Using Nature as Therapy

For as long as history has been recorded, human beings have felt a deep connection to the land and world around them. This connection has been a normal part of children’s lives as they grow, and many of us can remember running through fields and catching fireflies or exploring a nearby creek. For some of us summer vacation meant a return to nature and escaping a stifling classroom. Unfortunately, this has been changing over the last couple of decades. Climate controlled homes, video games, electronics, phones, computers and other factors play into this.

Some students who come to Heritage come from wilderness therapy programs. There are two primary types of wilderness therapy programs, primitive and adventure based. The primitive type involves the use of primitive skills, such as friction fire making, carving utensils and bowls, and wilderness survival skills. Quite often the student is greeted at a parent weekend by parents thinking their son or daughter is in desperate need of a good shower.

The adventure based programs use the natural world to help create mastery experiences in adolescents. Both programs benefit from the natural milieu in which they base their activities. This milieu is also available in residential treatment programs. This is particularly true at  Heritage which is closely based to a myriad of outdoor opportunities.

Research about the positive benefits of experiencing nature is plentiful. Phrases such as ‘nature-deficit disorder’ are a call to return to the connection many have lost. When was the last time we really just purposefully looked at the stars? When was the last time we just sat in nature until our bodies returned to the rhythm of the land around us and the critters and creatures became used to our presence?

There is something we gain from a connection to the natural world. We benefit, our kids benefit, and adolescents in treatment have life changing moments when in nature. This year we have challenged ourselves to “make every moment count.” A residential setting offers thousands of moments of change and growth for students. Staff are trained to see and use these moments as times to connect and teach.

As the world awakens in Spring, we find more opportunities to venture from campus and engage the senses in the natural world. Our talented and creative recreational therapists have designed an outdoor adventure program that helps students engage in these mastery experiences such as canyoneering, rock climbing, hiking, and other activities.

The Elevate homes go hiking and spend time outdoors. Our Peers homes find ways to integrate the outdoors into the lives of their students. This use of the outdoors helps students coming from a wilderness program to pick up where they left off while also engaging in year-round education. While this can be helpful to the students here, the invitation is open to all; venture forth from our homes, connect with the natural world around us. See a sunrise, sunset, a wild songbird, wildflowers in a mountain meadow, the ebb and flow of tides, in short, the amazing world we overlook so often.

Studies have linked engaging with the outdoors as a natural antidepressant. We tend to be less anxious when getting a dose of Vitamin N (to borrow another common phrase). Studies have linked clearer thinking, insight and creativity with time spent outdoors. We connect socially with people around us, we learn more about what is right outside our windows and doors, and we might find a new healthy hobby such as climbing, mountain biking, or hiking. Even short campouts help fight nature-deficit disorder. Start small, but get outside! Reconnect with nature and the natural world. Be creative and find what works for you and maybe you’ll feel that famous call of the mountains and feel you must go. Maybe you will climb it, because it is there. Maybe you will simply feel the cool summer breeze ruffling your hair. No matter how you engage in nature, don’t be surprised if you feel just a little more settled and relaxed. When you experience it, invite others to have the same experience! We could all use a little more Vitamin N.

Happy trails!