We’ve all felt nature’s ability to nourish the mind, body, and spirit. But for some people, nature can be the answer to overcoming personal challenges and trauma, and to growing their sense of self, and self-esteem. Simon chats with two adventure therapists to understand the importance of this increasingly popular therapy.
There’s often a moment in nature when you see a change come over someone.
For Jocelyn Evans and Laura Engel, who run bush adventure therapy provider Right Foot Forward in Western Australia’s South West region, that moment often comes after a participant has been handed the reins and encouraged to make decisions that impact others.
Jocelyn, an outdoor educator who gained her stripes working with Outward Bound Australia and a range of other adventure-based programs before founding the business, recounts one of those turning points.
‘We got to a place along the track where it went in two directions and the two young people navigating were struggling to work out which way to go,’ Jocelyn recounts.
‘I suggested they could walk a certain distance in each direction to see if landmarks on the map became evident, then they would return to the group with more information to decide which way to go.’
‘This allowed them to choose the correct path and later that night, when we were recounting the day around the campfire, one of the young boys who was navigating spoke up and said ‘Thank you for trusting me to do that’.
‘The boy had a long history of getting into trouble at school and had consequently lost most people’s trust, so it was something he wasn’t accustomed to.’
Laura’s a social worker who also has qualifications in psychology and many years’ experience working in clinical settings with adults. She says we tend to have an overreliance on the dominant systems of care – the medical model.
‘We have become disconnected from the bigger, natural systems of which we are fundamentally a part,’ Laura says.
‘I believe we’re all part of something greater than ourselves and this sense of deep connection keeps us well and motivates us to take care of the planet. Therapy, for whatever reasons it may be required, typically occurs within the confines of four walls.’
‘But there’s absolutely a benefit to getting outside and connecting with nature, away from the noise and everyday stresses that are having a big impact on the mental state of a lot of people today.’
Risk And Reward
Jocelyn and Laura explain that with increasing urbanisation and the growing tendency for life to be lived indoors, access to natural bushland that once formed a part of many childhood adventures is no longer an option for a lot of young people.
But activities such as climbing trees and exploring bushland are invaluable for children to learn about risk and understand the boundaries for their own safety and wellbeing.
‘There’s a big gap between the perceived and real risks that nature presents,’ Jocelyn says.
‘For many people, the perception is that adventure activities are high risk, however much of this perception is because we’re unfamiliar with such activities. Many of us use a car every day without thinking much of the risks vehicles pose and this is the same for many other situations young people are exposed to at home, school or in the communities where they live.’
‘Taking kids into the bush, exposing them to activities like abseiling, caving or canoeing, and letting them develop an understanding of risk and reward in that way is really far safer than some of the everyday situations they may be faced with.’
‘Even things as simple as setting up a tent, cooking a meal or lighting a fire are totally foreign to some young people, so entrusting them to do those things is a big step in helping them build self-esteem, independence, resilience, confidence, self-efficacy, leadership, and decision-making skills.’
Right Foot Forward was established with a vision of acknowledging the interconnectedness between humankind and the natural world, and the vital need for the sustainability of the planet and ourselves.
According to Laura and Jocelyn, it’s by supporting this critical relationship and strengthening connections that people are able to heal, survive, and thrive.
‘When people start to understand that life depends on sustaining the planet, it can have a profound impact on their self-awareness and the way they interact with others,’ Jocelyn says.
‘Getting out into the natural environment is the best way for people to come to that realisation.’
Laura says the evidence is irrefutable that time in nature has significant physiological and psychological benefits.
But Laura also has an intensely personal reason for exploring and pursuing nature-based therapies. In 2017, she lost her daughter Anna, who was born three months early.
Laura explains that she felt so small in the bigness of the experience and its profound, life changing impact. It was what drove her to work in a different context to the clinical settings where she had so much experience.
Nature’s Healing Hands
Activities such as trail running and tracing her path forward in nature were part of Laura’s own process for dealing with her loss, and she wanted to explore experience-based approaches to healing with others.
Laura’s experiences helped Right Foot Forward develop half and full-day specialist hikes geared towards supporting parents and their children. These include bereavement hikes, largely targeted to parents who have suffered loss, and specialist hikes for women and girls.
‘With our Trail Tracing bereavement hikes, we hike to acknowledge and honour the painful experience of pregnancy loss, miscarriage or stillbirth and the heartache that can sometimes be associated with IVF,’ Laura explains.
‘We support parents in their bereavement and create an opportunity for them to actively experience and connect with nature…There’s no denying that nature itself can provide immense therapeutic benefits, but at the same time, it’s important to provide professional guidance through the experience.’
Both Laura and Jocelyn agree that a level of regulation should be required in the discipline of nature-based therapy. That’s why they require participants in their multi-day youth programs to be referred.
It’s not necessarily a clinical referral – many of the course participants are referred by parents wanting to get their children away from screens – although often they’ll cater for at-risk youth who may be accompanied by youth workers.
‘All the professionals who accompany kids on our programs are astounded at how effective nature-based learning can be compared to the usual indoor learning environments,’ Jocelyn says.
‘There’s no doubt the impacts can be absolutely life-changing and that’s why there’s an international groundswell of interest in nature-based adventure therapy.’
In Australia, funding and government support for nature-based therapy are limited, even if providers have professional qualifications that may allow funding in clinical settings. Jocelyn and Laura hope this will change into the future as the benefits of adventure therapy become more broadly recognised.
Bring Back The Adventure
Jocelyn and Laura say the longer people can spend in nature the better, but time and cost constraints, as well as limited funding, mean it’s difficult for many young people to readily access the outdoors.
They’re saddened that changes to school curriculums have limited camps and meaningful outdoor education, and would like to see greater focus placed on nature-based learning.
‘One of the issues I see with many of the school-based programs that do still exist is that kids only get a brief taste of an experience,’ Jocelyn says.
‘They’ll have a half-day session of canoeing, hiking, mountain biking or caving, all of which require a new safety briefing and development of a new skill set. Moving so rapidly from one to another limits the opportunities for students to connect and develop understanding of the skill like they could if they were able to master the activity.’
‘Parents often can’t afford the time or cost to take kids away for meaningful periods, or they just don’t have the experience, confidence or know-how to step outside their comfort zones, so a percentage of this generation of kids are missing out on developing relationships with nature.’
But Jocelyn and Laura are far from pessimistic about the opportunities for people to experience the powerful, healing forces of nature. While Right Foot Forward is focused on providing therapy outcomes, they agree that most people can seek a certain degree of self-help.
‘We really encourage caregivers and educators to make opportunities available to young people – even if that means going to a suburban beach, river, park or nature reserve where kids can spend the day exploring in the shallows or climbing rocks and trees to strengthen a sense of their own abilities and limitations,’ Laura said.
According to Jocelyn and Laura, setting kids up early to understand and enjoy the power of outdoor adventure is a great catalyst for them to continue to pursue such experiences, enjoying the challenges, rewards, and therapeutic advantages that time in nature can bring.
Photos thanks to Right Foot Forward