Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Nature Connection

While out walking on this day, the shortest of the year, I began thinking about how grown-ups might be connecting kids with nature this time of year. To my mind, finding ways to help children make meaningful connections with (nonhuman) nature is one of the most pressing challenges of the 21st Century, rivaling global warming, habitat loss, and species extinctions. After all, how can we possibly live sustainably in a place we don’t care about? And why would we care unless we have meaningful experiences in that place, and know something of how it works and how it came to be?

Jade out having fun in Nature!

On the one hand, the holiday season would seem to offer great opportunities for making nature connections, since kids have time off school and other activities. On the other, adults are often running around working, shopping, and/or staggering from party to party. Then there are the obstacles of winter, like finding sufficient daylight and warmth. How many kids are going to be passionate about turning off the screens to face the frigid temperatures outdoors? Yet, I know that there are millions of people who will be out there connecting their kids to nature this holiday season. What I—and, my assumption is, many others—want to know is, What are they doing?

Before getting to that question, let me return for a minute to technology. Many people in the children-and-nature movement see technology as the enemy—the evil that now enslaves children for 7-10 hours a day in front at screens. But, let’s be frank. Technology isn’t going away; indeed it’s only going to accelerate, at least for the foreseeable future. So, perhaps ironically, I’m convinced that we need to come up with creative ways to use technology to aid the cause of nature connection. And that, my friends, brings me to Twitter.

I recently joined the Twitterverse, which, for me, felt like a big move. But I have to say, the decision was a great one, and I haven’t looked back. Not only have I shared ideas with many like-minded (and not so like-minded) people. I have learned about cutting edge news and events that I undoubtedly would have missed if I hadn’t been tossing out the occasional tweet.

Jade and friend Tessa camping.

So here’s what occurred to me while out walking (which, by the way, research suggests is the best time to think). Let’s find out how people are connecting kids to nature this holiday season by putting out a call on Twitter. So here goes:


It might be something you’ve done before, something you’re doing this year, or something you dream of doing (e.g., surfing off the coast of Maui on Christmas day). Stargazing, beach walking, snowball fights, snowboarding, a visit to the local natural history museum—it’s all fair game.

Tweet your answer to #HolidayNature by Wednesday, January 4th, 2012, so that others can find out what you’re up to. Please include @DrScottSampson in your tweet so that I can track all the submissions.

I will tally and blog about the results, choosing what I think are the Top 10 best answers. And if, as anticipated, the material warrants, I’ll write up an article and submit it for publication so that many other folks can benefit from your collective creativity and wisdom!

Jade on one of our birding trips

Please get the word out through the Twitterverse asap so that we can get some amazing feedback. I already have my first response, from Michael Barton (@darwinsbulldog), who wrote, “Last year we visited a local state park on Christmas day and I said we should do so every year...”

As for me, well, let me throw my hat into the ring too. Jade, my 9-year-old daughter pictured in the accompanying photos, is passionate about birds (you know, living dinosaurs), so we'll be heading into the local hills, or perhaps down to the lagoon, to do some birding.

So, what are you doing to connect your kids to nature this holiday season? Let the masses know! And please follow me on Twitter (@DrScottSampson). I promise many future tweets on nature connection!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Dinosaur Train Gets Into Nature!

When I was initially invited to get involved with PBS KIDS Dinosaur Train a few years ago, I was very skeptical about working on a TV series that might further addict children to screens. After all, my focus as a science communicator is all about getting kids outside. However, following some negotiations with the Jim Henson Company (which produces the show), it was agreed that I would add an enthusiastic tag line at the close of every episode (the final version being the brainchild of my wife Toni): “Remember, get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!”

At the time I had no idea if a television program could induce kids to turn off the TV and head outdoors. However, based on the hundreds of comments I’ve received from parents, I’m now convinced. I regularly hear about boys like Tommy who are always heading outdoors to dig for fossils (makes me wonder about the holes in the backyard . . .), and girls like Mary who have become avid birdwatchers (that is, dinosaur observers!). A nationwide Dinosaur Train geocaching program was added, which has also been very successful at getting kids to explore their local areas.

By the time we began production on Season 2 of Dinosaur Train, the Henson Company and PBS KIDS were equally excited about the idea of getting kids outside. Indeed it was decided that nature connection would become one of the show’s primary themes. As a result, the animated kid characters, led by Buddy the T. rex and Tiny Pteranodon, have formed their own nature club (the “Nature Trackers”) and now spend much of their time making natural history collections and firsthand observations about their surroundings.

Some kids at the beach being filmed making nature art.

Along with cool new dinosaurs, featured topics for connecting kids to nature now include plants, insects, stars, rocks, and nature art. In the interstitial portion of each episode, which I have the pleasure of hosting, we’re encouraging kids more than ever to explore local nature. In Season 1, all of the interstitials were shot on green screen in a Hollywood studio—hardly the ideal setting for encouraging nature exploration. But for Season 2, we’re featuring shoot locations out in nature (e.g., redwood forests, beautiful beaches, and tidepools burgeoning with animals), as well as in museums, often showing real children connecting to real nature!

Check out some of the new episodes and songs here, including a very cute tune called “Get Into Nature.” The award-winning website will soon be bolstered with all kinds of activities to help parents connect their kids to the natural world. Dinosaur Train has even partnered with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to help foster an entire generation of kid birdwatchers! Currently, the show is viewed in more than 9 million households a month, and appears to be gaining steam! So stay tuned and get onboard!

The Dinosaur Train Film Crew!
(The show's creator, Craig Bartlett, is second from the left in the back row.)