Experiential Education: Learn by Doing in Wilderness Therapy Programs

Experiential education is one of the original philosophies behind wilderness therapy programs.  Experiential education is, most simply, learning through experience. It’s easy to see how wilderness therapy and experiential education go hand in hand, as wilderness therapy requires that participants engage on a very practical level. Also, positive results tend to happen at a faster rate. When participants in the program find themselves in the unfamiliar setting of the wilderness, without the comforts of home, it pushes them to confront and take responsibility for the issues that have bought them there.

For many, the wilderness setting is a new, and unfamiliar environment that is well out of the comfort zone. From a therapeutic approach, this is beneficial. Experiential education involves the concept of “perceived risk”, which refers to an individual’s perception that a certain activity or situation poses a potential danger or threat to them. For instance, a person may feel afraid to rock climb because it feels as if there is the potential to fall when in reality there are harnesses and secure nets in place for safety. The wilderness therapy environment provides guidance and safe boundaries for participants to overcome seemingly risky or frightening experiences, forcing them to confront fears and personal hang-ups in order to move past them.

Wilderness therapy fosters the setting where an individual can truly evolve.

Personal growth and development comes from putting oneself outside of what feels comfortable. Perspective is gained from unfamiliar situations and personal realizations are made. If someone is required to do something that they have never done before—to set up camp for the night or cook a meal for the whole group—and they accomplish the task, they in turn learn what they are capable of. In wilderness therapy, individuals learn by adapting, and in doing so learn something that can translate to their lives when they return home. If a person can learn to cope with the challenges that they face in wilderness therapy, it is likely that they can cope with the challenges they will face in daily life.

The benefits of experiential education in a wilderness therapy setting:

  • The wilderness setting supports reflection and critical personal analysis.
  • Individuals are required to take responsibility for themselves, make decisions and are held accountable for their actions.
  • Participants develop the ability to handle challenges when they go home.
  • Wilderness therapy stimulates mental and physical activity.
  • Relationships between participants and staff are nurtured and developed.
  • The process of experiential learning provides a foundation for future experiences.
  • Personal values are reflected upon.

Wilderness therapy programs provide a safe and regulated environment for participants to have an experience that can profoundly impact their lives. What is learned from the experience can be taken home and applied to day-to-day life so that an individual has the skills and tools to handle formerly challenging situations in a mature and positive way.