Swapping Screen Time for Getting Dirty: Why Kids Need to Spend More Time Outside
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.
I 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 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.
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.
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?
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.