Written by BIRDWINGS FOREST SCHOOL
“Sometimes when you try hard things, you find out you can actually do them!”
This exclamation was the epiphany that came to a child while his group was scrambling up a gully. He was leaning over the steep rock-face he had just climbed up, a little surprised that he had managed to get up there.
Earlier this child, and many of the children in this group, were hesitant about taking risks. They were not confident in their physical abilities and their emotional resilience to challenging situations was low, which meant that trying new experiences resulted in feelings of anxiety. This same spot had previously challenged them, however, after three months of participating in adventurous play in our programs, the children developed a new outlook on challenges that allowed them to return to this spot with a sense of excitement and curiosity rather than worries about the unknown.
During the climb, the children demonstrated their newfound wisdom as they discussed what they were able to achieve now: “It doesn’t even scare me!”. The group were now used to checking with each other about the safest way up the gully, recalling important safety tips, such as avoiding loose handholds, and to “make a plan” before they start to climb. Although the group didn’t make it to the top of the gully this time, they walked up and down the steep incline for two hours, playing adventurously, discussing possibilities and revelling in their new-found awareness of how awesome they are.
This shift in perspective is a key aspect of adventure therapy. By facing and overcoming physical and emotional challenges in a safe and supportive environment, the children begin to see their own abilities in a new light. We just love to celebrate these moments of self-realisation when children can recognise their own growth. It comes as a transformative epiphany and the sense of accomplishment is well earned. These are REAL life-changing experiences.
Long Term Benefits
Adventure Therapy isn’t always about doing all the hard things. It shouldn’t be a bootcamp where we launch straight into doing all the challenges and learn all the life lessons. Rather, this can be very harmful for children, placing them in stressful situations they are not yet equipped to work through. The transformative effect of growing and learning in a natural environment should unfold gradually. We use nature first as a place to connect with each other so that we can relax, reset and refocus before the work of re-visioning our strengths begins. This can take some time: weeks, maybe even months! For some children, just being out in nature is challenging enough to begin with.
Start with PLAY
So first of all, we PLAY. We build trust through experiences of joy, freedom and choice. Unstructured, free-form play in natural settings is an opportunity for children to discover, create and embrace the challenges that come with an unpredictable environment. Nature play provides children with the opportunity to develop their creativity and imagination. Children are free to explore and play in an environment that is not constrained by too many rules other than the agreements we make that will keep ourselves, each other and the environment a safe place. We don’t tell them what to do, rather encourage them to figure out how they themselves could do it. Little puzzles that make the learning so much more meaningful. Our mentors are present to help children make sense of their experiences, to model wonder and curiosity, to give ‘just enough’ help, support group decisions and to provide the resources for children’s interests.
Putting Kids In Charge of Their Learning
What do we play? Whatever we like, so long as we can agree together about what we will do and how we will do it. Our mentors support children in sociocratic discussions so that each child’s opinion has been heard and considered before a decision is reached. When we are in the rainforest, children will make choices about which track to follow, which games they’d like to play along the way, and their favourite places to stop.
At our bush site, our mentors have resources ready to explore bushcrafts, tools, handcrafts and loose parts play. Recently the children built themselves their own zip-line with ropes, sticks and a pulley. Through these experiences children develop intrinsic motivation, teamwork and cooperation skills, as they work together to explore and discover new things. Additionally, these play experiences provide opportunities for children to develop empathy and compassion, as they learn to appreciate and respect the natural world and support each other in their play.
It’s so difficult to recreate these experiences in a school setting, which is why schools embrace adventure camps for their classes. These are super fun, but 3 – 5 days out of the whole year isn’t always enough, particularly for the children who need a regular rest and reset for their wellbeing. Through regular adventure therapy, over long periods of time children can learn to set and achieve goals, manage stress and anxiety, improve their overall well-being and gain a fresh perspective on their challenges.
How to Find Adventure Therapy Providers
Adventure Therapy is an increasingly popular mode of therapeutic care for children across Australia. You can contact the Australian Association for Bush Adventure Therapy to find the nearest provider in your part of the country. Some programs and sessions are offered after school hours, over weekends or regular camps. Other providers, like us, offer programs during school hours. At first you may think this limits children’s ability to attend, unless they are homeschooled however Birdwings Eco Rangers runs regularly on Fridays in school term time and includes both home-schooled children and children who attend school on flexible learning plans. If you feel that your child will benefit from regular nature immersion and adventure therapy, you can look into negotiating a flexible learning plan with your child’s school. For some children, this is a long-term arrangement for ongoing mental health and wellbeing. For others, attendance for one term (10 weeks) has been enough for children to be able to reset and return to regular schooling.
Eco Rangers is an award-winning adventure therapy program for children aged 5 – 12 years, on the Gold Coast. Recognised in 2022 as winners for the Brisbane City Council Education Award by Outdoors Qld, Eco Rangers offers weekly adventure-based and arts-based nature connection programs based on trauma informed approaches. Eco Rangers is a long-term program for children to feel safe, have adventures with peers in wild nature, be involved in personal and group projects, learn about bushcraft and conservation and develop personal skills.