Combining therapy with adventure in the great outdoors could help kids learn social and emotional skills that improve their mental health, a new study shows.
One-in-seven Australians aged 4-17 experience mental health disorders. Yet policies and interventions focus on adults while approaches to helping younger people lag behind.
Dr Danielle Tracey and her colleagues Dr Gray, Dr Truong and Dr Ward of Western Sydney University sought to address this gap through a study using acceptance and commitment therapy alongside adventure therapy.
The new interdisciplinary approach aims to promote the wellbeing of children with challenging behavioural and or emotional needs.
The program is based on interactive and outdoor activities. These included themed nature walks and the use of metaphors to help children identify anger, games working with knots to develop problem solving skills, and the minefield game in which students verbally guide their blindfolded teachers though an imaginary minefield to build trust and respect.
“The heart of adventure therapy is using the outdoors and experiential learning to deal with psychosocial difficulties,” Dr Tracey said.
“Learning through experience, interaction with nature, dealing with risk, group therapy, and a focus on positive change are all part of adventure therapy.”
Dr Tracey added that adventure therapy is useful both in its ability to engage children as well as the outcomes it provides.
“Children often prefer the outdoors. It offers an alternative to traditional interventions which require children to spend periods of time sitting still, writing or talking,” she said.
The program is novel in that it uses adventure therapy in conjunction with acceptance and commitment therapy.
Acceptance and commitment therapy seeks to align people’s thinking and behaviour, so they can achieve a valued and meaningful life.
This is done through building psychological flexibility (exemplified in the ability to be present in the moment), pursuit of important values and acceptance of the presence of unpleasant experiences.
Dr Tracey pointed out that acceptance and commitment therapy is well suited to children as it uses metaphors rather than literal instructions. Furthermore, its more famous aspects, mindfulness and acceptance, appear more easily picked up by children than adults.
Dr Tracey said the program showed positive improvements in wellbeing and skills development for children with challenging behavioural and or emotional needs.
“Post program evaluation saw child participants express the use of self-calming through mindfulness. They also referenced taking time out, calming down and meditation,” she said.
“We also saw an expressed commitment to action through identifying positive behaviours they needed to follow to achieve their valued life.”
The results, while founded on a small-scale inquiry of nine children aged 11-12, nevertheless provide encouraging insights into the possible positive impacts of this novel interdisciplinary approach.