Adventure as Therapeutic Intervention: Musings of an Adventure Therapist

By Tavia McKinnon, RSW

As a social worker, I have been trained to intervene at the points of connection between humans and their environment. As an adventure therapist who spends a good deal of her time with clients outdoors, my interventions are also frequently at the point of connection between humans and the natural world.

When asked by new acquaintances what I do for work, sometimes I respond with “social worker”, which carries the unfortunate property of triggering “Oh!”s and sympathetic Better you than me responses. Sometimes in an effort to keep things simple I just say “I work outside with kids”, an answer that, although true, perhaps doesn’t do justice to the work we do here at Momenta, nor to the people we work with. And sometimes, when I am feeling particularly courageous and willing to engage in the questions that will inevitably follow, I will call myself an adventure therapist.

“Adventure therapist!” you exclaim, interest piqued – this doesn’t fall into the realm of typical jobs, and it is understandably hard to know how to react. Perhaps it is best to ask follow up questions, like: “What does it mean to be an adventure therapist?” and “You don’t go outside in the winter, do you?!”  

Fortunately I’ve come to expect these questions, and today I even have answers prepared. I might start by citing prominent adventure therapists Maurie Lung, Gary Stauffer and Tony Alvarez, who refer to the practice of adventure therapy as “the use of activities as one of the main processes of counseling”; an approach that “calls for the intentional use of specific adventure and experiential activities to move a client toward achievement of treatment goals [and] uses action as a primary process of treatment and the main agent of change” (Lung, Stauffer & Alvarez, 2008, p.4). This definition would be particularly useful in helping me explain that adventure therapy can happen indoors or out; that when I say adventure, I’m not necessarily talking about a multi-day expedition into the backcountry. Although expeditions in the backcountry certainly can provide opportunity for both adventure and therapy, adventure can also be intentionally created in an urban or indoor space; it will just take a different form. Instead of scaling actual mountains and learning to light a fire to ward off the cold darkness of the night, we ask our clients to challenge themselves physically, mentally and emotionally through experiences and adventures tailored to the needs and goals of the group or individual. Sure, maybe this means we will go rock-climbing or learn to build a fire (outside, of course) if this is the right fit therapeutically, but whether it is a fire that won’t start or a wobbly Jenga tower that we can’t keep from toppling, the important piece is to create opportunity for clients to come up against adversity in the moment. The presence of a tangible struggle allows the client and therapist to explore and work through challenges and successes as they arise, rather than simply discussing them in an abstract sense. 

So, I could cite a definition of adventure therapy and explain that it can take place indoors as well as out. Alternatively, I could describe the diverse theoretical perspectives that together form the framework of my interventions. Under the umbrella of “Adventure Therapy”, I am pulling together research and knowledge not only from other adventure therapists, but also from the fields of social work, youth work and child development, psychology, experiential and outdoor education, and recreation management. 

Since my work often does take place outdoors (and yes, sometimes in the backcountry after all), it can admittedly be hard to define exactly where my role of social worker, counsellor, facilitator or canoe guide ends, and where my role of adventure therapist begins. It might help to explain that my work as an adventure therapist is fundamentally based on three premises: 

  1. The relationship that develops between the client and therapist (and between clients, when group work is involved) is the foundation for all future work together.
  1. Kinaesthetic movement helps clients to regulate their bodies, engage fully in the present moment, and experience adversity and success tangibly and in real time.
  1. Experiential, or adventure activities are central to the therapeutic process, and are tools that can be used intentionally by the therapist to create challenge, facilitate reflection and connect therapeutic experiences to daily living.

When taking adventure therapy outdoors, I also consider the sensory stimulation of natural settings, which has the potential either to bring people into the present moment in a calming way, or trigger difficult emotional and physiological responses. In wilderness and residential camp settings, the remote and more prolonged nature of the experience can serve to immerse clients more fully in their immediate environment and offer groups the opportunity to build a strong sense of community. There, the therapeutic focus becomes not only building on the strengths and goals of the individual, but also building group cohesion and awareness of group processes over time.

I’m an adventure therapist who works with youth, and by this point you may have an idea of what that means. But perhaps (around the time when I admit that my work week often encompasses the weekend, or when I cheerfully reply that yes, I still work outside in January), the natural question to follow is Why? And the answer, the raison-d’être if you will, is found in the emotional connection that comes with relationships built over time with children, youth, families and communities. In a way, the participants in Momenta’s programs could likely tell you why I do what I do far better than I can. They could tell you that they’re happy to be at program, they’ve discovered they’re good at tree-climbing, or they’ve learned not to give up and to keep trying to find new ways to solve problems.

Indeed, being an adventure therapist can be as rewarding as it is diverse. Unforgettably, there are moments of failure and grief, of challenge and uncertainty – moments of living, as much as possible, the model of trying, reflecting, learning and trying again that is at the heart of experiential education. As an adventure therapist, challenge is not only part of the job, it is central to our therapeutic toolbox as we seek to facilitate meaningful learning, and often this means pushing ourselves as well.

Equally memorable, however, are instances of breakthrough, where relationships are strengthened, experiences become formative and clients realize that they are growing as individuals or as a group in ways they had never thought possible. These are the moments when you say to yourself, “aha! This is adventure therapy”:

The moment when you’ve spent two hours pulling yourself through a lake-turned-wild-rice-field and emerge to join your canoe mates in miraculously open water, paddles held up in celebration and spontaneously bursting into song as the sun begins to set; moments where circumstance brings your group together into the closeness of a shared moment, be it triumph or trial.

The moment when you’re walking down a path with a group as you have so many times before, and you hear the youth voicing memories that they’ve planted along the way: “this is where the grass grows tall . . . this is where we put the hammock . . . this is where we play our favourite game . . this is our ‘spot’.”

The moment when caregivers and community members share that their children count down the days until their next day of program.

The moment when a young person’s voice reverberates from inside an upside-down canoe as they work their way down a portage trail: “I can’t believe I’m doing this . . . it makes me feel strong!”

The moment when you’re sitting around a campfire and the first person looks up and notices the stars, and suddenly everyone is talking about constellations and which way is North and how many stars you can see when you’re outside the city, and one person says “I used to do this when I was a kid…it’s been a long time, this brings me back.”

The moment when something clicks within a group, when awkward silence evolves into laughs and chatter, or when conflict arises and the group is able to set differences aside and work through it together, and afterwards one group member says, upon reflection: “that was a deep talk”.

The moment when you encounter a young person who attended a program several years ago, and they remember the name of every single person who was in their group, and they say, “remember that rice field?” or “remember how I carried that canoe?” or “I was going through a really hard time….but we had fun, that was good”.  

Being an adventure therapist can at times feel hard to define, and for good reason: our role may shift depending on our context, our physical environment, our clients and their goals on any given day. As a social worker looking to put her best foot forward, I walk alongside my clients as they navigate the physical and social terrain of their world. Along the way, I look to my toolbox of therapist skills, I reflect on the premises of adventure therapy that are most important to me, and I think about the therapeutic value of being outdoors. But mostly, I think about the people next to me. You can call me a canoe instructor. You can call me a social worker. After reading this, you might even call me an adventure therapist. But at the end of the day, whether the sun is setting as we build our fire, or whether we’re at the office picking up fallen Jenga pieces and putting them back in the box, I hope we have adventured through enough wilderness together that you feel okay just calling me Tavia. 


Lung, M., Stauffer, G. & Alvarez, T. (2008). Power of One: Using Adventure and Experiential Activities Within One On One Counseling Sessions. Oklahoma City, OK: Wood ’N’ Barnes Publishing.