Adventure therapy is an active and creative form of group psychotherapy that employs experiential activities designed to promote desired therapeutic outcomes for clients. Adventure therapy is a broad rubric that subsumes a variety of experiential approaches to group therapy that utilize challenging, cooperative tasks to foster healthy change in clients. Examples include experiential outdoor counseling, adventure-based counseling, wilderness therapy, and residential camping. It is often, though not always, conducted in outdoor or wilderness settings, and it is closely related to the fields of therapeutic recreation and outdoor education. While careful assessment of the problems that clients bring to therapy will inform the specific interventions that skilled therapists choose to employ, adventure therapy is a solution-focused approach that emphasizes group members’ individual and collective strengths and resources.
History of Adventure Therapy
The use of group activities as the primary agent of psychological change emerged with J. L. Moreno’s psychodrama innovations in the 1920s, and several modern experiential approaches to psychotherapy emphasize the use of an activity base, including art, music, and play therapies. The therapeutic effects of natural settings were evident in the camping programs developed for troubled youths in the 1930s. Outward Bound, the experiential learning program developed by Kurt Hahn in the 1940s and brought to the United States in the 1960s, effectively inspired self-discipline and self-confidence through physically and mentally challenging experiences in wilderness settings. The principles of experiential learning developed in the Outward Bound schools were later adopted and further developed by organizations such as Project Adventure and the Association of Experiential Education. These and similar organizations adapted the survival challenges of the Outward Bound protocols to nonwilderness settings in schools, recreation centers, and physical and mental health treatment centers by developing challenge courses, high and low ropes courses, cooperative games, and initiatives designed to elicit learning through experience. Today, the principles of adventure therapy are evident across a wide range of programs, including personal growth and enrichment curricula, corporate training and teambuilding efforts, antirecidivism programs for adjudicated youth, substance abuse treatment, and both outpatient and inpatient mental health counseling for families, couples, and individuals.
Nature of Adventure Therapy
The fundamental proposition of adventure therapy involves exposing a group of individuals to a novel setting in which they strive to negotiate a variety of challenging tasks that involve real or perceived risk and where the outcome of their efforts is directly affected by the choices that they make, both individually and in concert with other group members. The settings of adventure therapy often involve the natural surroundings of the outdoor environment and usually entail adventurous activities inspired by such outdoor pursuits as rock climbing or wilderness survival. Confronted by the real or perceived risks—both physical and psychological—inherent in the challenges posed by these activities, clients experience reactions consistent with their preferred or characteristic affective, cognitive, and behavioral responses when confronted by difficult situations in their everyday lives. Thus, they have an opportunity to “catch themselves being themselves.” As clients process their experiences with the group by sharing their experiences and receiving feedback from the other members, they have an opportunity to gain insight about their choices and about the consequences of their behavior. As the activities of the group proceed, they may choose to enact new behaviors that they believe will be more likely to produce the outcomes they desire and thereby they gain an experience of positive behavioral change. The goal of adventure therapy is to assist clients to transfer what they learn from the novel experiences of these adventurous initiatives to the more significant domain of their daily lives.
The challenges that confront group members in therapy serve as metaphors for the challenges they must negotiate in everyday living. The metaphoric content of the cooperative games, outdoor pursuits, and challenge initiatives employed in adventure therapy may be implicit or explicit. Implicit metaphors may vary among individuals in a therapy group and emerge when the group therapist or facilitator elects to allow an experience to speak for itself.
However, group leaders will often choose to explicitly frame the metaphoric content of an activity using a procedure known as frontloading. Front-loading involves introducing an activity or initiative to the group using a metaphoric theme related to the treatment issues of the members. Clients then draw parallels between the completed activity and challenging experiences in their lives; this process allows them to more readily transfer the learning they gained from the experience to their lives outside of therapy. Such a transfer of learning gained from a specific experience to more general life experiences is known as an isomorphic connection.
The process of forming isomorphic connections is furthered by the structure of the adventure therapy experience. In addition to frontloading the metaphoric content of activities, adventure therapists also carefully choose the sequence of challenge initiatives they present to the group in order to encourage a sense of commonality or cohesiveness within the group, to foster trust among the members, and to build upon the successful experiential learning of earlier activities. In addition, adventure therapists also assist members to debrief or process their experiences after the group has completed an activity or whenever an opportunity arises to gain from something experienced by the group. Frontloading, sequencing, and debriefing are processes that shape the fundamental structure of adventure therapy, intended to enhance the transfer of positive behavioral change gained through therapeutic experience in order to help clients achieve the treatment goals established at the outset of therapy.
Effectiveness and Efficacy of Adventure Therapy
While a wealth of anecdotal evidence would support the treatment effectiveness of adventure therapy, very little empirical research exists in the professional literature concerning the efficacy of this experiential approach to group psychotherapy, and few conclusions can be drawn from the studies that do exist. Support for modest positive treatment effects across a range of adventure programs can be found in peer-reviewed journals; however, few studies examine therapeutic techniques, and well-controlled outcome research for various forms of psychopathology do not exist. There is no well-defined or broadly accepted treatment methodology for conducting therapy using adventure-based activities; therefore practitioners and researchers have little guidance as to which activities or settings might effectively treat particular client concerns.
Despite the absence of substantial research support, many programs exist that offer adventure therapy to clients with a broad range of problems and concerns. The ethical constraints of professional group practice demand that practitioners be competent to provide the interventions they offer to their clients, and individuals interested in adventure therapy can obtain training in numerous programs of study in the fields of counseling, psychology, and social work as well as supervised practical experience in a variety of therapeutic settings. Experienced practitioners currently enjoy numerous resources to assist them in providing adventure-based initiatives to their clients. Adventure therapy is a creative and attractive alternative to traditional talk therapies for both clients and therapists alike. The competent application of this experiential approach appears to have the potential to enhance a client’s experience of the therapeutic process and to promote lasting, positive change.
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