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Adventure Therapy: A fresh take on therapy

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks” ~ John Muir

As I look out from a towering mountain on Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland, I see Kirkjufell Mountain and the glimmering Atlantic Ocean in the distance. And in this moment I breathe in the fresh Icelandic air, appreciate the IMG_0139cawing and soaring seagulls, and feel a sense of renewing in the innermost of my being. It took 2 days in the backcountry hiking and camping in order for me and my friend Sean to get to that towering mountain, and through that process, no words were needed to communicate that both of our lives were changed in that moment due to the challenge, the risks, and the brotherhood that was shared.

This same inner change can occur for anyone. You don’t have to be in a remote part of Iceland for it to happen either. You can be sitting in your backyard, playing in Centennial Center Park, hiking up to Lookout Mountain, or climbing in Clear Creek Canyon. Simply by slowing down your (or your teenager’s) hectic and technology filled life can allow for a deeper connection within yourself and with the people you share life with. Experiencing inner change through experiences is at the core of Adventure Therapy.

Defining Adventure Therapy

With the announcement that CTT will be providing community based adventure therapy (AT), many families have questions about what exactly that means. Adventure Therapy at Colorado Teen Therapy (CTT) engages clients in active/kinesthetic activities that facilitate the therapeutic process by allowing experience to be the guiding force. Michael A. Gass, H.L. “Lee” Gillis, and Keith C. Russell (2012) provide a concrete definition for AT in their book, Adventure Therapy: Theory, Research, and Practice:00070016

“Adventure therapy…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” (p. 1).

Gass, Gillis, and Russell further outline the differences between AT and other modalities of therapy:

  • The positive influence of nature in the therapeutic healing process
  • The use of eustress or the positive use of stress
  • The active and direct use of client participation and responsibility in their therapeutic process
  • The involvement in adventure experiences meaningful for the particular client, particularly in terms of natural consequences
  • The focus on positive changes in the client’s present and future functional behavior
  • The strong ethic of care and support embraced throughout the therapeutic experience, particularly give the use of unfamiliar experiences in therapy (p. 3)

Adventure Therapy at CTT

Adventure Therapy at CTT looks slightly different than what some traditional wilderness therapy programs might offer. Instead of a one time extended trip into the wilderness, CTT incorporates adventure therapy into the ongoing treatment plan. Families working with any of our therapists can request an adventure therapy experience or a therapist can recommend that adventure therapy be implemented to assist towards therapeutic progress.

These experiences can be client only, family oriented, or group focused. Activities that can be used in adventure therapy include (but are by no means limited to) walking through a park, going on an easy/difficult hike, completing group initiatives/challenges, ropes courses, hiking a 14er, snow shoeing, rock climbing, rappelling, and much more. All adventure therapy programming is done in conjunction with the family, client, and therapist and is focused on assisting and cultivating therapeutic growth and change. When families and clients are put into unfamiliar settings, engage in outdoor activities, and take time to process the experience, healing and change naturally occur.

I encourage all clients/families to take the time, whether in therapy or on your own, to get outside, experience something new and unknown, and develop deeper bonds with each other and yourself. Plan a family hike, go on a bike ride, ascend a mountain, or simply sit on your front porch. No matter what you IMG_2942do, having some adventure thrown into our busy lives can create lasting change.


There are many different research articles, resources, and books that help with the understanding of what exactly adventure therapy is and its effectiveness with teens. Below you’ll find links to several helpful resources, websites, books, and articles.

Colorado Teen Therapy – Adventure Therapy

Colorado Teen Therapy – Adventure Group Components

Colorado Teen Therapy – History and Literature Review on Wilderness Therapy by Michael Heckendorn

Association of Experiential Education

National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs

Project Adventure

Bradford Woods – Article on Adventure Therapy

Adventure Therapy with Groups – Article by H.L. “Lee” Gillis & Michael A. Gass

Adventure Therapy: Theory, Research, and Practice – Book by Michael A. Gass, H.L. “Lee” Gillis, & Keith C. Russell

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