COLUMBIA — Humans have a biological need to be in touch with nature, a connection that is critical for health, creativity and intellectual growth.
That was the message a social ecologist from Yale University delivered on Thursday in Columbia at A Summit on the Future of Missouri Outdoors.
Keynote speaker Stephen Kellert said that if people don’t begin to acknowledge this need for exposure to the outdoors, it could affect health, fitness, productivity, intellect and spirituality.
Kellert told a crowd of more than 100 gathered at the Hilton Garden Inn that it’s especially important to expose children to the outdoors while they are still developing.
“Experiencing nature in a place that is secure, familiar and accessible helps children express creativity, exploration and risk-taking,” Kellert said. “Children hardly ever get to explore indoors.”
Kellert listed three ways that nature can be experienced: getting outdoors, bringing the outdoors inside by using potted plants and natural lighting and viewing nature through television, computer screens or photographs.
“All experiences are important,” he said, “but direct is critical.”
After his speech, the audience, which included representatives of environmental groups and government agencies, answered a series of questions projected on a screen in the room using hand-held devices. One of the questions asked how great a threat “nature-deficit disorder” presents to the future of Missourians.
Nature-deficit disorder, a phrase popularized by author Richard Louv in his award-winning book “Last Child in the Woods,” was defined as isolation from the natural environment.
Eighty-nine percent of those gathered in the hotel conference room characterized the threat as either extreme or high. Asked to gauge the degree to which Missourians are affected today, 92 percent said they considered it to be moderate or severe.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who spoke on the importance of Missouri outdoors, talked about the successful restoration of native species such as the white-tailed deer, river otter and wild turkey.
“We have to do everything we can to get people out in this ever-dwindling … conserved world,” Nixon said, adding that through these connections, “people can make a difference in protecting air, protecting water, protecting resources.”
Nixon also shared an anecdote about a recent outing at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park with his wife, Georganne, and their dog, Daniel Boone.
As they came around a corner, Nixon said, they encountered a sleeping fawn and sensed that its mother was hiding nearby.
“We knew it was there,” he said. “You could feel it. And that’s what you get when you begin to understand and appreciate the depth of what we have as far as the richness in this state.”
The two-day conference continues on Friday.