How to Raise a Wild Child


I received an advance reader’s copy of the book How to Raise a Wild Child by paleontologist and educator Scott Sampson over six months ago, and I’m just getting around to talking about it in this unsponsored review.  Is the fact I was busy raising wild children a good excuse?  I’d like to think so.

It is impossible to talk about a book about children and nature without bringing up Richard Louv’s contemporary classic The Last Child in the Woods.  In Louv’s book, he talks about how much reduced exposure to the natural world has so deeply changed society, and about what we can do to get some of those benefits back.  His Children & Nature Network has become an entire movement.

Scott Sampson’s new book has already joined Louv’s as a critically acclaimed go-to reference, but although they both have a very similar mission this book takes on a much different angle.

Louv’s book very much preaches to the choir.  It appealed most to those who already had one foot *out* the door.  He also wrote extensively about how the modern world’s infrastructure has changed our relationship with nature.  It is engagingly and accessibly written, and interesting from historical and sociological points of views. It captured the attention of a broad audience, from educators to politicians to conservationists and other scientists.

How to Raise a Wild Child seems to be more directed at the parents, but it doesn’t come off as condescending at all, as some parenting books can be.

He speaks of free play, of just immersing oneself in nature, and touches quite a bit on nature mentoring.  He explains how nature mentoring should not be preachy, and should be child-led.  You’re there as a guide, and not as a lecturer.  Nature mentoring can mean anything from starting a Forest Kindergarten for your community (thanks Angelika!) to simply not brushing your children off when they say “Why is the sky blue?”

Personally, I like to let my children be independent and push boundaries outdoors, but “free-range parenting” just brings to mind fried chicken to me (or maybe I’m just hungry from running around outside?) and helicopter parents are generally seen as too clingy.  He includes a great quote from nature writer Michele Whitaker:
“I call myself a hummingbird parent.  I tend to stay physically distant to let them explore and problem solve, but zoom in at moments when safety is an issue (which isn’t very often).”
This nature metaphor sounds like an appealing happy medium!

Your nature mentorship can have a broader reach than you’d suspect.  Over at the Friends of the Fells, where Angelika and I are both involved, another staffer and I discovered we had the same science teacher–at opposite ends of the state.  He taught and influenced me in the foothills of the Berkshires and her on Cape Cod.  And now we’ve met in the middle, working together to educate children on the same subject he helped inspire passion for.  Thanks Paul Niles!

Another thing Sampson focuses on is “thrivability”.  He doesn’t like the word “sustainability” because it has a bit of a “just treading water” feel.  We can do better than that!  Some nature geeks completely eschew screen time and technology.  As the host of PBS’s Dinosaur Train, it would be disingenuous if Sampson completely brushed it off.  It can be a matter of balance and perspective.  If your child is fascinated by “technology” but you’d like to expose them to more nature, consider GPS systems or telescopes and so on as a gateway.

I put technology in quotes because that is another area where perspective comes into play.  Some things are more transformed and processed than others, but truly the whole world is natural, is it not?  We need to keep sustainability (thrivability?) in mind when interacting with the world, but it might benefit us more to stop viewing them as separate.  We should innovate and support our human population in a way that is best in tune with our fauna and flora and the rest of the planet.  We’re all in it together and should stop viewing nature as separate.  The world right now is a very different place than it was several hundred or several thousand or several hundred thousand years ago.  But overall?  We still view it as beautiful.  Some conservation discussions take an Armegeddon approach.  While it is a serious subject indeed, that tends to inspire more hopelessness and depression than connection and action.  Yes, it is likely the status quo won’t remain.  The way we live on this planet will likely change in a big way–in some ways for the better and in some ways for the worse.  But we’ll likely still see it as beautiful even if it is indeed very different.

This train of thought can be especially important in urban wilderness regions like the Greater Boston area.  Scott Sampson’s book has become an instant classic in outdoor education circles.  Start small–like with picking up this book!–and look at the big picture.


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