Definition of Adventure Therapy 

Current preferred practice acknowledges that adventure therapy can occur indoors or outdoors as well as in urban or rural settings. It also uses games, trust activities, initiatives, high and low challenge course, high adventure and wilderness based programming. All are powerful tools, although they may be quite distinct in practice. (See the Treatment Applications section for further explanation) For example, the healing power of wilderness and the outdoors is well-acknowledged, however, we also recognize that AT can occur effectively without exposure to the outdoors.

Several definitions exist in the adventure therapy literature. In order to explore a definition of adventure therapy, we explored each definition and identified the components that were common to each. It is important to note that the following guidelines were applied to the development of a generalized definition for adventure therapy.

  • Specific interventions or optional practices are not included. For example, issues related to facilitator choice of intervention style (e.g., whether to use isomorphic frontloading or what level of challenge to incorporate in an activity).
  • It reflects a flexible environmental context, such as wilderness, outpatient or residential.
  • It reflects a flexible interpersonal context, such as individual, group, or family.
  • It focuses on the unique aspects of adventure therapy superimposed on a general therapy definition. For example, therapy, whether adventure or other form, is always provided by a certified or licensed mental health professional or its equivalent in the state, province or country in which the practitioner operates. Similarly, the expectation that interventions will be prescribed by an assessment of client needs and general functioning is universal.

The following were found to be common facets in the reviewed definitions as well as additional current thoughts.

Adventure Therapy:

  • Utilizes active (kinesthetic) experiential methodology[1] to engage clients and establish an identical or parallel process[2] between the client's life experience and the client's therapeutic experience and enhances the transfer of learning from the therapeutic context to the client's life.
  • Focuses on therapeutic goals[3], possibly including the cognitive[4], behavioral[5], affective,[6] physical and spiritual facets of the person.[7] This differentiates adventure therapy from uses of adventure for recreational, education, or physical health purposes.
  • Involves a dynamic therapist-client relationship[8] enhanced through the shared experience and the active involvement of the client in the creation and maintenance of an effective therapeutic environment, such as goal setting[9], personal decision-making[10], and achieving outcomes.[11] The therapist is intentional[12] in facilitation of process, the selection and design of the intervention, and about the role of the environment. This process may, but does not always, include real or perceived, physical or psychological stress or discomfort.[13]
  • Incorporates a dynamic use of the environment and often the role of nature. [14] This may include exposure to unique environments or environments with adaptive dissonance for the client.[15]

The following definition is an example that reflects the most current professional perception of adventure therapy.

AT is the prescriptive use of adventure experiences provided by mental health professionals, often conducted in natural settings that kinesthetically engage clients on cognitive, affective, and behavioral levels." (Gass, Gillis, and Russell, 2012) 


[1] Gass, Gillis, & Russell (2012); Friese (2006); Neill (2004); Alvarez and Stauffer (2001); Gillis & Ringer (1999); Gillis, Ringer, Priest (1999); Crisp (1998); Thomsen & Gillis (1996); Gillis (1995); Gass (1993)

[2] Thomsen & Gillis (1996)

[3] Gass, Gillis, & Russell (2012); Berman & Berman (2008); Neill (2004); Alvarez and Stauffer (2001); Itin (2001); Priest (2006); Gillis & Ringer (1999); Gillis (1995)

[4] Gass, Gillis, & Russell (2012); Schoel & Maizell (2002); Neill (2004); Schoel & Maizell (2002); Itin (2001); Thomsen & Gillis (1996); Gillis (1995)

[5] Gass, Gillis, & Russell (2012); Neill (2004); Schoel & Maizell (2002); Itin (2001); Thomsen & Gillis (1996); Gillis (1995)

[6] Gass, Gillis, & Russell (2012); Neill (2004); Schoel & Maizell (2002); Itin (2001); Thomsen & Gillis (1996); Gillis (1995)

[7] Wedding & Wedding (? - ask tiffany wynn)

[8] Norcross (2011); Berman & Berman (2008); Thomsen & Gillis (1996)

[9] Crisp (1998)

[10] Crisp (1998)

[11] Crisp (1998)

[12] Gass, Gillis, & Russell (2012); Berman & Berman (2008); Neill (2004); Alvarez and Stauffer (2001); Itin (2001); Gillis & Ringer (1999); Thomsen & Gillis (1996)

[13] Crisp (1998); Thomsen & Gillis (1996)

[14] Gass, Gillis, & Russell (2012); Neill (2004)

[15] reference missing - need to add.