Foundational Concepts 

Adventure therapy (AT) practitioners utilize a wide range of theoretical approaches, philosophies and concepts when providing services. In determining which concepts should be considered "foundational," it was important to consider which of these are unique and primary to AT, as opposed to those of which are found in other treatment modalities.

Each of these foundation concepts are rooted in the principles of experiential education, as well as a belief in the value of action and kinesthetic engagement of the client to create opportunities for change.

The Use of Environment and Nature

The treatment environment is a critical component of AT. Practitioners of AT engage and manage the environment as part of the treatment process, attending to the foundational concepts described here.

Involvement of risk and stress
Possibly the most controversial concept is the use of risk and stress. Risk is inherent in the natural environment, as it is in any endeavor. Even in activities in which risk is perceived as minimal, basic movement can be considered to carry some risk. This is obviously increased by moving outside, where inherent risks occur, such as weather. Understandably, the nature of the activity itself determines the baseline level of risk, and engaging in adventure activities will inevitably produce some level of risk and stress for participants.

In practicing AT, it is the assessment and appropriate use of this risk that are foundational, not simply the presence of risk alone. Effective practitioners manage risk and stress in a manner that best supports a change process for each client, including making decisions about engagement, sequencing, client choices, framing and reflection, client risk appraisal, and others. There should be a dynamic risk assessment before and during the activity that incorporates plans to adjust levels of risk/stress as needed. The use of risk and stress becomes harmful when practitioners do not adequately assess the client and environment and engage in practices that denigrate a person's mental health or cause harm to clients rather than creating positive change (Mitten, DATE). From this perspective, of crucial consideration is the client’s perception of the risk and care should be taken that all activities are evaluated from this perspective.

Understanding the appropriate use of risk and stress can lead to positive change for clients when effectively managed. Participating in adventure activities provide opportunities for clients to work through challenges, develop and implement effective coping strategies, build resilience, and increase the ability to manage stressors effectively. In order to effectively facilitate that process, the practitioner is responsible for monitoring levels of risk and stress, maintaining a safe therapeutic environment, and supporting clients in applying what they've learned outside of the treatment environment.

Natural and Logical Consequences
As clients engage in adventure activities, they experience the positive and negative consequences of their choices. This allows clients to increase in their level of self-awareness about their behavior choices, based on immediately occurring tangible and concrete feedback. This can lead to a different level of motivation to change or provide useful information for clients about their strengths and weaknesses. The use of natural and logical consequences is a standard practice in AT. Natural consequences are a natural outcome of a behavior without any enforcement on the part of the practitioner. Logical consequences, on the other hand, involve action taken by the practitioner.

Using the dynamic of natural consequences removes the practitioner as an enforcer or rescuer, which can create a more level power differential. For example, if a group of clients are camping, everyone is experiencing the same weather conditions and the choices made (put on a rain coat, set up a group shelter, leave important clothing out in the rain, etc.) give feedback to the client that would be received differently if just delivered by a practitioner without the same experience.

A logical consequence, on the other hand, does require the practitioner to enforce the consequence. For example, the consequence of the client choosing not to wear a helmet while climbing, means that the client does no longer gets to climb.

When using natural and logical consequences, practitioners must monitor the level of stress experienced by clients in order to prevent doing harm as well as monitor for potential safety issues and adjust accordingly.

Healing Power of Nature
The dynamic climate for change present in AT is created in part due to participation in the natural world and in part due to the experiential, adventure-based activities that occur in the natural environment. The therapeutic benefits of being in the outdoors are well documented and they are enhanced when combined with facilitation that utilizes dynamics in nature to provide immediate and non-judgmental feedback to clients (Berman, 2008; Groenewegen & Ven Den Berg, 2006; Mitchell & Popham, 2008).

The Shared Experience of the Practitioner

The dynamic role of the practitioner also differentiates AT from other forms of therapy. Practitioners of AT engage with clients in a shared experience that allows for several dynamics to emerge Muran & Barber). These include:

  • Increased pace of therapeutic relationship development (Harper, 2009)
  • Enhanced reflection due to in-moment events, multiple access points for reflection, and a strong connection to the client's current functioning.
  • Being present in the here-and-now shared experiences (Wright, 1997; Norton & Hsieh, 2011)
  • Opportunity to revisit dynamics and determine whether or not gains have been integrated.
  • A leveling of the power dynamic, which minimizes existence of a counter-therapeutic hierarchy (cite).
  • Increased likelihood of countertransference as well as different opportunities and risks associated with use of self. Maintaining appropriate boundaries becomes of vital importance - this is explored in more depth in the Ethical Considerations section.

The Actively Engaged Client Experience

In AT, clients are invited to engage in action and interact with the activity the same way they would with any other personal life experience. This process results in the client revealing who they are in an authentic manner as they participate in experiences. This authentic participation enhances development of the therapeutic contract and engagement in the development of treatment alliance through the active, concrete and analogous creation of it.

Clients often experience a parallel process where the dynamics of the adventure experience are reflective of the dynamics of the client's life experience. For example, a client's approach to solving an initiative problem will likely mirror his or her approach to solving problems in other places. If the client implements more effective strategies while working through an initiative, he or she will likely be more able to implement the same strategies at home. An important foundational concept for AT is the idea of client empowerment, freedom and responsibility. Often referred to in adventure education as "challenge by choice," this foundational concept emphasizes the idea that clients are responsible for choosing what learning or type of change they want. Clients are given the freedom to make choices and with that, the responsibility for the change or learning is theirs. This enhances the treatment process and allows clients to engage in self-directed, positive risk taking. In addition to this, the foundational belief in client responsibility enhances the client's accountability for treatment outcomes.

AT provides a wide range of options for reflection as experiences are engaged in on physical, emotional and cognitive levels. Clients are able to use all of their senses and experience a kinesthetic opportunity for reflection that is active and flexible (Norton, 2010).

The dynamic involvement in an experience that is shared by the practitioner and client described earlier also has significant ramifications for the client in AT, including:

  • The client is presented with an increased sense of vulnerability by the mere fact that their actions in the moment are in plain view of the practitioner. It is the difference between the client telling a practitioner about an embarrassing moment and a client doing something that embarrasses him/her in front of the practitioner.
  • A related concept is the fact that shared experience results in an increased likelihood for transference.
  • The shared experience provides an opportunity to give and receive help which enhances the development of empathy and altruism within the context of AT.

The Active Process as the Vehicle of Change

The active process as the vehicle for change is at the very core of AT. Practitioners of AT use concrete, real-life, kinesthetic experiences as therapeutic interventions to address client goals. 
A misconception that is sometimes made is that the activity selected creates the opportunity for therapeutic change. In AT, the opportunity for change is really created by the connection between the clinical assessment and the clinical intervention and the practitioner's translation of the client's issues into an activity intentionally designed to explore those issues. This is often referred to as a "kinesthetic metaphor." The treatment goal is more important, and more of a focus, than the specific tasks of the activity.

AT often incorporates the fun of the activity and the value of play as a part of the change process. The role of fun and play in AT is to enhance engagement with the client, offer a respite from negative and inhibiting affect, and to open the client's perception of the multiple possibilities for growth. It is theorized that the client’s “resistance” to change and fear of taking risks will be decreased through play.

The opportunity for clients to practice new skills and experiment with managing life experiences in new and healthier ways is enhanced through AT. Practitioners who recognize that the client has moved along in the process of change (through recognition of their need to change and preparation for new behavior) can present activities that offer the client an opportunity to test what they are learning. Additionally, the practitioner can provide immediate feedback in the here-and-now context. This opportunity for practice is significant to help clients integrate learning.

A central component of almost all AT application is the phenomenon of parallel process. This refers to how the process unfolding in the therapy session mirrors the client's actual functioning in life. It is almost as if the activity becomes a projective technique in which typical behavioral patterns, thought processes, cognitive structures, affective responding, and physiological reactions are displayed for the client and practitioner to evaluate and explore for meaning. These complex intrapersonal processes are readily accessible and transparent in the context of AT.

There is also the thought that AT can be used to create an identical process, opposed to one we would label as parallel. When working with young children, for example, the practitioner may choose to present activities requiring social skills that are exactly the same as those required to meet treatment goals.