologist, host of the hit PBS show Dinosaur Train and chief curator of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. He will be speaking at Books Inc. in Palo Alto, March 31 at 7pm and Book Passage in Corte Madera April 1st at 7pm. Connect with him at on his blog The Whirlpool of Life and on Twitter at @DrScottSampson.