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

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 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
F*ck That: A Guided Meditation for the Realities of Today's World
2 min · 10,913 views today · Just acknowledge that all that sh*t is f*cking b*llshit — you're here now, in this place, with your inner stillness. Take in a deep breath ... now breathe out. Just feel the...
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 8,387 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 7,215 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...
Who I'm Voting For...
3 min · 5,215 views today · Prince Ea announces who he's voting for. It's probably not who you think.
25 Mind-Twisting Optical Illusion Paintings by Rob Gonsalves
Dovas · 4,310 views today · The beautiful and mind-bending illusions in Canadian artist Robert Gonsalves’ paintings have a fun way of twisting your perception and causing you to question what in his...
Free Trade Explained In An Excellent Comic
Michael Goodwin, Illustrated by Dan E. Burr · 3,491 views today · The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) are the latest in a long line...
Forget Shorter Showers: Why Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change (2015)
11 min · 3,069 views today · Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday; or that chopping...
Open Up - Have the Difficult But Important Conversations With Loved Ones
5 min · 2,311 views today · “The biggest casualty of humanity is the lack of communication, it’s the thing that breaks most relationships. It just feels so much better to talk and get it out.” There is...
#Hypernormalisation - Why Heathrow Plan Is Proof We Exist in a Catastrophic Fantasyland
Matthew Adams · 2,167 views today · The British government recently gave the green light for Heathrow airport’s third runway. It was heralded by its supporters as a vital boost for jobs and growth – and proof...
The Empire Vs. The People - Police Attack and Arrest Peaceful Protestors at the Dakota Access Pipeline
6 min · 1,554 views today · On October 22, just before dawn, hundreds of people, including many families, gathered and prepared to march toward the Dakota Access pipeline construction site near Standing...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,497 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...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 1,451 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
'Maritime Graveyard': 2016 Deadliest Year Ever for Refugees Crossing Mediterranean
Deirdre Fulton · 1,316 views today · "From one death for every 269 arrivals last year, in 2016 the likelihood of dying has spiraled to one in 88," says UNHCR spokesman
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 1,208 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
The Burden of the New Story
Adebayo Akomolafe · 1,207 views today · The 'new story' - that longed for milieu when all is right with the world and things are set straight - seems to be taking its sweet time coming. Why?
These Incredible Stories Remind Us of Our Better Selves
36 min · 764 views today · #WhoWeAre is a campaign to share the stories of people whose actions show us compassion and to send a message of empathy, hope and optimism. These videos will automatically...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 727 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Ode to Lesvos
5 min · 694 views today · An inspiring story of a few remarkable heroes on the Island of Lesvos who helped almost half a million refugees in 2015 has been documented in a new short film called Ode to...
No Moral Superpower: Arundhati Roy, Edward Snowden, and the Crimes of Empire
Jake Johnson · 489 views today · When Arundhati Roy was preparing, in 2014, for a trip to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden, she was troubled by two things. One of them was the fact that the meeting was arranged...
HyperNormalisation (2016)
161 min · 467 views today · We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
Swapping Screen Time for Getting Dirty: Why Kids Need to Spend More Time Outside