How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature
by Scott D. Sampson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2015 352 pages $25
Many preschoolers and their parents know paleontologist Sampson as “Dr. Scott” on the television program Dinosaur Train, where he adds science commentary to the show's animated dino tales and closes each episode with this exhortation: “Get outside, get into nature and make your own discoveries.”
In How to Raise a Wild Child, Sampson provides a persuasive book-length exposition of that tagline. He makes a cogent case for the importance of cultivating a “nature connection” in children and offers thoughtful guidance on how to do so amid today's pressures of hectic, high-tech, increasingly urbanized life.
Sampson cites various studies indicating the benefits of exposure to nature, including reduced stress, stronger immunity and better concentration. Some doctors have even begun writing “park prescriptions” to encourage patients to go outdoors. “On the whole, nature is good for us, both as children and adults,” he writes, adding that we need to cultivate an emotional bond with natural settings if we are to protect them. As evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once noted: “We will not fight to save what we do not love.”
Troublingly, in recent decades kids more and more have been sequestered indoors, as fearful parents discourage unsupervised roaming and schools cut back on recess to make more time for test prep. Today American children spend more than seven hours a day, on average, in front of electronic screens, doing homework, playing games, watching TV and interacting with friends via social media.
To heal this growing rift with nature, Sampson touches on three broad themes: experience, mentoring and understanding. Experience, he emphasizes, should be frequent and hands-on; nature documentaries can only do so much, and regular forays into local green spaces are no less important than grand Yosemite adventures: “A meaningful connection with nature is forged first and foremost through firsthand, multisensory experiences, from abundant unstructured time in the backyard to weekends in the park and occasional visits to wilderness.” Mentoring, in Sampson's conception, centers on adopting the playful attitudes of children, not simply relaying information. “Being an effective mentor means becoming a coconspirator, a fellow explorer, a chaser of clues,” he writes. To promote understanding, Sampson favors focusing on big ideas, such as evolution and cosmology, showing kids that everything in nature is connected—including them. Although technology often separates kids from nature, it can also be used to build appreciation, such as with apps for bird-watching, plant identification and geocaching (using GPS for outdoor treasure hunts).
Sampson proposes making cities more nature-friendly by creating more green school yards, reintroducing native species and linking parks through networks of trails. How to Raise a Wild Child is stocked with valuable ideas and deserves attention from policy makers, educators and activists, as well as the parents of 21st-century kids.