Theory is of vital importance to informing the practice of adventure therapy (Ringer & Gillis, 1996; Hoyer, 2004). Adventure therapy is a rapidly developing, multi-disciplinary, multi-theoretical modality of treatment (CITE) that incorporates elements of more well-established theories from a range of diverse perspectives. Drawing from the fields of psychology, education, sociology, outdoor education, and a number of others, the central question of "what makes adventure therapy work" continues to be debated in the literature, as well as in both formal and informal gatherings of adventure therapy practitioners (links to AEE, IATC, etc).

Similar to more eclectic views of traditional psychotherapy, it may well be that no single psychological, sociological, or spiritual model can fully explain the complex forces at work in adventure therapy (Boudette, 1989). This theoretical pluralism is reflective of the diversity of the field, thus it is important to avoid elevating one theory over another. However, it is critical to articulate the theoretical perspectives that are currently assumed to be at the core of explaining the process of adventure therapy, while still allowing for the flexible application of a range of additional perspectives. As with other forms of therapy, this tends to be based on the unique lens of the practitioner, program, client needs, and treatment setting.

In many ways, adventure therapy is early on in its theoretical development. There are multiple, and at times divergent, perspectives from practitioners on what the theoretical foundations of adventure therapy consist of. It is an important evolutionary era in the field, as practitioners work toward increased theoretical understanding and generate new areas of understanding that inform the process. Below, five core perspectives are presented as supporting theories underpinning the adventure therapy process.

Experiential Learning Theory/Experiential Education Philosophy 

The inter-relationship between psychological, sociological and educational theories has long been discussed, especially in the domain of learning (Breunig, 2009; Delay, 1996; Quay, 2003). Experiential learning theory and experiential education have long been considered core perspectives informing adventure therapy (Breunig, 2005; Dewey, 1938; Itin, 1999; Seaman, 2008). Experiential education focuses on the intentional transactive relationship between practitioner (teacher) and client (student) around common and often shared experiences (Cassidy, 2009; Itin, 1999). Central to the theory is the recognition that the learning must be tangible for the client, and involves an ongoing process of creating and associating meaning to the experience. This occurs through intentionally facilitated opportunities for reflection and processing (Breunig, 2005; Dewey, 1938).

Systems Theory 

Adventure therapy seems to draw heavily on a systems perspective, including but not limited to general systems theory, social systems theory, ecological systems theory, and family systems theory (Hoyer, 2004). An adventure therapy practitioner utilizing systems theory incorporates an understanding of individual functioning, the complex social and environmental context, and the interactions between these 2 systems. Adventure therapy interventions in this context are structured to create systemic change in a parallel social or environmental context, such as home or school (Hoyer, 2004).

Existential Theory 

Choice and exploration of the unknown are often considered to be important components of the learning associated with adventure therapy. Adventure therapy draws heavily upon exploration of the choices clients make, their approach to the challenges posed, and the meaning attached to activities or interactions. Existentialism and related constructivist perspectives inform the client's creation of meaning and interpretations related to their experience.

Behavioral/Cognitive Behavioral Theory 

Adventure therapy draws heavily on the action orientation of behavioral perspectives as well as the development of increased awareness of thought processes and the role of cognition in the change process. In this perspective, change in behavior is the ultimate goal thus special attention is paid to what clients actually do in activities and associated self-talk. Where a peer group is involved, social learning (Bandura) and modeling (both individual and group) are considered to be a crucial part of the adventure therapy process and practitioners draw attention to this process through the use of natural consequences and reflection.

Psychodynamic Theory 

Adventure therapy practitioners tend to focus on a here-and-now orientation, which is similar to process-oriented psychodynamic therapy and Yalom's Social Microcosm theory (Newes & Bandoroff, 2004). From this perspective, practitioners maintain awareness of the historical elements that impact and inform current relationships and assess the underlying dynamics revealed in the therapy process. When appropriate, adventure therapists work directly with the historical elements to address current behavioral elements (Ringer & Gillis, 1996) although the focus tends to be on those seen in the context of the experience.


Adventure therapy practitioners draw from a diverse range of theoretical perspectives to guide their practice. Although several core perspectives are identified above, numerous other theoretical orientations are utilized and it would be impossible to name all of them. In addition to drawing from established theoretical orientations, many people question if there is a theory of adventure therapy that is unique and distinct from these core perspectives, if the "whole" is not just the "sum of the parts." Experts continue to debate whether or not it is useful or even possible to articulate "the theory of adventure therapy" in addition to debating which theories are considered to be core perspectives informing our practice. However, whatever theoretical orientations are utilized, it is considered to be best practice to have identified theoretical perspectives that guide adventure therapy practice.