What if children never got to feel mud squish through their toes? See the ripple effect of a rock thrown into a lake? Chase a butterfly through a field of wildflowers? Or watch a raptor soaring on thermals?
A growing number of people are missing out on these life-forming experiences, and it could change the world, Scott Sampson says in his new book, “How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love With Nature.”
“The vast majority of people over 30 grew up freely outdoors, playing outdoors in nature in their own neighborhoods,” said Sampson, known to children as Dr. Scott the Paleontologist on PBS Kids’ “Dinosaur Train.” “This generation doesn’t have it, and if they grow up to not have a connection with nature, they won’t value it. We are now a generation away from losing the connection.”
Sampson, a dinosaur paleontologist who once worked as the research curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah and is now at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, believes the country, and perhaps the world, is precariously close to severing the important bond with nature.
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His book comes on the 10th anniversary of the book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv.
“I wrote the book in some ways as a sequel to ‘Last Child in the Woods,’ ” Sampson said. “I credit (Louv) with getting this movement started. He came in and really struck a chord. He rang the bell on nature-deficit disorder.”
According to Sampson’s research for the book:
• The average North American child spends 7 to 10 hours each day looking at a screen of some kind and just 7 minutes a day outside.
• Rates of obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, heart disease and depression among children are skyrocketing.
• A Nature Conservancy survey of parents in Brazil, China, France, Hong Kong and the United States found fewer than 1 in 4 American parents — and 1 in 5 in other countries — reported their children spent time daily in a park or natural area.
• That study also found 82 percent of American parents regard time in nature as “very important” to their child’s development, second only to reading.
While technology is often considered the natural enemy of connecting with wild places, Andrea Nelson, Utah Nature Conservancy’s volunteer and outreach coordinator; Sampson; and others involved in the movement say it can be a tool.
Social media, like The Nature Conservancy’s NatureSelife hashtag campaign, can serve as a massive promotion device encouraging people to explore the outdoors experience vicariously. Sampson also is using social media on his website and encouraging people to use the hashtag raiseawildchild.
Smartphone apps can help people plan excursions, identify wildlife, map adventures and provide pictures.
“I’m not arguing that we should unplug technologies all the time,” Sampson said. “Time outdoors does not have to be technology-free. Yes, we need to have kids unplugged some of the time, but there are ways to use technology to encourage outdoor exploration.”
As the wildly popular host of “Dinosaur Train,” Sampson realizes he’s somewhat guilty for putting kids in front of a screen, but he still gets his nature message to viewers. At the end of every episode, he implores viewers: “Get outside, get into nature and make your own discoveries.”
Adults who show interest in nature go a long way in inspiring youngsters to make the connection with the outdoors, Utah Nature Conservancy’s Nelson said.
“If adults the kids trust are showing a curiosity, the kids are much more likely to be curious and willing to explore,” Nelson said. “If the adults are not interested, the kids have a more difficult time making the connection.”
Nelson works to connect kids with nature at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve in Layton. More than 1,500 fourth-graders have visited the preserve as part of the conservancy’s Wings to Water tours.
“I’m lucky I get to see (the connection) happen all the time and every time is special,” said Nelson, who also leads other groups, including Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, on tours at the preserve. “I often don’t want to tell kids right away what birds they are observing. I like to watch them explore the possibilities and figure it out on their own. The confidence they have in making that identification is often the moment that connection is made.”
For Sampson, one moment that really stands out when it came to connecting with nature involves his mother when he was 4 or 5 years old.
He was wearing tall rubber boots and wading around in a pond in the forests of Vancouver, British Columbia. His mother, Sampson wrote, thought about stopping him as he ventured into deeper water, but something told her to let him continue exploring.
“What if she had stopped me? What if she didn’t let me throw that rock or climb that tree?” he asked. “Connecting with nature is a contact sport for both kids and Mother Nature. They can both take some cuts and heal.”
Sampson calls his mom the “accidental” nature mentor who sent him on his way to becoming a nature enthusiast. He is not sure what career he might have landed in if it had not been for his connection to nature, but he is quite sure it would not have been paleontology.
“I doubt I would be a scientist and I might be raising an inside kid right now,” he said. “Instead, I’ve had a lifetime of amazing experiences and now get to share them with my daughters.”
Sampson said he wants people to find the confidence and patience to be nature mentors in the pages of “How to Raise a Wild Child.”
“I wanted to give people the tools to become informal educators and nature mentors to understand the importance of connecting children with the natural world.”