THEORY AND PRACTICE OF NATURE THERAPY
Certified Drama Therapist and supervisor, head of the Master's program in Drama Therapy at Ono Academiс College (Ono, Israel)
This article presents the method of Natural Therapy (NT) developed by Ronen Berger on the basis of the integration of the ideas of ecopsychology, expressive therapy and environmental education. The article starts by presenting basic NT theory and concepts; specifically, the concepts of touching nature, the triangular relationship (therapist-client-nature), and ritual, and continues with examples that illustrate how these concepts are implemented in practice. An example of its use with a student with an autism spectrum disorder is given. A description of the "Safe Place" program based on the application of NT in dozens of schools and kindergartens in Israel is provided, as well as some brief data on its effectiveness.
Keywords: Nature Therapy, drama therapy, expressive therapies, ritual, trauma, eco-human approach
Nature Therapy (NT) is a therapy method which can be included in the spectrum of environmental/nature-assisted expressive therapies and which takes place in nature. NT perceives nature as a partner in constructing a therapeutic setting and process [1,3,4,5,6,7]. This integrative method was conceptualized and developed by the author of this article as part of his Ph.D.  and in subsequent work, and has been further developed by graduates of the nature therapy training and other colleagues. The method integrates elements from creative and post-modern therapeutic approaches such as ecopsychology, ecotherapy, play therapy, drama therapy, and the narrative approach, along with elements from traditional rituals and shamanism. Like other post-modern approaches that have developed societal theories to explain the rise in psychological distress such as depression, anxiety and trauma [9,11,13,15,17,20], NT views the process from a psycho-eco-social perspective. It is based on the assumption that people's estrangement from nature is linked to a broad spectrum of psycho-social disorders and manifestations such as loss of self-esteem and meaning, depression, anxiety, loneliness and alienation [1,3,5]. Thus, NT’s intervention approaches and methods are grounded in an environmental-social framework that aims to strengthen mind-body and interpersonal relationships, along with self-inclusion and normalization skills.
NT views interaction with nature as the main axis in a process that involves the use of creative methods to explore the relationship with nature in a metaphorical and symbolic way. It is thus akin to the work of other arts therapists who have developed methods implemented in nature [8,13,14,15,21]. A distinction should be made, however, between these arts-based approaches and adventure therapy or wilderness therapy that implement a more task-oriented perspective [1,10].
The core of NT, consistent with the fundamental assumptions of ecopsychology and deep ecology, is the claim that by reconnecting with nature, people can be infused with healing forces that can lead to recovery . Touching nature is a basic term suggesting that direct contact with nature can deepen a person's connection with his/her own nature. It can connect clients to a feeling of inner power and authenticity by enabling them to develop and express important personal qualities. It can help people strengthen the body-mind connection, reach higher levels of consciousness, widen their spiritual connections and receive guidance . This process is especially important given the intensity and rapid pace of modern life which may push people away from their center .
The triangular relationship: Therapist-client-nature
The triangular therapist-client-nature relationship is a central concept in nature therapy, which seeks to broaden the classical therapeutic relationship between therapist and client by introducing nature as a third factor. The concept of a triangular relationship prompts the therapist to relate to nature as an active partner in the process. It impacts the design of the therapeutic setting as well as the therapeutic process itself. This triangular relationship differs from the perception of the artistic product as a third medium in art therapy, because in nature therapy nature plays an active role and has a dynamic and a life of its own.
The concept of a triangular relationship helps the therapist decide what role to take within the therapeutic relationship. Therapists can take a central, dominant role in the interaction with the client, such that nature is a backdrop and a supplier of materials, an approach that can also be regarded as therapy in nature. Alternatively, the therapist can take a secondary position as a mediator between the client and nature by being a witness to a process occurring directly with nature, an approach that can be regarded as therapy with nature. In general, when the client or group is involved in investigating processes connected with relationships and interpersonal communication such as questions of trust and control, the therapist can focus on interpersonal interactions and relate to nature as a setting or as a supplier of material.
On the other hand, when the client is concerned with broader issues of identity and meaning, the therapist can invite the client to interact directly with nature, its cyclicality and its perennial sequences, and remains a witness whose function is to intensify the individual's encounter with nature. Clearly, in many cases, as the dynamics and the issues being examined evolve, the role of the therapist can also change. Changes in position and attitude, which can occur several times during the same session also enable the client to move along the axis between the interpersonal and the transpersonal, and thus extend the framework and perspectives on the issues at hand.
Choosing the right space
The concept of choosing the right space highlights the importance of the issue of space in nature therapy in general and the choice of the specific space and time to work in particular . The assumption that underlies this concept is that different natural locations, habitats and environments have a different impact upon different processes and different people. A beach, a desert or a forest will have a different meaning for different clients and in different phases of therapy. An open environment like the beach can be experienced as a space that symbolizes freedom and relaxation for one person while causing anxiety and stress for another. The choice of the season and the time of day can also have an influence, and therefore should be taken into consideration when considering the time of the session. At sunrise and sunset, the Israeli beach is a wonderful place to work in the summer because the temperature and setting are pleasant and the symbolism of the environment can connect a person with feelings and thoughts about the cycles of life, thus providing perspective, acceptance and hope (or sadness, loneliness and depression). However, the same beach at noon, with it’s the high temperature and direct sunlight can be too intrusive for emotional work and therefore might be unsuitable for the therapeutic process. The concept of choosing the right space helps the therapist take these issues into consideration when selecting a suitable time and environment to work for the specific client and for the therapeutic goal.
Back to ritual
One of the unique features of NT is its fundamental connection to the concept of ritual and its use in therapy. This applies both to collective ritualistic ideas, such as the connection between people and nature, mind-spirit-body within the community, as well as to the integration of performance and arts into the therapeutic process . It also relates to the concept of the sacred space, the idea of a rite of passage and the three phases that comprise rituals [16,19]. By acknowledging people's basic need for rituals, for instance by helping them deal with uncertainty, loss, sickness and transitions in life, and the role modern therapy plays in the creation of secular rituals [12,16].
NT incorporates and utilizes elements in nature to create rituals. It generally does not use existing rituals borrowed from various cultures, but creates them according to the culture of the group and connections to the here-and-now. It utilizes the dynamics and culture of the group, links them to collective and universal phenomena present in nature (such as the changing of the seasons, the transitions between high and low tide, sunrise and sunset, birth and death) and uses natural elements (water, wind, fire, earth) to create rituals that are meaningful to the client and group. This approach allows clients to connect their personal to their cosmic stories by giving them a feeling of acceptance, normality and oneness. It can also help people assimilate painful stories, explore their significance in general, and when dealing with loss, trauma and stress in particular. The use of rituals can also help individuals to connect mind and body, establish a sense of connectedness and wholeness within themselves, with others, and with things larger than the self.
From theory to practice – examples
Yossi (fictitious name), a young boy of twelve with autistic tendencies (PDD), was a pupil in a class for children with learning difficulties in the north of Israel. Yossi had difficulties with verbal communication and problems creating interpersonal relationships. His behavior was inflexible and rigid. For example, he would walk only in certain areas, on certain paths at school and avoid walking on others. He could arrive at class sopping wet because he would not change his fixed route even when the lawns were being watered. At the beginning of the year, when we began to work together, Yossi objected to entering the therapy room and suggested that we meet outside. I agreed, proposing that we go out for walks near the classroom and around the school area, and he consented. I thought that this idea would make Yossi feel that I was joining him and agreeing to his "proposals," and that my presence would help him to broaden his "movement map" at school and thus develop greater cognitive and motor flexibility. We got to places at school which Yossi had previously avoided and places he had not known about, like the "big yard" where children played during the breaks. As time went by our walks stretched into the neighboring areas outside the school boundaries. Yossi chose a hidden spot, under a tree on the banks of the Jordan River, about a ten-minute walk from the school. This spot was chosen to be the therapeutic setting where our meetings would take place.
The therapy had multiple objectives: to develop and broaden Yossi's verbal communication and emotional skills; to develop his ability to create and maintain an interpersonal relationship; to create a space where he could express and process personal content. As a start to achieving these objectives I decided that our first meetings in nature should focus on lighting a campfire and preparing tea together. Instead of talking about communication and building our relationship in this way, we created and "made" a real relationship through engaging in these practical tasks. After a number of meetings in nature, Yossi began to build a small circle of sticks, leaves and stones he had found, around the place of the fire. It took about three sessions to complete, define and discern a circle, and when it was completed, a change could be seen in Yossi's behavior. There was a significant improvement in his ability to communicate and an increase in his verbal expression, as well as a desire to create a relationship. At that stage, Yossi initiated eye contact with me and the intonation of his speech became softer and more varied.
It appeared that the option he had to choose the site of our work, and later, to create, to define and to delineate a designated and secure personal space for himself in nature was very meaningful for him and contributed to building our relationship. Maintaining the designated circle and preparing our fire and our tea became rituals which took place regularly. Sometimes Yossi asked to make the circle smaller and sometimes to enlarge it. He also asked to change seating places with me and to take on different tasks in making the fire and preparing the tea. Possibly the direct meeting in nature enabled him to feel secure enough to create a trusting relationship.
After some time, when winter came, we took leave of our space on the banks of the Jordan and continued our meetings in the school therapy room. Even then, after a number of difficult, conflicted meetings, he would lead me back to the place in nature, a place which then received the name "the home in nature." One day, when we got there, we saw that the space had changed. The circle had been opened and the sticks had scattered. The leaves had fallen and the banks of the river had been flooded. Yossi looked at the changes and pondered over them. He didn't say anything to me, but from his facial expression I understood that he was wondering whether he could trust me. Was that the way I had watched over his "home?" Had I been in control? Had he been in control or was it just that way in nature? Should he accept these changes, avoid coming back, or maybe rebuild the space there and then? Encountering the changes in nature and the proof of my lack of control as well as his lack of control led Yossi to share the feelings he had during his parents' divorce. He told me how he had coped with the changes at home and his feelings of helplessness and blame in trying to deal with them. This led us to talk again about our contract and the role nature played in it, and how neither he nor I could be completely in control and protect our space, our creation and/or the environment. In the same way that we could create changes in nature, nature could make its own changes. We reached the understanding that the changes brought about by nature were part of the contract between us and the way we were working in this sacred space which belonged both to nature and to us.
Yossi thought about the parallels between the process we went through together and processes he was going through at home. This assuaged some of his guilt and allowed him to be more accepting of himself. When the circle around the fire was completed again, we jumped into it together, looking at each other and thus renewing our contact and trust. As the therapist observing the process, it seemed to me that Yossi was trying to fathom whether it was possible to rebuild the safe space which had fallen apart not only in nature but also between us. Was it worth rebuilding the "home in nature" as it had been before, or perhaps, considering our needs, the process and the changing environment, was it possible, and preferable, to build it differently?
In Yossi's case, building a therapeutic space and maintaining it were central elements in the therapy. It started when the therapist together with Yossi left the familiar school ground and walked to the banks of the river where Yossi could establish a personal therapeutic space of his own. Symbolically, the choice also allowed him to take responsibility for his life, shaping it in a manner which pleased him. Making this choice also enabled Yossi to agree to the entry of an additional person into the framework and lett him remain there, thus forming an intimate relationship which was led by Yossi. The idea to define and create a separate and unique place within the larger space is linked to the ancient ritualistic idea of "sacred space." The main function of this idea was to create a safe healing space that felt hospitable and protected from invasion by evil forces or spirits. This space, which was created by marking it out and clearly separating it from the surroundings, constituted a healing place in itself and a site in which complex ceremonies took place.
This example highlights the idea of the "building a home in nature" model . It is based on: a. the fundamental assumption of nature as a therapeutic space; and b. the basic need of the individual to define and create a separate place for him/herself, protected and familiar, within the wide spaciousness that can be unfamiliar, sometimes uncertain, and even extremely harsh. This is a basic model in Nature Therapy, which also includes a unique axis for assessment. An additional aspect illustrated by this example is the way nature invites questions of uncertainty, constancy, control and continuity into the therapeutic space.
Yossi's case also demonstrates the potential that exists in the choice and maintenance of a therapeutic space in nature, a central element in NT. This relates to another basic NT concept titled "Choosing the Right Space," a concept that highlights the importance of the issue of space (and time) in nature therapy in general and of the choice of the specific space and time to work in, in particular . The assumption that underlies this concept is that different natural habitats and environments have a different impact upon different populations as previously mentioned.
This example took place during the concluding encounter of a group participating in a training program for nature therapy. The meeting took place on the beach, in the light of the full moon, between sunset and sunrise, from the afternoon hours until the following morning. After creative work in the sand, during which each participant created or sculpted a map or path marking the development she/he had experienced during the learning process, we sat around a campfire to share. David, a man in his late twenties, shared his complex feelings with the members of the group and thanked them for their support in his process of leaving his parents' home and moving to his new home with his partner.
The group members listened and told him how they viewed his developing maturity and the progress towards separation that he had made in the group. They also shared the sadness they were feeling at their own separation from the group and their fear of life after the end of training. When the sun came up a number of hours later, they were asked to begin a personal journey, to imagine every step in the sand as a step in their lives, from the past to the present, and then to the future. Some of the participants walked away from the fire and some sat not far from it, looking at the sea. An hour later, after the sun had risen, they were asked to choose a place on the beach and to create a shape symbolizing their present status and feelings about leaving the training and beginning their new independent journey .
Using his whole body, David dug two funnel-shaped channels in the space between the sand and the water. The narrow part of the funnel pointed to the east, to the sunrise, and the wider part was oriented towards the sea. After the group members had walked through each of their peers' personal spaces and listened to the stories, David invited the group to gather around his creation. "First of all, when I moved and rolled around and played with the sand, I had no idea what I was doing and what I would create. Now, standing here with you and looking down on it from above, it seems to me that I have created a birth canal." I invited David to participate in a spontaneous ritual which we would invent for him then and there. David agreed, took off his shirt and sat down at the entry to his funnel, while the other group members created a tight-fitting human channel in both directions, towards the sunrise and towards the sea, continuing the channel dug into the sand. A few minutes later, shouting, pushing and crawling, David made his way from the narrow channel to the open beach. Seconds later, while still lying, panting, on the sand, a great wave washed over him from behind. "I'm alive," he shouted. "I have been reborn." The participants gathered around him and wrapped him in blankets. There were prayers mixed with tears and laughter, stories about birth and death; participants spontaneously broke into hymns, melodies, and songs as the sea covered the drawings we had made in the sand, washed over them and cleared them away. The night took its leave and made way for a new day...
This example illustrates how the theory and concepts of nature therapy can support the therapist's choices in practice. It began with the concept of choosing the right space, which helps the therapist make the connection between the aim and issue to be dealt with in the session and the choice of place and time of the workshop. In this case, the aim of the workshop was to help participants in processes of closeness and separation, help them leave each other and the training program as well as to connect to a feeling of continuity and faith. The beach, especially on a night with a full moon, is a setting that contains and tells a story of change and cycles: the movement between day and night and between high and low tide related to the group's story and process. The beach is also an open place where one can see the horizon. The sand is a dynamic medium and can tell a parallel story about the dynamics of life and its uncertainties. It is easy to make figures in the sand, but at the same time it has its own dynamics. One can build a castle in the sand and a wave can easily wash it away. In this sense, the sand symbolizes the cyclical movement between creation and destruction life and death. This example shows how the concept of choosing the right space can be used in action, by looking for a natural location and time that can support the specific journey.
The concept of back to ritual and the creation of rituals were also presented. The example showed not only how the whole workshop was designed in a ritualistic way, but also how spontaneous and unique rituals were created during the process. The presence of group work and group support was highlighted, as well as the implementation of the concepts of touching nature and the triangular relationship: therapist-client-nature. The unique therapeutic influence of nature when the wave washed over David was illustrated, as well as the position of the therapist within the triangular relationship. There were times when the therapist took a background position by letting the participants work mainly with nature and the creation process. This contrasted with other times such as the sharing around the fire when nature became the background for the conversation the therapist was leading. The example highlighted the "dance" of the creative process and the spiritual facet fostered by nature therapy that takes place in the facilitation between the therapist-client-group and nature.
“The Safe Place” program for schools and kindergartens
“The Safe Place” program was born in August 2006, towards the end of the Second Lebanon War, when we looked for a way to link injury to nature – landscape, forests and wildlife, with the injury sustained by thousands of children in Northern Israel. We understood that we were facing a new traumatic phenomenon, collectively shared by thousands of people and by nature.
We began writing the protocol during the last week of the war, when a torrent of rain surprised the Galilee, rinsing away both dust and the odor of burning trees. Our writing ended about three weeks after the end of the war, when the new birds began to push through scorched forests and children began flocking back to kindergartens and schools.
The program’s protocol is based on a framework story called “A Safe Place”, which is about the “guardians of the forest”. Unexpected changes and injuries to their environment lead them on a mission to reconstruct a “safe place’ and help the renewal of injured parts of the forest.
The research that accompanied this program indicated that metaphorical and creative work, both in the classroom and outdoors in nature, empowered the children and helped them rebuild and reestablish “a safe place”. Moving from the familiar (the classroom), to nature with its surprises, adventures and the need to cope, followed by a return to the familiar, facilitated connection, gathering strength, and ultimately the continuation of their development.
Since 2006, the program has been conducted with over 10 000 children in dozens of kindergartens and schools, beginning with an introductory course for educational staff members. It proceeded with 12 weekly two-hour group sessions, indoors and outdoors, with a school or kindergarten class jointly led by a facilitator provided by the program and the class teacher. Implementation of the program included accompanying and counseling educational staff members, and providing them with tools used in coping with trauma, creative group work, and Nature Therapy.
Staff training enhanced the creation and integration of “The Safe Place” program, while supporting the ambience of the school and ensuing the success of the program. The program was subsequently adapted for use in the surrounding Gaza settlements, and was also studied in courses and workshops at Sapir College (Shderot) in 2008. It is currently being implemented in a wide variety of regular and special education settings, with the authorization of the Ministry of Education and the recommendation of psychological-educational services.
The protocol of “The Safe Place” was written by Ronen Berger, founder of NT and director of Nature Therapy Center, Michal Deron, director of drama therapy studies at Te-Hai College, and Lilach Glick, clinical and educational psychologist from “Shefi”, Kiriat Shmona. Prof. Mooli Lahad, President of The Community Stress Prevention Center and an international expert on treating trauma, provided psychological consultation. The program was developed jointly by the Nature Therapy Center, The Community Stress Prevention Center and implemented by the Nature Therapy Center staff under the direction of Ronen Berger. Development and implementation of the program was accomplished with the funding of the Israeli Coalition for Trauma.
The research that accompanied this program suggests that the storybook, with its healing metaphors, narratives, dramatic and creative methods and, of course, its connection with nature, allowed children to express themselves freely and develop a sense of safety and reassurance while experiencing a wide range of emotional and behavioral distress. Research findings indicate that the program improved the children’s imagination and emotional, social, and cognitive abilities. It strengthened their self-confidence and augmented their personal development. The research also showed that “A Safe Place” was very successful in helping children cope with many issues that were not necessarily connected to national security threats, such as moving home and integrating into a new framework, the loss or illness of a family member, parents’ divorce, sudden departure of a staff member, violence and neglect, educational difficulties, abuse and so on. At the group level, it appears that the program has great value for encouraging group cohesion, establishing a sense of security, developing communication methods, and lessening aggression. The success explains why so many principals, teachers and parents wanted to implement “The Safe Place” program as much as three years after the end of the Second Lebanon War. It also explains why they requested a guidebook that would help them continue implementing the program in the future, both in Israel and around the world.
This article presented Nature Therapy as a method within a growing professional field of environmental/nature-assisted expressive therapies and outlined its theory and practice. It presented the basic concepts of touching nature, the triangular relationship: therapist-client-nature and choosing the right space as well as the concept of back to ritual.
It demonstrated NT in practice with a variety of populations in different constellations and showed how the aforementioned basic concepts can help the therapist to enable creative therapy in a natural setting and relate to nature as both a stage for his/her work, and an integrated participant in the creative therapeutic process, which advances and broadens the possibilities of this process.
Despite the great amount of activity that has taken place in the field of Nature Therapy, the academic recognition it has achieved, the training programs it has developed and the many articles and books published, it is important to note that it is still a young and developing discipline and further research is needed for its continued development.
My hope is that more practitioners will incorporate nature into their work and use their encounters for the benefit both of people and of the natural world.
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Reference for citations
Berger, R. (2022). Theory and practice of Nature Therapy. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 3(2). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)