(Back) Into The Wild

A new book explores how American childhood veered off its “natural” course. Author David Sampson explains what parents and outdoor brands can do to get it back on track.

By Hudson Lindenberger October 8, 2015

What happened to the construct of American childhood? How did it shift, in just one generation, from being synonymous with hours outside—getting dirty, taking risks, and having adventures—each day to, well, a world of virtual reality where time was spent staring into some screen under the watchful eyes of a parent? That is a question adults and outdoor companies are asking themselves.

Retailers and suppliers are struggling to decode the Millennial generation (defined as those between 18 and 34 years old in 2015). As the largest age group in America today, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center, Millennials are a vital social and economic engine. But attempting to unlock a seemingly dormant love for the outdoors in a group that is more comfortable sipping artisanal cocktails under the glow of fluorescent lights than it is sipping hot chocolate by a campfire is a tough nut to crack (although outdoor industry marketers continue to make inroads). Luckily, there is another generation waiting in the wings, and Dr. Scott Sampson has a plan to reintroduce them, and their Millennial parents, to the outdoors.

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Author Scott Sampson has been described as one of the leaders of the emerging new nature movement, which places great focus on human health and well-being, particularly for children.

In his new book, “How to Raise a Wild Child” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), the vice president of research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and host of the popular PBS show Dinosaur Train, has laid out a basic blueprint for parents to reintroduce kids to the wild. Arguing that many of the problems we face as a society today (obesity, attention deficit disorder, diabetes, depression and heart disease) can be traced to the disconnect children today feel with playing outdoors, Dr. Sampson lays out illuminating facts and a compelling argument to change our children’s daily schedules to include unobstructed outdoor play.

“We don’t see nature time as critical, so it gets bumped from our kids’ increasingly packed schedules,” says Sampson. “Thus they are taught to shun the outdoors and get in front of a screen of some kind from an early age.”

As toddlers grow older and find themselves surrounded by more and more distractions, any chance they have to connect with nature on a personal level rapidly diminishes. According to Sampson, children today spend, on average, less than 10 minutes a day playing outside. That is a 90-percent drop from what their parents experienced. If left on this path, we risk raising another generation more interested in Minecraft than actually digging in the dirt.

“We are at a crucial moment in time for the outdoor industry and society as a whole,” says Sampson. “There are parents today who have never spent time outside and don’t understand the value of it. It is up to us to open their eyes to it.” One of the main themes of his book is the overprotection of children by parents. Instead of letting their kids’ head into the yard or neighborhood to run and play, they tend to keep them close, always within sight. In a society ever-more connected and the latest horror story only a click away, this behavior is understandable. The solution, according to Sampson, is to schedule outdoor time every day, when instead of hovering, parents step back and let things unfold for their children. “Nature is a hands-on, full-contact sport, and both kids and nature can take it. Let children jump, climb and get dirty,” says Sampson. “Outdoors companies need to reiterate this message to families.”

“Nature is a hands-on, full-contact sport, and both kids and nature can take it. Let children jump, climb and get dirty. Outdoors companies need to reiterate this message to families.” —Scott Sampson, author, “How to Raise a Wild Child”

One brand that is taking that to heart is Mountainsmith. It is great to read or promote a book like Sampson’s, says Mountainsmith President Jay Getzel, but what are brands doing to help young families get outdoors? “Generation Y is a group we are highly focused on,” he says. “We think they are the future of the outdoors. They are being raised by parents who still remember spending their youth outdoors fondly and want to pass that love to their children.” To accommodate what it sees as a growing segment, Mountainsmith is adding larger-volume packs and larger tents to its line to allow parents to bring gear along for weekend camping. “We see car camping growing as young families head out,” says Getzel. “Our in-car storage systems seem to keep growing in popularity among families since they allow parents to keep gear organized for quick outings.”

REI_Stewardship_Infographic___Create_AccessAlong with more family friendly gear, retailers also seem to be helping improve access to wilderness corridors, either urban or countryside. “Over the last few years we have shifted the focus of our outdoor grants toward helping communities improve their access to the outdoors,” says Michael Ferriss, spokesperson for REI. “We feel it is vitally important to place experiences within reach of as many people as possible.” REI just wrapped up a successful online campaign called Every Trail Connects, that allowed members to decide where $500,000 would be spent improving access to 10 trailheads. With annual grants now over $5 million, the co-op is investing in bringing the outdoors to all people. “We are faced with the same challenges as other retailers: How do we make the outdoors relevant to a new generation,” says Ferriss. “By offering a wide array of products and classes, we believe we are able to reach out to families and help them make outdoor time possible.” Over the past few years REI has added more basic classes to its in-store offerings to help educate and entice people to get outside. The classes incorporate the company’s long-term vision, which is to make the outdoors more accessible to all.

“We are faced with the same challenges as other retailers: How do we make the outdoors relevant to a new generation.” —Michael Ferriss, REI

Achieving Sampson’s vision isn’t a pipe dream. It will require a consistent message and nonstop education of the public to the wonders that constantly surround them. Hopefully this message is starting to filter into households across the nation, families are starting to head outdoors again, and kids are reconnecting with their innate love for getting dirty. As more of them head out, the tide will turn. “There is good news that you must focus on,” says Sampson. “ It only took one generation to go from everyone playing outside to everyone playing inside. There is no reason we cannot fix it in one generation.”

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