In Conversation with Dinosaur Train’s Scott Sampson

Dr. Sampson wants kids to go outside and make their own discoveries

By Wendy Becktold

August 31, 2016

Dr. Sampson wants kids to go outside and make their own discoveries.

Photo by Willie Petersen

Sierra met up with Dr. Scott Sampson at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where he was chief curator, to talk about his book How to Raise a Wild Child and why he thinks it’s important to get kids outside and into nature. He recently moved to Vancouver and is now president and CEO of Science World.

Why did you write How to Raise a Wild Child?

In 2005, I was working at a museum at the University of Utah, where I would go out with graduate students and collect dinosaur bones. It was the perfect job for a dinosaur guy, and yet I felt like I needed to get into science communication. If you ask a hundred scientists what the most pressing issues of the day are, you will hear about climate change and species extinction and habitat loss, and I would agree. But I would also say that if people don’t feel a strong connection to where they live, why would they ever change their behavior when it comes to climate change or species extinction or habitat loss? We need to bridge this gap between people—especially kids—and nature before we can really address some of those issues.

It’s only been in the past generation that this huge disconnect has happened with kids leading indoor lives. So nature connection just struck me as something that was this pressing issue, and I thought, “Well, surely, there are all these organizations in every city—there are over a hundred in Denver—that are in one way or another working to promote nature connection.” Zoos, botanical gardens, environmental educators—you name it, and yet, I was wondering how does nature connection actually work and how does it change as kids grow up? There’s a ton of literature on this topic, most of it from the last 15 years, so I thought, "I’m going to put all of this together and combine it with my own experience as a parent and a scientist,” and that’s where How to Raise a Wild Child came from.

Even though you were immersed in all this information and were concerned about this problem, as a parent there was still a bit of a disconnect—you struggled yourself to get your daughter out into nature.

I learned a lot of things working on the book. One of them is that my own level of nature connection was pretty pathetic. I had some experiences where I learned about nature mentoring and deep nature connection, as some people call it, and I thought, “Oh my goodness, I’m just barging my way through the world without a deep connection at all.” That was an insight that I gained. But it was also fascinating looking at the things I dealt with as a parent with my own daughter—for example, the fear factor. It’s one thing to tell a parent that the chances of your child being abducted are no greater now than they were in 1950 or 1960. It’s another thing to let your child wander three blocks through the neighborhood to their friend’s house. That’s something I did as a kid and most people in my generation did. And yet in one generation we’ve gone to the opposite extreme, where if you let kids even play in the front yard you’re considered a bad parent in some respects. You certainly don’t let your kids walk a mile to school, which is something I did as a kindergartner.

And there was the challenge of my daughter being so busy, me being busy. There was the irony of me going crazy writing this book in my spare time and not getting my daughter out into nature because I was too busy working. That did not escape me either. So I had to think, "Okay, how am I going to deal with this?" It came to the point where I had to start scheduling nature into her life. And I thought maybe that’s OK. We’re living in this time now where we are overscheduled. If it’s not in the schedule, it probably won’t happen. So I’d say, “Okay, Saturday morning, we’re going to the park, and we’re going to wander around and look for birds.”

But now my daughter’s reaching those adolescent years. I have to start thinking about ways to deal with that and looking at tactics like family nature clubs, which is a wonderful idea, so simple—get two or more families, go hang out somewhere, go for a hike, go to a park. The adults do adult stuff, talk adult things, and the kids are out playing. The kids are motivated to do it because they get to hang out with their friends. It’s a wonderful tool to get people engaged in the outdoors. I’m originally from Canada—there’s a couple of organizations that collaborated to launch a family nature club program in Canada. And within a few weeks they got hundreds of families signing up. There’s a desire for these kinds of things. People get it. I’ve been going all over the country and talking about this, and I’ve never had anyone say, "My kid doesn’t need nature." In fact, the studies show that virtually all parents agree that kids need nature and they’re not getting enough.

We need to think of nature not as a leisure option but more like literacy. We make time to read to our children or to make sure that they read every day because we recognize that literacy is a critical skill that they need to have. Nature connection deserves to be at least on par with literacy because it impacts the mind, the body, emotions. I think a very strong argument can now be made that the indoors is more dangerous than the outdoors. If we keep kids inside all the time, on the one hand, we are removing them from certain risks, but we’re bringing in many other risks that relate to their physical, emotional, and intellectual health. The goal of the book was to really try and remove barriers so that people would say, “Yeah, I don’t really have any excuse. I need to get out there and do this.”

There are so many bad habits that are passed on from generation to generation. Nature connection is a good habit that most of us experienced when we were little, but we’re not passing it on. Something in us shifted so dramatically. What do you think it is?

Richard Louv wrote in Last Child in the Woods that effectively we are the last generation in the woods. If we age out and we’re no longer talking about this, who is going to be talking about this? Because there are lots of parents now who’ve never had that connection themselves, and they certainly aren’t passing it on to their kids. It’s because of the fear factor that I just mentioned, which is largely driven by the media hyping every instance of a child being abducted by a stranger. It is the fact that technology has improved to the point where it’s so accessible and it’s so easy for parents if they are afraid to send their kids outside, to just put their kids in front of a screen, and the kid is entertained for hours.

There’s the fact that we’re all busier. There was no such thing as a play date when we were little. If you wanted to play, you just walked over to somebody’s house. Now parents have to drive their kids three blocks to go to school or to a friend’s house, and the parents have to orchestrate the play. We schedule kids to the nth degree. We schedule their sports, and we want them to be learning a musical instrument, and they might be in debating, whatever it might be. There’s just less time to have unstructured play outdoors. All these factors together have helped drive this trend, and I think the only thing we can look at as a positive is this all happened within a generation. There’s really no reason why we couldn’t reverse it if we chose to raise awareness.

One good point you make in the book is that you don’t have to go far away to experience nature. It’s about the nature that is right outside your door—that was an important takeaway for me.

The notion of wildness is very different when you are a kid than when you are an adult. For preschoolers, a backyard with some rocks and some grass, maybe a little mud, sticks—that’s huge! So we don’t need to take kids some place exotic. As they get older, yes, geography needs to expand, that sense of wildness needs to expand.

The danger when you write a how-to book—you must have been cognizant of this—is that you’re just adding to people’s to-do lists. How did you address that?

There are so many how-to parenting books, and it made me wonder if I should even write this as a how-to book. What I finally ended up with is that people want to do this and they’re not, so it isn’t that I have to go and convince them that this is important. Most people already understand that. Mostly it’s about removing the obstacles to allow them to do it. So what’s the best way to do that? Well, probably a how-to book. Nature connection is something basic to being a human being that we’re now missing, and it’s threatening us and our homes, the places we live. This needs to be a priority. So I now feel comfortable saying when people ask me that question, “You’re right. This is another thing you need to think about adding into your kid’s life." In many ways you could argue that this trumps any of those extracurricular activities in terms of the gift you are giving your children and the ability you are giving them to think critically and be imaginative, and to socialize. Let alone the fact that diabetes, attention deficit disorder, heart disease, depression, myopia, allergies and asthma—all of these have skyrocketed in part because children are living indoors. Nature is no panacea, but it is a huge step in the right direction. It addresses all these things, too, which parents care desperately about. They want their kids to be healthy; they want to give them all these opportunities. We’ve just convinced ourselves that being in the soccer league is more important than this. My argument is that it’s not. This needs to be near the top of the list. 

Give me the top three things parents can do to cultivate their kids’ connection to nature.

Be a hummingbird parent instead of a helicopter parent—be on the periphery, zoom in when necessary to help out, but otherwise stay out of the way. Let kids orchestrate their own play, use their own imagination, create their own games, and as they get older, you increase the distance between you and them.

Closely related to that? Stop saying no. If kids want to pick up a stick, we say, “No, no, don’t pick up that stick. Don’t throw that rock. Stay out of the mud, and for god's sake, don’t even think about climbing that tree.” Too often the message that we tell kids is basically what we hear in the national parks—”Stay on the trail. Take only memories and photographs”—and that’s not how nature connection happens. It happens by hands-on engagement. We need to stop saying no and encourage kids to be fully active and engaged with nature, and picking up rocks. Just create some simple rules around sticks, like no swinging it and no hitting anything. We all did it and we did fine. Kids need nature. Nature can take it. You’re not going to let kids run rampant through national parks, but you can carve out areas within local parks and other places for kids to be active. Nature connection is a hands-on contact sport, so let them engage. That would be the second one.

And lastly, commit to getting your kids outside for a minimum of 30 minutes three times a week. Just make it part of their life. Don’t take my word for it that it’s powerful for the kids. Just try it and watch the changes. What you’ll probably find is, if kids get this, and if they really engage, they will be happier, they’ll sleep better, they’ll use their imaginations when they’re outside, and they’ll probably treat you better because they’re active. Those are the three things you can do starting tomorrow in your own neighborhood with no extra expense.

Why is the children-in-nature movement still on the fringe of affluent society?

Right now the children-in-nature movement is still largely a white affluent movement, and we need to expand it. Every kid deserves the right to connect deeply with nature, and it doesn’t matter what their skin color is or their family income is. In Marin, California, where I used to live, I worked with kids at a charter school in Sausalito who had never been to the ocean. They could walk there; it’s a mile. We went tidepooling, and we were looking at all these animals, and they couldn’t believe that they were real. They kept asking, “Are they real? Are they fake?” We were walking off the beach at the end of the day, and the kids were laughing and splashing in the water, and I was feeling just great about this. Then one of the teachers saddled up to me and said, “I hate to say this, Scott, but this may be the last time that some of these kids ever go to the ocean.” I wanted to cry. There has to be an awareness-raising, and we have to show that these resources are often right close by to us and that they’re important.

We haven’t done a great job in this country of bringing other cultures and other socioeconomic sectors into this realm. We of the environmental movement—and I put myself in there because I’ve given many of these presentations—have long felt that if we just tell people the way things are, they’re going to say, “Oh my goodness, half the species on the planet could be gone by the end of the century? Of course I’m going to act.” Any marketing person could have told us long ago that wasn’t going to work. People don’t change their behavior because of some negative information they hear. They need to be emotionally engaged. They need to love it, they need to care about it, and it needs to be relevant to their lives. In major cities, the beautiful parks are not in the low-income neighborhoods. So even there, we haven’t done a good job of making sure that people from low-income communities have access to nature, so it hasn’t been relevant to their lives.

What can organizations like the Sierra Club do to engage a broader audience?

You’ve got to be committed for the long term. You need to go to communities and help them with things that matter to them, and talk about points of confluence, whether it’s green spaces, or pollution, or health, or whatever that might be. For museums, there’s always been a one-way flow of information from us, the experts, to people out there, and that just doesn’t fly anymore. People want that two-way conversation. And it isn’t just about information. There has to be that emotional engagement. So I think that’s part of what’s been missing in the environmental movement. We still feel like we can just go and tell people things, and they will act as result, and I think we know that that model doesn’t work.

Clearly, you see technology as both the problem and part of the solution.

The fact that the average child in the United States spends 7 to 10 hours a day looking at screens is a problem. Kids have forgotten what it’s like to play outdoors. They’ve never even heard of kick-the-can or all these games that were just standard when we were kids. They see the indoors as the place where the action is. They go out in nature and they look around and think, “This is boring.” So part of the challenge is getting them exposed to the outdoors. Technology is addictive. We are all addicted. I’m sitting here with my phone beside me, right?

We’re not always the best models.

No! You don’t want to be having dinner and texting and checking your email and stuff like that, because what kind of example is that for your kids? So as grownups we need to set the limits, and a lot of times that doesn’t happen. There are federal recommendations on this that I write about in the book, and if I recall, it’s no screen time before two, maybe an hour of screen time until late middle childhood, and then a couple hours after that, but nothing like seven hours a day. So setting limits is absolutely key.

But there is a way to leverage technology to promote nature connection. I give a number of examples of how to do that. Taking photographs outdoors is powerful. I was just in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I met with a number of people there who do geocaching on a regular basis. This man was telling me that this is his son’s connection with nature. They’ve found over a hundred geocaches, the vast majority of them in nature. It gets them out there. And yes, they’re going and basically treasure hunting, but meanwhile they’re out in these beautiful settings. So that’s another way that technology can help.

Then there’s this spectrum of nature-related apps that can help you identify stars and plants and animals and rocks, you name it. There’s even iNaturalist, which is this app where you can take pictures of nature, upload that data to a website, and people will help you identify what it is, but the data also then gets uploaded to a national database so scientists can use it to, for example, look at the timing of plants budding or the arrival of birds in spring. So anybody can become a scientist.

There’s a multitude of ways that technology can help, but at some point, we need to turn off all the screens and just be open to nature in the ways it really demands of us if we’re turning off this more directed attention and allowing a more diffuse attention to take hold. If you go and take pictures outside for a while, that’s great. Or if you see a bunch of birds, then go back home and on the computer you try and figure out what they were, that’s all great. But most of the time out there, just open up your senses and participate.

In the book you talk about the hybrid mind.

We use this strong directed attention when we’re reading a book or looking at a screen, and this much broader, diffuse attention when we’re out in nature. It turns out that diffuse attention is important for just relaxing us, lowering our blood pressure, opening up our senses. Even our ability to concentrate and think about things changes. There’s rising support that we absolutely need to do both, and right now kids are so biased toward this highly directed, focused attention that they’re stressed out. Myself, Richard Louv, and others are not arguing that we need to go back to nature and turn off the technology. We’re saying we need to go into a future that is rich in both nature and technology, and right now the bias is heavily toward the technology with nature not even playing much of a role at all. So let’s bring nature back up there on equal footing with technology, and we’ll be in a much healthier situation.

How does Dinosaur Train fit in with all this?

Dinosaur Train is this very interesting thing for me. Of course, if you stop to contemplate it, it’s easy to say, “Hold on, you’re a hypocrite. On the one hand, you want kids to go outside. On the other, you’re creating this extremely alluring multicolored extravaganza that’s on TV every day that makes kids want to watch screens more.” That did not escape me when I agreed to do the show, and of course, it ultimately led to my tagline, which my wife came up with: “Get outside, into nature, and make your own discoveries!” I’ll be honest, I had no clue if a television show could encourage kids to turn off the TV and go outside. It was an untried experiment. But I’ve now heard from hundreds of parents as well as kids. Some of the kids are saying, “Dr Scott is telling me I have to get outside.” Other times it’s the parents who are saying, “Remember what Dr. Scott says. You gotta go outside and make your own discoveries.” It was a negotiation to get that tagline in there, but it was so successful that now in the show we’ve created a nature explorers’ club that the characters on the show do. We’re modeling what we want kids to do outside. It’s online at, and other PBS kids shows are incorporating it. It’s now seen as a really powerful theme. So I think the notion has been vindicated. We’re using technology to leverage nature connection. If that’s where the eyes are, let’s go there and promote this thing that’s really good and important for kids.

I was initially approached by an executive at Henson who said, “We’re doing this really cool show at PBS on dinosaurs—do you think you’d want to take part?” And I said, “It sounds interesting. What’s it called?” She said, “It’s going to be called Dinosaur Train.” And I said, “You can’t call it that!" And she said, “Why not?” “Because I’m a paleontologist. I’m always trying to convince people that humans and dinosaurs didn’t live at the same time. You can’t stick them on trains together!” She chuckled and said, “Don’t worry. We’re only going to put dinosaurs on the train.” I stopped and thought, “Well, that’s just brilliant. That’s chocolate and peanut butter when you’re five years old!” and so it has been. Dinosaur Train is just thriving. It’s in over 100 countries, and I get emails from all over the world from kids who watch the show. There’s very few things I could do in my life that would have that broad an impact and, every time they see me, I’m talking about getting out into nature. Dinosaurs are a great gateway drug to understanding science and nature.

Anything else you want to mention?

Connecting kids with nature is one of the greatest gifts we can give them in their whole lives. Anybody can start it tomorrow, free of charge. It’s just a matter of us making it a priority in the lives of the children that we know. It only took us one generation to get to where we are now. We can move it back quickly, and organizations like the Sierra Club can play an important role in making that happen. I’d love to see conservation organizations take more interest in what’s going on in urban areas. The decision to keep national parks and open spaces is made by every generation, and we cannot expect people to preserve them if they don’t first form a connection in nature in cities. All the studies suggest that it isn’t the once-a-year trip to Rocky Mountain National Park that forges that connection. It’s the everyday, outdoor, abundant, hands-on experience in local nature that does it.

We have programs to take kids out of the city and into nature, but the thought of bringing nature into cities so kids don’t have to go anywhere is a bit of a mental leap. The word that I’m now using more and more is "rewilding." Rewilding in wilderness areas is very much top down—it’s adding wolves to Yellowstone, which have these cascading ecological effects. Rewilding in the city is very much bottom up—you add native plants, which attract native insects, which attract native birds and other vertebrates. We can make our cities biodiverse places that are healthier for kids to live in. That’s a powerful notion I’d like to see grow.