When people hear the phrase ‘adventure therapy’, several things may come to mind. In my case, I imagined the beloved Steven Spielberg-directed Indiana Jones film series or the Robert Louis Stevenson-authored literary classic Treasure Island. But to the dismay of some, there is no mystery to be solved or treasure to be found. It’s true that adventure therapy is an experiential approach. However, no unnecessary risks are included that involve villains or pirates.
The origins of adventure therapy can be traced back to the 1800s, when organised summer camps for youths emerged in the United States. According to McNeil (as cited in Gass, Gillis & Russell (2020), the initial aim of these organized summer camps was to serve as therapy for young people. Summer camps were designed to create communities focused on physical and mental growth for young people, under the direction of healthy adult role models.
The first organised summer camp, called the Gunnery School, originated at a New England boarding school in 1861, followed by the second organised summer camp at Camp Chocorua. However, it was not until the 1920s that the first therapeutic camps, specifically designed for psychologically challenged youths, opened in the United States. Early roots of experiential education can be traced to the educational writings of Dewey (Gass, Gillis & Russell, 2020). This experiential learning tradition is based on the belief that learning is a result of direct experience and includes the premise that persons learn best when they have multiple senses actively involved in learning. Thus, the participants engage all sensory systems in a learning and change process.
Adventure therapy is a type of experiential therapy that uses challenging adventure activities to aid the therapeutic healing process. It also helps to promote healthy identity development, self-efficacy, grit, and a growth mindset (Gass, Gillis & Russell 2020).
Adventure therapy offers experiential learning, meaning that it utilises an activity case, for example cooperation group games, rope course and outdoor and wilderness expeditions. It employs real or perceived, physical or psychological risks that need to be faced and tackled. It also supports meaning-making of certain situations, where insights and observations are expressed verbally or non-verbally that support behavioural change. Finally, it also promotes isomorphic connections, which means that the activity matches the resolution of the problems, thus the lessons are learnt through behavioural change (Beard & Wilson, 2006).
Adventure therapy is based on seven principles (Beard & Wilson, 2006).
The first one is action-centered therapy. Contrary to the traditional sitting-down-in-front-of-the-therapist scenario, it takes people outside of the therapy room and puts them in a more exposed environment, where the body language of the participants can be observed.
The second principle is that participants are taken to an unfamiliar environment. This is apt for people who are not so comfortable with change. Taking them to an unfamiliar environment can make them take a whole new, different perspective.
The third one is climate change, where the purpose of adventure therapy is to introduce good stress and challenges to ingrain the belief that participants are capable of changing their behaviour and attitudes. Then there is the assessment of one’s capabilities. The therapists can get a much better picture of their clients outside the therapy room and can observe patterns that they usually apply in their everyday life. Group work can also instil a sense of community and take into account others’ needs and show proof of success.
In addition, engaging in this type of therapy can support participants to focus on successful behaviours and their strengths. Finally, the therapist is also seen as a participant as they are playing on their same field and participating in the same challenges as they are.
While I was researching this topic, flashbacks of my childhood came flooding into my mind. Totally unaware of the therapeutic benefits involved, the adults in my nuclear and extended family were conducting some sort of ‘adventure therapy’ on my siblings, cousins and I. I remember we would go on hikes, picnics, camping, boat fishing trips, horse riding, hill-climbing, visit abandoned shelters, organise games, and so on. I believe that without realising it, we were enhancing our young psyches, independent of the context that we were in, or whether we shared a common interest in adventure, thrill-seeking and outdoor behavioural healthcare. In my case, this has contributed to me becoming an emotionally regulated adult in high risk situations, always ready to learn from others and not being afraid to challenge myself in new scenarios.
Beard, C.M. & Wilson, J.P.(2006). Experiential Learning: A Best Practice Handbook for Educators and Trainers. 1st Edition. ISBN 0749444894.
Gass, M.A., Gillis, H.L., & Russell, K.C. (2020). Adventure Therapy Theory, Research, and Practice. 2nd Edition. ISBN 9781138584440.