Swapping Screen Time for Getting Dirty: Why Kids Need to Spend More Time Outside
In his new book “How to Raise a Wild Child,” Dr. Scott D. Sampson argues that the current disconnect between kids and the natural world is a threat to their physical, mental, and emotional health.
Swapping Screen Time for Getting Dirty: Why Kids Need to Spend More Time Outside
By Shannon Hayes / overgrowthesystem.com
Sep 29, 2015

It is my 11-year-old daughter Saoirse’s first visit to Washington, D.C. She doesn’t know where she wants to go. Museum of Natural History? Air and Space? Then she sees the greenhouse. “Here,” she says with certainty. She drags me by the arm through the glass doors and into the tropical paradise.

Her body transforms. Her smile grows wider, her eyes brighter. She woke up at three in the morning to catch the flight with me. Tomorrow she will accompany me as I speak at a symposium about our family and farming life, so we make the most of this day. Thankfully, her exhausted body seems to draw nourishment from the foliage around us. All signs of fatigue melt away.

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 2.33.49 PMI gaze around me, recognizing the philodendron, the ficus trees, the bougainvillea, the anthurium like old friends. “A greenhouse like this got me through college,” I remark. Saoirse doesn’t hear me. She is smelling blossoms.

My family was never certain that I would be able to complete school. I had a scholarship to attend a private liberal arts college in a nearby city. Once enrolled, I wilted, begging my parents to let me come back to the farm each weekend, pleading with them for their blessing to withdraw. When I subsequently enrolled in SUNY Binghamton, they feared I would meet the same troubles of debilitating homesickness. But I found the campus greenhouse. I spent every waking moment between classes there, potting, pruning, watering. And I got through. I still went home twice each month. I told my friends I was needed on the farm. The truth was that I needed the farm. I hid that truth with shame.

We called it homesickness, and I saw it as my great weakness. But in How to Raise a Wild Child, Dr. Scott D. Sampson gives it another name: topophilia, a love of place. And he asserts it is the key to restoring sustainability on our planet.

As chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and host of the PBS KIDS television series Dinosaur Train, Sampson argues that the current disconnect between kids and the natural world is a threat to their physical, mental, and emotional health. One study he cites found that the average American child spends less than seven minutes a day outdoors, but racks up more than seven hours per day staring at screens. Sampson says that children can recognize more than 10,000 corporate logos, but fewer than 10 plants native to their region. He argues this disconnect threatens our planet and the very future of humanity. “If sustainability depends on transforming the human relationship with nature,” he writes, “the present-day gap between kids and nature emerges as one of the greatest and most overlooked crises of our time.”

 “Sampson argues that the current disconnect between kids and the natural world is a threat to their physical, mental, and emotional health.”

Sampson revisits his own childhood experiences that led him to dedicate his life to the natural world, taking us back to an early memory when he ventured down a damp forest path with his mother while living in the Pacific Northwest. He recalls the scent of the soil, the patter of drips from the moisture-laden trees, and how the forest gave way to an opening where a frog pond was alive with tadpoles. The walk ended in a full- immersion experience as he waded in above his boots, up to his waist, simply overpowered by his sense of wonder.

Throughout his childhood, this forest became a playground and fantasy world, a stomping ground for him and his dog, a refuge where he and his best friend could work through their teenage angst, a challenge course as they burned off their testosterone-laden energy. Sampson’s career took him, like many Americans, through multiple long-distance moves, but he continued to experience nature in its most raw and rare forms. He writes, “I can’t help but take that Pacific Northwest forest with me wherever I go. It is an indelible part of who I am, more like a lens on the world than a collection of memories.”

Drawing on this experience, Sampson offers the topophilia hypothesis: that bonding between people and place offers adaptive advantages to human beings. He believes topophilia can become the foundation for the young generation to regain their connection to nature.

Sampson describes how every generation of hunter-gatherers over the past tens of thousands of years was born with the physical and cognitive capacity to live virtually anyplace, yet they were required to learn to live in an intimate relationship with a particular place. “Hunter-gatherer survival from the Pleistocene ice age to the present day may have depended on nurturing a built-in bias to bond with a local place,” he argues. This bonding would have enabled place-specific knowledge to pass between generations. Sampson proposes that topophilia evolved to help humans adapt to a diverse range of settings, each requiring a unique array of life skills to survive.

“Topophilia can become the foundation for the young generation to regain their connection to nature.”

Swapping Screen Time for Getting Dirty: Why Kids Need to Spend More Time Outside - Free Range Child

If correct, this hypothesis has two implications. First, Sampson believes, bonding between humans and nature is most effective when initiated in early childhood. And second, periodic exposure to nature in a diverse range of settings will likely be less effective in fostering bonds with nature than abundant time spent outdoors in a single, local place.

These two premises form the foundation of Sampson’s antidote to our culture’s disconnect from the natural world, and the bulk of his book is dedicated to teaching parents and educators age-appropriate techniques for fostering a deeper bond with nature, whether in cities, suburbs, or the wild. Throughout all the stages of childhood, one steadfast technique that Sampson encourages families to return to is the sit-spot—a place close to home in nature that allows children and their mentors to become quiet and more intimate with their surroundings.

As much as Sampson suggests that the goal is to change the next generation, it becomes clear from the text that the key is not to change the behavior of our children. They innately know what to do. It is the grown-ups who must change, learning to become mentors and to develop new habits of observation so they may help youth move through the phases of childhood bonded to the natural world. Sampson devotes extensive space to this topic, reminding us that becoming experts will not bring our children closer to nature. Instead, the secret to fostering that bond lies in rediscovering our sense of wonder, humility, and playfulness.

My own childhood mentor was an old farmer with a penchant for getting us lost for hours on end as we explored lightning strikes in tree trunks, dug in the ground for hidden springs, or foraged for blackberries. His knack for finding trouble—whether by swinging by his knees from an apple tree, or slipping out the door on cold, rainy nights to track down cattle that had gotten spooked up into the ridges—forced me to push my own boundaries as I went through adolescence. By the time I was ready for college, my roots to the land had grown so deep, the thought of leaving it broke my heart. I was a part of my ecosystem.

I let Saoirse take the lead as we scamper through the greenhouse, following her eyes and her nose as we track down blossoms and take in the scent of each exotic flower. She is not unlike me. She gets to an unfamiliar place, and the first time she is able to relax is when she finds nature.

Swapping Screen Time for Getting Dirty: Why Kids Need to Spend More Time Outside - Free Range Child

It wasn’t easy for me, trying to find my way in a world while so deeply rooted to one place. I couldn’t chase career opportunities. I couldn’t chase love. And as I leave the greenhouse with my daughter almost 20 years later, I wonder if the hours of free play she has had in the same fields, woods, pastures, and streams that defined my own wild childhood are a ball and chain, tying her soul to the agrarian fate that tied me. I can leave my unique ecosystem for short periods of time. But I am simply unable to fathom a life permanently disconnected from it. Will she face the same future? Am I working to restore a new generation’s love of nature, or am I limiting my daughter’s future?

Becoming experts will not bring our children closer to nature. Instead, the secret to fostering that bond lies in rediscovering our sense of wonder, humility, and playfulness.

We make our way back to the hotel room. As we climb up Independence Avenue, she stops in her tracks. There, growing beside the sidewalk, is a small patch of weeds. They are flowering. “Oh, Mom! LOOK!” Her enthusiasm for her discovery exceeds her joy at the splendor of the orchid room in the botanical gardens. It surpasses the thrill of the 3-D IMAX film we watched at the Air and Space Museum.

“It looks like bluets,” she observes as she bends down over the sidewalk, oblivious to the foot traffic around her, “but it could be gill-over-the-ground. The leaves are similar, but the colors of the flowers are different. Do you see that?” She points. “At home they are darker blue, almost purple. These have white and blue petals.” We stand there, in the nation’s capital, mesmerized by the weeds that some groundskeeper will soon be obliged to remove in a Capitol Hill grooming session.

Her wonder doesn’t stop there. Our path back to the budget hotel is far grittier than the splendors of the National Mall. We must make our way under bridges and highways, past a few derelict city plots. On the journey, she marvels at the resilience of the ivy that hugs a tree in an abandoned lot; she stops to watch a flock of gulls as they fight over discarded pizza, laughing at their antics, imagining with me their dialogue. Inspired by Sampson’s writing, I stifle my own cynicism and allow myself to share her excitement. Maybe the farm is not her ball and chain after all. Maybe, as Sampson suggests, it is her lens on the world. She teaches me there is nature to love. To honor. To protect. Everywhere.

Shannon Hayes wrote this article for Make It Right, the Summer 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. Shannon writes, home-schools, and farms with her family from Sap Bush Hollow Farm in upstate New York. Her newest book is Homespun Mom Comes Unraveled. She blogs at TheRadicalHomemaker.net.

3.5 ·
1
Trending Today
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 11,231 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 9,735 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,854 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Obama's Hidden Role in Worsening Climate Change
Stansfield Smith · 1,541 views today · It should be a scandal that leftists-liberals paint Trump as a special threat, a war mongerer – not Obama who is the first president to be at war everyday of his eight years...
"Desert Goddess" Remembers Arizona's Glen Canyon
7 min · 659 views today · In this excerpt from the award-winning documentary DamNation, filmmakers Ben Knight and Travis Rummel interview the "desert goddess," Katie Lee. When the Glen Canyon Dam was...
18 Empowering Illustrations to Remind Everyone Who's Really in Charge of Women's Bodies
Julianne Ross · 408 views today · When Brazilian graphic designer Carol Rossetti began posting colorful illustrations of women and their stories to Facebook, she had no idea how popular they would...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 381 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
Make The Serengeti Great Again | Resource Scarcity, Demagogues and How Creativity Can Trump Hate (2017)
5 min · 347 views today · A Familiar Tale of Resource Scarcity, Demagogues, and How Creativity Can Trump Hate A quick, original, illustrated allegory that pokes at the demagogues we’ve got with an...
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 328 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
The Political Elite: Idiots... or Criminals?
Michael Emero · 317 views today · I've been seeing a lot of people convinced that the DNC and all establishment Democrats are total idiots. How could they not be, when they sabotaged an easy win (Bernie) to...
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 267 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
Baraka (1992)
97 min · 263 views today · Featuring no conventional narrative, this film presents footage of people, places and things from around the world. From chaotic cities to barren wilderness, the movie takes...
Deconstructing Hierarchies: On Contrived Leadership and Arbitrary Positions of Power
Colin Jenkins · 256 views today · Bosses don't grow on trees. They don't magically appear at your job. They aren't born into their roles. They are created. They are manufactured to fulfill arbitrary positions...
Defiance in the Face of Oppression - Iranian Artist Atena Farghadani Defends the Right to Draw
Gavin Aung Than · 242 views today · Atena Farghadani is a 28-year-old Iranian artist. She was recently sentenced to 12 years and 9 months in prison for drawing a cartoon.  
Why It's Crucial for Women to Heal the Mother Wound
Bethany Webster · 241 views today · The issue at the core of women’s empowerment is the mother wound
HUMAN (2015)
382 min · 232 views today · What is it that makes us human? Is it that we love, that we fight? That we laugh? Cry? Our curiosity? The quest for discovery?  Driven by these questions, filmmaker and artist...
This Zen Comic Is Full of Timeless Life Lessons
Gavin Aung Than · 202 views today · Desiderata poem by Max Ehrmann beautifully illustrated by Gavin Aung Than
The Invention of Capitalism: How a Self-Sufficient Peasantry was Whipped Into Industrial Wage Slaves
Yasha Levine · 193 views today · “…everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.” —Arthur Young; 1771 Our popular economic wisdom says that...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 188 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 172 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
Swapping Screen Time for Getting Dirty: Why Kids Need to Spend More Time Outside