Cool toons: Creating interesting content for children is not rocket science
But Sampson eventually acquiesced to the proposal after learning the intent wasn't to put humans and dinosaurs together — it was just to create a make-believe world where dinosaurs ride on trains.
"In some ways," he said, "I now think it's brilliant because you're taking two things kids love and sticking them together, kind of like chocolate and peanut butter. It works well."
Today, Sampson not only appears as "Dr. Scott" in a live-action segment at the end of every episode, but he's also a driving force behind the show's content as a consultant who ensures attention to detail and factual accuracy in the animated segments.
He has actually shifted gears to put academia and research on the backburner and make children's education his pinnacle career priority.
"In some ways, 'Dinosaur Train' has changed my life," Sampson said. "I had done a fair bit of television before, where I'd appeared on TV as a scientist talking about dinosaur paleontology and evolution. But here was an opportunity to reach kids.
"I all of a sudden realized you could reach millions and millions of children every day with really important messages like 'how does science work' and 'the importance of connecting to the natural world.' All of a sudden it just struck me like a bolt of lightning that we could have a large, ongoing impact with children's educations through a show like 'Dinosaur Train.'"
Although parents can understandably harbor an affinity for children's programming that not only entertains but also educates, Parents Television Council director of communications and public education Melissa Henson strongly believes that any television show — no matter how educational or high-quality — is not without limitations.
"Quite often those programs are entertaining and will keep the kid occupied," Henson said. "But I think it's important that we as parents don't kid ourselves that it's any kind of a substitute or replacement for one-on-one time with the child or reading to the child or doing things that actually have more educational benefit for the child than even the so-called educational programming on TV."
In many aspects, Sampson actually shares Henson's concerns about the perils of overreliance on the television medium — so much so that he makes a point of ending every episode by essentially encouraging kids to turn off the TV.
"It's counterintuitive in the sense that one of the great problems today is kids spend 7-10 hours a day looking at screens, so to create another product where you'd be looking at a screen seems like you'd be shooting yourself in the foot if you're trying to get kids outside.
"But one of the conditions I made before getting involved with the Jim Henson Company and on-screen with 'Dinosaur Train' was that they would let me say something about getting kids outside. So we finally agreed on my tagline at the end of every episode: 'Get outside, get into nature and make your own discoveries.'"
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