So you listened to episode 58 and you’re convinced of the benefits of outdoor play. But you’re a grown-up. You don’t play outdoors. And you don’t know anything about nature. How can you possibly get started in helping your child to play outdoors more?
There are a number of books out there on getting outside with children – some arguably more well-known than this one, but I have to say that Dr. Scott Sampson’s book How to Raise a Wild Child is the BEST book I’ve seen on this topic because it balances just the right amount of information on why it’s important to get outside, with just enough pointers on how to do it, without overwhelming you with hundreds of options to choose between. And it turns out that you don’t need to know a thing at all about The Environment to have a successful outing with children!
If you’ve been wishing you could get outdoors more but just don’t know where to start, then this episode – and book! – are for you.
Other shows referenced in this episode058: What are the benefits of outdoor play?Dr. Scott Sampson's BookHow to raise a wild child - Affiliate link
Gopnik, A. (2009). The philosophical baby: What children’s minds tell us about truth, love, and the meaning of life. New York, NY: Picador.
Sampson, S.D. (2015). How to raise a wild child: The art and science of falling in love with nature. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. (Affiliate link)
Young, J., Haas, E., & McGown, E. (2010). Coyote’s guide to connecting with nature. OWLink Media.
Jen: [00:38] Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. For those of you who get my fortnightly newsletter, which you can receive by subscribing to the show YourParentingMojo.com, you know that I have a bit of a penchant for the outdoors. I went on a 10 day backpacking trip across North Cascades National Park in September, and I’m trying to pass on my love of the outdoors to my daughter, most of our newsletters have a photo at the top and pretty often they go out with an image of her sitting in a stream or clambering over boulders or up to her thighs and a pond wearing waders, of course. And so today we’re going to talk with Dr Scott Sampson, the author of how to raise a wild child, the art and science of falling in love with nature, which I have to say is the best book I’ve read on this topic in terms of balancing information about the science of children in nature with a not overwhelming number of actions that parents can take to raise a wild child. Dr Sampson has the honor of being the first paleontologist we’ve interviewed on this show. He earned both his master’s in anthropology and a phd in zoology from the University of Toronto. He’s currently the president and CEO of Science World British Columbia, which is a pretty cool hands on science museum in Vancouver. And if his name sounds familiar to the parents of preschoolers, it’s because he also hosts the PBS kids series dinosaur train. I’m so excited to discuss this topic that’s so close to my heart. Welcome Dr Sampson.
Dr. Sampson: [01:56] Thank you very much, Jen. Nice to be honest.
Jen: [01:58] All right, so let’s start with the science. You and your book site a raft of studies describing the really profound shift in children’s leisure time. That’s happened over the last 50 years or so. Can you briefly, if possible, summarize 50 years worth of literature and why does it matter that our children don’t spend as much time outside now as they used to?
Dr. Sampson: [02:18] Oh, let’s start with the first question and then we’ll go to the second one on the reason why this is important, so I wrote How to Raise a Wild Child because after doing a lot of thinking and research and talking with people, it just became clear to me that there was this dire need to reconnect kids with nature that over a single generation we’d gone from basically a free range childhood to an indoor migration that has limited children’s ability to be outside and the end result of this has been a health crisis for children and the places that they live. That one US surgeon general said not so long ago that this generation of children could be the first to have a life expectancy is shorter than that of their parents. We have these runaway conditions, obesity, attention deficit disorder, diabetes, depression, even conditions like Myopia and not only is the incidents of these conditions increasing, but they’re moving earlier and earlier into childhood and so that’s the health of children and then when you think about sustainability and moving towards, you know, a thriving green future, the reality is why would we ever become sustainable if we don’t care about where we live and why would we care if we never spend any time outside. A screen looks the same in Vancouver or Miami or Timbuktu as anywhere else.
Dr. Sampson: [03:42] So we have this need to reconnect kids with nature and bringing back these childhoods that had a lot of green time instead of just the screen time that we’re getting today. So that is the why. Then going to the science – in reading about this, I was struck that this nature connection was this pressing issue. So I said, well, “where’s the research on this?” It turns out there’s a lot. Most of it is actually over the past 15 years since this has become a real issue, sort of 15 to 20, but there is a lot of scientific literature and it’s growing every week, but as I looked around I saw that there was no general audience book that had put this information together and summarized it for parents and teachers and other caregivers. So that’s what I attempted to do with How to Raise a Wild Child.
Jen: [04:34] Yeah, and it was really that balance of what does the research say plus the practicality that spoke to me in the books very well. We’ll get more to the practicality in a minute, but I want to touch on something that you mentioned there about people caring about where they live and I had been doing a lot of thinking as I’m doing a masters in education at the moment and in the course of doing that, I’ve been thinking about place-based learning and the idea that you couldn’t really care about a place where you spend time outside if you do engage in outdoor-based activities and it was just thinking about things like the decline of rural towns where people move away from them because they don’t have any job opportunities there because the children are told they have to go to college to be successful and so they move away and then they don’t want to come back. And you know, there aren’t any companies there with viable jobs. And so I realized this is a bit off topic here, but what I realized is that really having this connection to a place can be an enormous factor in saving these small towns. The idea that getting to know a place intimately and learning about it both in school and in life, do you see that same connection?
Dr. Sampson: [05:40] I absolutely do, and you hit on a topic about which I am deeply passionate. In fact, I’ve begun work on a book about place based learning and so I think that it is one of the major directions and education to move in that right now, the primary model of education – of course there’s a great diversity of education types out there, but the primary model, that sort of industrial model of education is really all about standardization. It’s about standardized testing. It’s about everybody being evaluated across the board in the same way and when you think about that, it’s the antithesis of place-based education and it makes sense that place based education would struggle to gain a foothold within a system like this because everything that’s taught in school works against a specific knowledge of place, and it’s all about knowing these general things that you can regurgitate on a test and yes, there’s a lot of evidence to back up the fact that learning real, true engaged learning, is best when it is hands on.
Dr. Sampson: [06:50] This experiential and the place that we have these experiences is where we live. So right now the average kid leaves school at the end of the day and they don’t see anything that they’ve learned in the environment that they spend most of their lives in. Whether it’s science or art or social studies or you name it. They don’t really see that in place because they’re learning these topics from textbooks. They’re learning about how these topics affect faraway places, not their own place. So the notion of place-based education. People like David Sobel have really documented and written about the potential power of this kind of learning to deeply engage children and in particular, I think for me it comes down almost to one word and that word is wonder. All children are born with this deep sense of wonder and all you have to do is watch a baby crawling around to get it, but all children have this and by the time they’re six, most kids still have it intact, but by the time they get to be about 11 or 12 for many children, that sense of wonder is diminished and in some cases virtually gone and certainly by the teen years, learning is kind of a drag and that sense of wonder just isn’t there for the most part, at least when it comes to education.
Dr. Sampson: [08:12] So our challenge as as educators and communicators of knowledge is to foster – kindle, that sense of wonder and then keep it kindled, keep it burning. And if we do that, then we’ve given children this gift because they’ll want to learn the rest of their lives.
Jen: [08:29] Yeah. You’re reminding me of something that Professor Alison Gopnik talks about, which is how children’s attention is like a lantern and it illuminates everything around them, which is why they find this great sense of wonder and they’re also so easily distracted, but adults’ attention is more like a spotlight that shines on one thing at a time, which is why we can engage in goal directed behavior that children struggle with and in your book you argue that lantern attention isn’t just a stage that children have to get through before they come these sophisticated spotlights, but actually lantern attention is really valuable in and of itself and the adults would do well to try it too. Can you tell us some more about that?
Dr. Sampson: [09:10] Sure; I think we have come to weight that spotlight of attention and see that as critical because that’s what we use to read or look at screens or focus on any one thing, but that kind of lantern attention was critical for the vast majority of the 200 to 300,000 years that humans have been around. If you’re a hunter gatherer and you’re out somewhere hunting or trying to not be hunted yourself, you had better have that lantern attention on where you are aware of your surroundings, you know, how to open your senses and take the world and we have lost that to a great extent at our children are losing it too and so it’s the whole notion of almost relearning how to hear, how to feel, how to sense the environment around you and we all know that being outside has a different impact on us emotionally and on our sensory abilities, but we have to develop those skills over time and our brains, as you well know, are very malleable when we’re babies, but we tend to lay down pathways based on our experience and if our experience has only looking at screens then those are the types of things that will be laid down our brains and we won’t have those abilities, those sensory, those lantern like abilities and it turns out that those are critical for even relaxation and just general health and there’s lots of, you know, kids aside for the moment. There’s lots of scientific evidence that being outside in nature is critical for adult health as well. The Japanese, you know this very well, they have something called “shinrin-roku,” where they send employees out to these amazing forests to do something which translates as forest bathing, which is a wonderful concept and the employers do it because the health of their employees increases if they do this and therefore they’re not spending as much on healthcare for their employees. So it is something that children and adults absolutely need.
Jen: [11:09] And so what is it that people do in nature that makes this so beneficial to us? Is it, can we just walk around and not think about anything and get a benefit or do we have to think, oh wow, this is amazingly beautiful. Or do we notice specific things or what kind of processes are going on in the brain when we do this?
Dr. Sampson: [11:27] Oh, of course. What happens in the brain is very specific to individuals and mostly dependent on their experience. I’ve been to a tropical rain forest in Madagascar, and I’ve been with somebody who is from that area, born and raised looking for Lemurs and I’ve spent half a day looking for lemurs and found nothing and this person can take me out and in 10 minutes we’re looking at lemurs and it’s because he knows that place. He hears things, he can see signals and signs, so his experience allows him to understand and interact with that place in ways that I can’t even begin to understand. So what we do know is that our bodies, our heart rate slows down, our blood pressure drops when we’re outside, we breathe in these things, particularly in the forest it appears, that make us healthier, that allow us to focus better, to concentrate for longer, to regenerate ourselves. All of this, and it turns out that kids to have some of these effects and more that they’re more likely to play longer, to fight less, to collaborate more when they’re playing outside, especially in a nature based setting than in other kinds of indoor settings or even in standard metal and plastic playgrounds.
Jen: [12:52] Yeah, you reminded me a lot of Jon Young’s fabulous book Coyotes Guide to Connecting with Nature and I think that was a big inspiration for you as well and one of the key take homes from that book is the idea of developing a sit spot. And so I think a sit spot is a place where you go and you just sit and observe and I have to say I haven’t tried it yet because our garden is an absolute disaster and pretty much all I hear from the inside is Steller’s Jays and I see the hummingbirds and our hummingbird feeder out the window and I’m assuming I’m going to hear and see if those same things when I go out there. So I’m wondering, and I guess this sort of goes to the larger issue of I live in a city and a lot of people live in cities and is there something that people who live in cities can do to kind of cultivate this mindful awareness of nature, even though our experience and what we see might not be as pure as the forest bathers’?
Dr. Sampson: [13:48] Absolutely. Nature is everywhere. Including in cities, including in underserved communities, although it is often less common there and therefore more difficult to find and there’s things we can do about that and I’m happy to chat about that too, but to address your question, Jon Young’s notion of sit spot is a powerful one because it is actually a discipline that you can use to help reconnect with where you live and I have done this off and on for years. I have done it in urban settings and found it to be powerful and the notion is really simple. You just go and you sit outside for a minimum of he suggests 15 to 20 minutes and it will take usually a few minutes for the place to settle down and for the birds to sort of get active again because whether we know it or not, the birds are always watching us. They’re always watching everything that’s going on because their lives depend on it.
Dr. Sampson: [14:45] When we walk outside, we’re not worried about being attacked. Birds have to worry about this all the time. It appears that...