Watch a Video
In this video, Brooke Larson, a former wilderness therapy guide, talks about the benefits of reflective writing and storytelling.
All forms of experiential writing seek to pair experience with written reflection, enhancing student growth and life-long learning. Adventure education and therapy programs focus on activities and skills based in the environment which, when paired with reflection, can bring meaningfulness to participants’ lives and increase their appreciation of the world around them.
Even in the 1800s, transcendentalists found meaning and lessons to be learned in the outdoors. Perhaps the most famous example is Henry David Thoreau. An American transcendentalist who spent two years in a cabin in the woods, surviving largely by himself and reflecting on his experience through a written journal, Thoreau’s work became Walden, a piece regarded now as one of the great American works of literature (1964). Today, acclaimed nonfiction writers like Annie Dillard and Steven Trimble continue this tradition, highlighting its relevance in modern reflection.
Researchers have found that the “naturalist journal,” a written and drawn record of one’s experience outdoors, is an effective tool “for translating [students’] experiences into verbal and visual language” in both creative and scientific fields (Dirnberger et al., 2005). Dr. John Bennion argues that adventure education, a collaboration between students, teachers, reflective writing, and nature, “helps students see how they can synthesize what they previously held separate—their education, their personal writing, their relationship to others, and their place in the natural world” (2002).
Adventure therapy extends this “dynamic use of the environment” and “the role of nature” to enhance treatment and support for students in need, focusing “on therapeutic goals, possibly including the cognitive, behavioral, affective, physical and spiritual facets of the person” (Miano, n.d.). It is important that in adventure therapy, professional efforts are taken to ensure therapeutic progress, which can include counseling or treatment sessions with professionals as well as group activities to encourage social recovery (Miano, n.d.). But adventure therapy mentors should always utilize the surrounding environment and written reflection as a means to aid student recovery and growth.
Basics of Practice
- Adventure education claims that the joy and challenge of outdoor adventure paired with reflective writing will create the seeds for lifelong learning.
- Adventure therapy builds on a similar principle, relying on reflective writing to facilitate the discovery of meaning and purpose in a student’s life while improving cognitive, behavioral, affective, physical and/or spiritual health.
“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.” -Henry David Thoreau
- Have adventures. Choose experiences that involve collaboration, competition, and learning, that engage and bring joy. Harness the aspects of your natural environment and the events of the day to add greater meaning to the experience. This could include hiking, camping, outdoor games/sports, fishing, horseback riding, ropes courses, etc.
- Ask questions before activities begin to frame student experiences. This will create greater purpose during an activity and enhance reflection afterwards.
- Framing needs to balance specific instruction and the freedom to observe.
- Questions such as “See what you can learn about how others think about nature during this morning’s trek,” or “Watch for twenty beautiful images” are both specific and open-ended.
- Have students keep a personal journal. In addition, recording photos, drawings, or other media serve as memorials of an experience that can help adventure writers reflect. (See "Journals: Field, Academic, and Personal."
- Provide daily writing prompts for students. Beginners may need more framing and a more specific writing prompt. Experienced journal writers may just need time and not much of a prompt. (See "Quick Writes.")
- Prompts should be specific to the experience of the day, promoting careful consideration of a student’s experiences, discoveries, and self.
- Examples of prompts could include:
- “What did today’s activity teach you about teamwork?”
- “What are two elements of the environment that contributed meaningfully to your life this week?”
- “What skills, if developed, do you feel would best help you adjust to the surrounding environment? Why?”
- Ask students to read journal entries out loud by volunteering. This encourages students to be aware of other narratives and open conversations about them. Prioritize writing by having them read the words they wrote instead of paraphrasing.
- In Adventure Therapy, seek professional advice when considering specific student needs. Some therapeutic adventures may require intense administrative efforts and periodic sessions with therapists, while others may only require a daily prompt focused on specific behavioral, cognitive, affective, physical, or spiritual needs or goals.
- Template for creating a writing-based curriculum
- Description and Sample syllabus for a combined writing and adventure education course
- Power point presentation on a joint writing and outdoor recreation program
- Journal prompts
- Template for managing a writing workshop
- Template for a single journal writing assignment tied to an experiential activity—short form
- Template for a single journal writing assignment tied to an experiential activity—long form
- Activity Perception Questionnaire (Burton Olsen, BYU)
- Journal Writing and Outdoor Experience: Self Efficacy Survey (Burton Olsen)
- Outdoor Recreation Skills & Risk Self-Efficacy Scale (Stacy Taniguchi)
- “Mentored Risk”: a blog post about taking risk in the outdoors and in essay writing
- “Wilderness Writing”: a blog that gives a student’s response to a blended outdoor recreation and writing course
- “The Benefits of Time in Nature”: a blog about the psychological and physiological benefits of connecting to the natural world
- "The Value of Green Spaces": a blog about the human need for green space
- "Discovery through Reflection": a blog about learning through reflection during a wilderness writing class.
- "Experience + Reflection = Meaningful Experience": a blog about a young man who learns through reflecting on his failed snow cave.
- "Experience in Practice on the Pacific Crest Trail: An Interview with Dana Fleming": a blog about a teacher who blends writing and experience in her teaching and her life.
Dillard, A. (1974). Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Harper's Magazine Press.
Thoreau, H. D. (1964). Walden. Mifflin.
Bennion, J., & Olsen, B. (2002). Wilderness writing: Using personal narrative to enhance outdoor experience. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(1), 239–246. https://doi.org/ 10.1177/105382590202500108.
Dirnberger, J. M., McCullagh, S., & Howick, T. (2005). Writing & drawing in the naturalist's journal: Reviving the tradition of the naturalist's journal as an effective learning tool. Science Teacher, 72(1), 38-42
Association for Experiential Education. (n.d.). Adventure therapy best practices. Association for Experiential Education. https://aee.memberclicks.net/adventure-therapy-best-practices