European Adventure Therapy – Strategic Partnership Project

Mental health among youngsters is a tremendous challenge for our society. The number of youngsters dealing with socio-emotional problems like depression or anxiousness and other related mental troubles has reached an alarming level. Youth work associations, sporting clubs and schools can no longer take for granted that this situation will be addressed in specialized centers only.

It is our duty to assure the mental and physical well-being of youngsters and young adults the best we can. In youth work associations youngsters can, through non-formal learning and experiential education programs in their free-time, improve their self-esteem, self-consciousness, develop appropriate coping skills and so on.  When youngsters are able to experience, in a group and on a voluntary basis, what it is like to go for a simple walk in the woods, play a game together or even cook with their peers, we vehemently believe that these non-formal education activities can improve their coping capabilities. Also, youngsters dealing with mental troubles often miss out on the opportunity to develop basic skills in tandem with their peers. They are excluded from being active in their daily environment and therefore have less chances of succeeding and frequently end up dropping out of school, face unemployed or are hospitalized later on in their lives.

Besides the mental challenges they face, it’s obvious that they also have competences, talents and qualities that in some cases need more specific approaches to support their personal growth. Not surprisingly these particular aspects of their personalities, might very well help to overcome mental issues. So it makes considerable sense to help youngsters acquire an in-depth understanding of their own personal qualities and strenghts. This appreciative point of view is in our opinion an important added value that youth work and non-formal education can offer. Adventurous outdoor activities might very well suit this purpose, as they often provide youngsters and young adults with a feeling of extraordinary achievement when participants for example attain the summit after a difficult rock climb.

In all our outdoor and adventure educational programs participants are invited to challenge themselves by going out of their comfort zone. Just like in experiential learning, the physical, emotional and relational challenge is the way to explore, discover and learn new abilities and competences that are needed for one’s personal growth. At some stages of the learning process, this approach can create emotional and psychological destabilization. These particular stages are very crucial for learning and growing and need appropriate support and care from the youth workers. This is why, before starting our educational programs, we get to know as much as possible about the personal problems of our young participants and during programs we always try to create a safe learning environment that takes into account each individuals specific situation.

With this particular target group, we think that the use of a specialized approach integrated into our current experiential learning system could help us create an inclusive opportunity in a non-formal learning settings. This could encourage and support the development of a respectful atmosphere, that is invaluable when dealing with stages of confusion and emotional destabilization. Throughout our activities participants open up and are more willing to show their problems and personal conflicts. Sometimes it might happen that things become so personal and so emotionally involving, that facilitators need more knowledge, abilities and competences than just the ones needed for facilitating a learning process. So it is important that youth workers can receive a frame where they can learn to contain and channel these moments, using interventions that can also facilitate moments of healing with the youngsters (= also a way of learning). Catching glimpses of possibilities to help transform dysfunctional emotional scenes into more functional and fitting one.

This is why we think “Adventure Therapy” (AT) could be an effective method to address the needs of these youngsters. It isn’t therapy ‘as we know it’, but a way in which experiential outdoor programs within the frame of youth work can help young people on a voluntary basis, in their free-time, to overcome some of their problems.

Our main goals for this partnership will be:

  1. To provide a platform where youth workers can share knowledge, experiences and resources regarding AT as an approach.
  2. To create a common understanding of AT in Europe and define this into clear and effective guidelines.
  3. To explore AT as a method used in youth work and experiment with new practices

With this partnership we want to create a platform where this focus on – “How to deal with youngsters who have psycho-social and emotional wounds and their needs in an experiential learning group ” – can exist and can be investigated and tried out. All this in order to be able to do more qualitative youth work for all youth but in particular for youth at risk. One of the innovative aspects of this partnership is that we want to take the “healing facilitating and sometimes therapeutic skills” out of the “ivory tower” and put them into a more integrated, practical, down to earth method of group experiential learning. By creating a connection with nature and capitalizing on this contact emphasize some healthy aspects of life, without disregarding the difficulties in the lives of the youngsters (we will call the idea that we just described here “AT”). When we can explore and implement this method into our youth work organizations and when our youth workers can use it as an extra tool to work with vulnerable youngsters, we strongly believe that all parties (youth workers, their organizations and youngsters) can benefit from the aptitude acquired through this partnership. Not only will youth workers learn from each other within their organizations, but every participating organization will build on the capacity of working with youngsters with socio-emotional challenge

AT is a way of working with youngsters that has already extensively been practiced and researched in the US, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. In Europe however, there are some individual practitioners already using this new and innovative approach, each in their own corner or “island”, but so far there is no network of AT professionals, almost no research conducted and at the present time the field is quite void of exceptional enterprise. With this project, we want to to change that and engage in a strategic partnership and thereby build a European Network of AT practitioners in Europe.

Since we believe that the quality of our projects with young people resides in keeping a safe learning environment, we think that it’s important to:

  • know more about the methodology of AT, how it is done in the rest of the world and how we are able to use it here in Europe
    increase youth workers’ knowledge and competences in facilitating individual and group processes in adventure and outdoor  contexts
  • know how to prevent and to deal with unexpected “emotional and psychological crises” during outdoor programs
  • explore how this AT-approach can be integrated in experiential learning programs with young people in an outdoor setting in order to:
    • Improve the safe learning conditions for vulnerable youngsters
    • Offer appropriate learning activities to vulnerable youngsters
    • Create equal opportunities for the different groups of young people
    • Improve the quality of experiential education programs based on outdoor and adventure activities in Europe
    • Create an early intervention approach for vulnerable youngsters through youth work
    • Increase the capacities of youth workers and the knowledge of youth work organisations in working with vulnerable youngsters.

All project partners are involved in at least one of the action groups. Since we are 8 partners (Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Netherlands) and in order for us to realise these actions, we need to communicate often and in a very effective manner. Therefore, we want to use multiple online tools to help us with this. We have already made a closed Facebook group where we can discuss urgent matters, we have a google group where we store our e-mails and a google drive where all important documents are gathered. During our preparatory meeting in January 2015, we decided on some agreements and rules for e-mailing and communicating / decision making.

Met vriendelijke groeten,
Best regards,
Lynn Van Hoof