Adventure Therapy

Outdoor Education History

Historical & Developmental Aspects of Academic Knowledge about Adventure Therapy

James Neill
Last updated:
28 Oct 2006

The first dedicated adventure therapy literature emerged in an identifiable way during the late 1950's and early 1960s, around the time of the beginning of Outward Bound courses in the USA (1961, Colorado Outward Bound School (Miner, 1980). 

However, the real beginning of rigorous research within the field of adventure therapy and outdoor education is marked by the classic Kelly and Baer's studies (1960's and 1970's) of the long-term effects of long Outward Bound programs on the delinquency rates of at risk adolescent males, including a ten-year followup study.

Philosophically, a therapeutic role for nature, wilderness and adventure can be traced to the beginning of human evolution, tribal life, the first modern civilizations, and various pre-20th century works, such as Rousseau's Emile

More recently, between the 1960's and the 1990s, adventure therapy practice in North America drew heavily on the experiential education philosophy of Dewey theory (Dewey, 1938/1997), which argued that education was about creating experiences which were conducive to a person's future and the society's future. 

More recently, Frumkin (2001) has written an interesting account of the various sources of research evidence about the positive, healing effects of nature on human health, which includes adventure therapy programs, as well the effects of animals on human health, and the effects of natural scenes (e.g., photographs) in hospitals and workplaces. 

Not all adventure therapy programs take place in nature; many occur in relatively artificial environments, such as on ropes challenge courses and climbing gyms.  These programs focus more on the potential experiential power of adventurous activities, the expertise of a facilitative guide, the cumulative sequencing of experiences, and the infusion of traditional therapeutic methods, which might include patient assessment, counseling, and so on.

Gillis (2002) has facilitated the creation of a useful, on-line historical timetable of important events in the development of adventure therapy.  This suggests that following from some early experimental camping programs in the early 1900s, intentional programming of adventure-type processes for people who had been identified as being behaviorally or mentally dysfunctional first began in the 1960s.  Perhaps missing from this history is the role of the sanatorium, which utilized an isolated, natural environment,  hospital setting for people with tuberculosis; sanatoriums were also used for people with untreatable mental health disorders.  They were popular in the 1800's in Europe.

Thus we seem to have a picture of the field of adventure therapy evolving in the 1960s, although there were earlier experiments.  The origins seems traceable as far back to the beginning of human evolution, when nature experiences were used to heal.  Today, adventure therapy program formats vary incredibly, such as equine therapy, sweat lodge ceremonies,  indoor group initiative tasks, long wilderness expeditions, and so on.

Although there has been substantial implementation of adventure therapy programs over the last 40 years, there has been a notable lack of well conducted research and evaluation.  Gillis (1992, 2000; Gillis & Thomsen, 1996) has provided arguably the best and most consistent reviewing of the adventure therapy research literature, and has identified several major tasks, including the conduct of meta-analysis, better quality outcome research, and more indepth case studies. 

Gillis and Dene Berman, leading North American adventure therapists, have both called for standardized manuals of adventure therapy treatment to be developed, which would be an indication of a growing professionalism and quality in adventure therapy.  At the 1st International Adventure Therapy Conference, in Perth, Western Australia, 1997, Lee Gillis facilitated a session which generated a useful list of current needs in adventure therapy.

Adventure therapy has evolved to gradually become an increasingly recognized field of psychological intervention, although it is still largely considered a fringe methodology, lacking in clear-cut demonstration of efficacy, professional training, and methodology.

The international adventure therapy conferences and related proceedings have helped to foster and focus collective development of adventure therapy research, but the time is also ripe for developing an "International Journal of Adventure Therapy".