By Hilary Levey Friedman
I’d never heard of Scott D. Sampson, but a few weeks ago he changed my parenting after I read his newly released book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. How did this happen? He convinced me that I need to be a nature mentor to my kids.
As it turns out, I actually have heard of Sampson before, because he is “Dr. Scott” on the PBS Kids show “Dinosaur Train.” As he writes in How to Raise a Wild Child, “For preschoolers, the marriage of dinosaurs and trains is like mixing chocolate and peanut butter—almost irresistible.” But this is not a book about a TV show. Not even close. The PBS show is only mentioned in the Preface and for about 10 pages in Chapter 9 when discussing balancing nature and technology. However the tagline Dr. Scott delivers at the end of each episode encapsulates the primary thesis in How to Raise a Wild Child: “Get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!”
I have the “make your own discoveries” part down, but the first two steps to get outside and get into nature are much harder. I could give a lot of different excuses (allergies as a kid, being the child of a single mom who herself isn’t a nature lover, etc.) but the truth is that I just don’t like to get dirty. But as a parent I know kids get dirty. And I know that to understand the natural world, develop independence and safe risk-taking, and appreciate the diversity of our planet and others, outdoor play is important. Moreover, if I ever needed more evidence that outside play burns off energy I only need to recall the multitude of snow days from this past winter’s epic eight feet.
While many have written about the importance of nature in our lives, and especially for children, until How to Raise a Wild Child no one had delved into the nature connection, let alone process changes in this connection as children age from early childhood to adolescence. Given Sampson’s science background (he has a PhD and gave up tenure in order to bring science education to the masses), he is also the first to synthesize academic research on the nature connection across a wide range of disciplines—from psychology to paleontology to education to engineering.
In addition to harvesting a variety of research to make his case that nature connection is vital to the healthy development of individuals, communities, and the world, Sampson devotes the majority of his book to offering practical, no-nonsense, and helpful advice to parents, educators, and anyone else who can serve as a nature mentor to kids. For example, at the end of each of the ten substantive chapters, Sampson summarizes with one “Secret for Raising a Wild Child,” followed by a variety of specific nature mentoring tip, including recommendations for other books to consult. Chapter 2 offers up Secret #2 for Raising a Wild Child as, “Children will tend to value what you value, so start noticing nature yourself, taking a few minutes each day to become more aware of the other-than-human world around you.” And Chapter 3 suggests kids start “sit spotting” nature (a spot to regularly visit several times per week for 30 minutes to record the sounds and sights and smells of nature), offering the book What the Robin Knows as a helpful guide.
In addition to practical tips, Sampson offers practical observation. In How to Be a Wild Child he writes that it is far too simplistic to blame technology for decreased nature connection, also citing parental fear factor of abduction, fear of litigation, overscheduling, and the rise of urban living.
But don’t let his practical insights make you think he’s not offering deep insight. Sampson discusses the three roles a successful nature mentor must take on: teacher, questioner, and trickster. But it’s the last two that really matter. He explains that, “When a child asks a question and you know the answer, it’s natural to want to share it. Providing the answer makes us feel good and we presume that kids really want to know. But this inclination can lead us astray. Often times, our response ends the interaction by cutting off curiosity. Counterintuitively, children are often looking for our engagement more than our answers, hoping that the focus of their attention will become ours too.” He also suggests that when we pose questions to kids about 70% of them should be easy, 25% medium, and 5% hard. Of course this is all helpful advice for most any parenting situation and not just those that have to do with nature….
For such a thoughtful, well-researched, and useful book, my biggest complaint about How to Raise a Wild Child is that the epilogue, an imagined acceptance speech by a young nature lover, was not a worthy end. A much better conclusion to the book begins on page 278, summarizing his findings and advice, while also pointing toward schoolyards and playgrounds as a way to promote thrivability.
This weekend I know we’ll be getting out into nature both days—and I hope to hone my nature mentor skills as we thaw out into glorious spring (and save a Dinosaur Train episode for a snow day next year).
Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child, and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.