“Once there was a tree … and she loved a little boy” — from The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
I recently returned from a wonderful week in Nova Scotia featuring painted clapboard cottages against blue skies and a seascape of majestic hills and swirling tides. With a history rich in forts, fur trades and complex propriety, Nova Scotia also affords miles of pristine trails for the avid (and not so avid) hiker.
On one such hike, I ventured up Cape Split, which offered a spectacular view of the Bay of Fundy following a two-hour uphill jaunt. The inland path was lush with evergreen and paved in centuries-old rocks. Snarled roots from ancient maples protruded from the narrow trail, and patches of mud provided slippery terrain. At times the trail seemed endless and unforgiving. However, just at that moment when body and morale were failing, the forest opened to a grassy knoll that blanketed the age-old rock formation overlooking the (now) returning six-foot tides of the Bay of Fundy.
Damp with perspiration from navigating the trail, we sat down and unloaded our backpacks, laying out a feast before us of lobster rolls and blueberry lemonade. The cool breeze from the bay mingled with the warmth from the sun. In that moment, I was sure there was nothing sweeter than communion with nature and the physical and emotional exertion and spiritual nourishment it afforded.
Camps and communion
For many children (and their excited parents), the end of summer signifies a return to school, studies and schedules. It is a time when we bid farewell to the lackadaisical whimsy of carefree days. Summer memories of camps, cookouts and canoes fade, making way for the cooler activities of autumn. However, for many children, summer camp did not include nature hikes, bonfires or kayaking; it involved indoor activities centered around a theme such as weight management, music acquisition or computer skills.
Research suggests that connecting to nature can result in reduced stress, increased energy, improved sleep, reduction of chronic pain, and accelerated healing from injuries and surgery. In particular, Peter Kahn and Stephen Kellert have argued that “a child’s experience of nature exerts a crucial and irreplaceable effect on physical, cognitive and emotional development.”
Yet modern living has insulated us from the positive ionic exchange between grass, trees, river and sky, resulting in a physical, psychological and often spiritual connection from the Earth and her creatures. According to researcher and therapist Martin Jordan in his book Nature and Therapy: Understanding Counselling and Psychotherapy in Outdoor Spaces, this detachment is associated with a variety of dis-ease, including epidemic rates of obesity and depression.
Richard Louv, author and founder of the Children & Nature Network, coined the term “nature deficit disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods to refer to a generation of children who no longer spend time outdoors hiking, camping and otherwise interacting with the natural world. Direct contact with nature appears to benefit children physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Interacting with natural elements provides a varied and complex terrain and physical stimulation for children. Negotiating inclining hills or slippery declines, catching and releasing tadpoles or crickets, and chasing butterflies, for example, create opportunities for skill-building in a variety of areas, including large and fine motor skills, balance and hand-eye coordination. Most people can remember the challenge of a new skill … and the thrill of successful mastery.
Emotional and cognitive
According to Kahn and Kellert, a child’s experience of nature “encompasses a wide variety of emotions” and an “unfailing source of stimulation.” I remember the awe and wonder I experienced when my childhood naturalist neighbors taught me how to look for the tiny green caterpillars grazing on the cabbage leaves in the garden; then observing their transformation as they ate their way to chrysalises; and the unbearable waiting and waiting until these dormant creatures emerged into beautiful white butterflies.
More recently, I ventured into raising the threatened monarch butterfly. Still with the curiosity of a child, I planted my milkweed, purchased my microscopic caterpillars and watched in amazement as larvae transformed into J’s hanging from the top of my butterfly shelter. Sadly, a virus attacked my precious guests and killed each before they could take their first flight. I experienced genuine grief over this loss.
Nature provides endless teaching opportunities around issues of moral conscience. Kellert identified nine values of the natural world:
- Aesthetic: Physically appealing
- Dominionistic: Mastery or control over nature
- Humanistic: Emotional bonding with nature
- Moralistic: Ethical or spiritual connection to nature
- Naturalistic: Exploration of nature
- Negativistic: Fear and aversion of nature
- Scientific: Knowledge and understanding of nature
- Symbolic: Nature as a source of language and imagination
- Utilitarian: Nature as a source of material and physical reward These values tend to emerge in a developmental manner, generally shifting from more self-centered, egotistical values to more social and other-centered values.
Nature-informed counseling refers to a vast array of scientifically based psychological therapies that use nature in clinical practice. Among the foundational assumptions of nature-informed counseling are that we are not machines; we are human beings who are sensual, curious and creative. We are interdependent with the full ecosystem in which we reside.
Furthermore, ecotherapy is an organic model of care that tends to the whole relationship between humans and the other-than-human. Here are several ways to incorporate nature-informed methods into your counseling practice:
1) Animal-assisted therapy: I am fortunate to be able to bring my goldendoodles to my office to be co-therapists. However, in addition to dogs, there are other smaller pets that may work more easily in your practice. For example, I had a betta fish (who was named Olive by a client) that I used with clients. Or place a bird feeder outside your window (if you are fortunate enough to have a window).
2) Horticulture therapy: There are numerous ways to integrate plants in a therapeutic manner. Have clients plant seeds and tend to their care. Or keep small pots of herbs in your office, providing an opportunity to explore aromatherapy. It is a wonderful release to pinch off a bit of rosemary, mint or thyme and inhale the calming, soothing or energizing fragrance.
3) Wilderness therapy: I have used “kayak therapy” with trauma survivors with great success. However, you may not work in a community with easy water access or even know how to kayak. Therefore, your wilderness approach might be more in line with taking clients on a walk on a trail or observing wildlife with them in a nearby lake or pond.
You can also co-create homework around nature walks. For example, I was working with a couple who seemed stuck, so I asked them to go for a walk together (without talking) and collect items along the way that reminded them of their marriage. When they returned to my office, they emptied their treasures, which included a rock (“that used to be how I saw our marriage”), a feather (“we are drifting away”) and a few twigs (“we have roots still”). After a discussion centered around the items gathered, I had the couple finish the session by using the items to create a sculpture that reflected the relationship they wanted to craft.
4) Other ideas:
- Assess your clients’ relationship with nature. Where is their “happy place”? How often does they get to visit it? Where are their favorite memories housed?
- Invite a family with which you are working to spend the night in a tent in the backyard and reflect on this experience in session.
- Teach cloud spotting. Teaching clients mindfulness takes on a fun twist as you lie on your back and gaze at the ever-changing cloud formations.
- Use transitional objects. I keep a box in my office filled with seashells, sea glass and rocks lovingly collected by my own mother when she walks the beach. I use these as transitional objects when clients might benefit from imprinting an image or experience to an object that they can carry in their pockets or purses throughout the day.
As with all forms of practice, ethical standards must be followed to avoid harm and litigation. So what are the ethical considerations when utilizing the wisdom of nature in psychotherapy? This depends on the extent and type of nature-informed therapy you are using. For example, the ethical guidelines for hiking a trail with a client may look a bit different than the guidelines for planting a sunflower seed and tending to it as metaphor for self-care and growth. However, in general the following issues must be addressed.
1) Do all parties feel physically and emotionally safe? Although you may thrive sitting in a field of poppies, your client may possess strong allergies to flower pollen that render therapy outdoors a physically uncomfortable experience. In addition to allergies, the client may exhibit phobias around the outdoors that need to be understood and appeased. Temperature and air quality may also be variables to consider.
2) Framing the relationship. For some therapists and clients, an office space with a designated chair arrangement signifies a professional relationship and the tasks that will ensue. A client may feel uncomfortable with the more lax and familiar atmosphere of sitting cross-legged on a hollow log while disclosing current therapeutic issues. Trading leather chair for log stump may alter the relationship in ways that prove unsettling for either the client or the therapist.
3) Is it confidentiality compliant? I have clients who love taking a walk during therapy. Some lament that it is the only time they have for physical activity. However, if we are walking in a heavily populated area, their confidentiality may be at risk. At the same time, an area that is too isolated may not be prudent should an emergency situation arise.
4) Get appropriate training. If you do not know how to kayak, taking clients on a wilderness kayak expedition probably isn’t wise. Always get training before using any modality in therapy.
5) Informed consent. It is always prudent to have clients sign an informed consent form that stipulates the possible risks and benefits of any therapy used in session. Therefore, a specific consent form that addresses the specific type of nature-informed therapy — including possible benefits and risks — needs to be explained and signed prior to taking that walk in the woods or a stroll in the garden during session.
Nature provides endless opportunities for metaphors, messages and meaning construction. Incorporating nature-informed approaches into our practices is not only creative but also clinically sound. It is as easy as taking the time to reflect on the sights, sounds, and smells just outside the door.
For more information:
- Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind by Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist (2009)
- Nature and Therapy: Understanding Counselling and Psychotherapy in Outdoor Spaces by Martin Jordan (2014)
- Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural and Evolutionary Investigations by Peter H. Kahn and Stephen R. Kellert (2002)
- Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (2008)
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the Pastoral Counseling Department at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research examines sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer. She is currently working on a book titled Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically-Based Organic Practices, of which this article is an excerpt. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.