6 Types of Outdoor Therapy That Work


Using outdoor therapy can make a difference in reaching teens. For some, being active and pushed physically helps them open up emotionally. Others connect with nature and have emotional or spiritual breakthroughs because of being in a different environment. Still others respond well to the group bonding and experiences that occur with outdoor activities that do not happen in typical group settings. However you reach your client, outdoor therapy opens up new possibilities to reach those who do not respond well to traditional talk therapy. Below are six types of outdoor therapy that work.

#1. Hiking

Teens who get outdoors and get moving can have more success in their therapy just by being in a natural environment and being physically challenged. Hiking offers unique opportunities for psychoeducation as the physical challenges offer moments to process difficult emotions or previous trauma in an organic way. It also provides the opportunity for both individual and group interaction. Hiking offers a physical metaphor for the journey of therapy—a journey riddled with various challenges, working through the challenges, reaching the destination, and then returning with a sense of wisdom and accomplishment.

#2. Rock Climbing

Rock climbing is an activity that can be done indoors on rock walls or outdoors on actual rock terrain. Particularly when done outdoors, climbing falls into the category of adventure therapy, as it involves greater physical effort and more risk-taking. There are also more opportunities to learn trust and cooperation through the actual physical process of climbing. Participants also learn self-reliance and problem-solving skills and develop self-confidence and emotional resilience as a result of the activity.

The therapeutic potential of the experience is unlimited as the physical and mental limitations of the adolescents are tested through the activity itself. Teens grow mentally and emotionally and receive individual and group mentoring as part of the activity.

#3. Canoeing/Kayaking

Canoeing and kayaking both take advantage of the risks and rewards of being on the water, with the level of risk variable depending on the watercourse. Both activities promote cooperation and trust while developing mental, physical, and emotional endurance and resilience. These methods allow for both individual and group mentoring in a therapeutic environment that can range from peaceful to very challenging. Teens often develop an increased sense of self-confidence and are able to create bonds with peers during the activities as well.

#4. Mountain Biking

Mountain biking combines a skill that many teens already have–riding a bicycle–with the additional challenge of riding trails. Like other activities, the challenge can be more basic or more intense, depending on the terrain. Mountain biking provides more intense physical exercise with a greater sense of accomplishment at the end of the ride. Therapy occurs primarily before and after the actual activity and can be offered both individually and in a group setting. Participants bond with one another as they struggle together to meet the challenges of each ride, which encourages teamwork and building relationships of trust while increasing emotional strength and resilience.

#5. Horseback Riding

Equestrian therapy is a well-known evidence-based practice in the treatment of addiction. The therapy involves learning to care for and getting to know the horses. These activities provide opportunities for non-judgmental, non-verbal interactions with other living beings, as well as developing responsibility, which in turn fosters self-confidence.

Learning to ride offers more opportunities for both physical activity and therapy and provides a fun distraction from the typical therapeutic environment. Despite the work involved in caring for the horses, teens often respond particularly well to equine therapy, as it allows them to take ownership of their time and efforts and gives them a sense of accomplishment.

#6. Paddleboarding or Surfing

Paddleboarding and surfing both provide fun and a challenge through activities that are also manageable for youth. Like other forms of outdoor therapy, physical exercise promotes healing through both individual and group therapy in an inclusive social environment.

The benefits of developing both physical and emotional strength and resilience come from learning to surf or paddleboard. The added element of the ocean and learning respect and reverence for the power of the waves can be particularly meaningful for adolescents with behavioral issues.

These therapies are not about producing hikers, rock climbers, kayakers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, or surfers. They are about reaching clients therapeutically by using these various methods of outdoor therapy. Developing skills in these areas can help to create more self-confidence and emotional resilience and give your clients a sense of accomplishment, and these activities can also help your teen clients to have fun while having therapy. First and foremost, however, they are methods of therapy that help you reach clients in meaningful and purposeful ways. These activities help them to process in powerful and unforgettable, often life-changing, ways. These are therapeutic methods that work.

Getting your teen clients outdoors and allowing them to experience different physical and adventure therapies can help you to reach clients who struggle to communicate through typical talk therapy. The physical demands of these therapies help to increase self-confidence and improve emotional resilience as they powerfully process difficult emotions and heal. Our programs at Sustain Recovery offer extended residential care to teens with addiction and mental health diagnoses. We focus on developing accountability and independence in a structured environment with staff who are passionate about helping teens to grow and heal. Our program offers clients the opportunity to transition back home in a gradual way. We help them connect with support in their communities for long-term success. If you have a client that might benefit from a program like this, call our Irvine, California, facility at (949) 407-9052 to learn more about what we do.