Eco-Human Theory and Practice
ISSN 2713 – 184x
Eco Art Therapy
Ecological Education
The "Green" Arts


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Kopytin, Alexander

Doctor of Medical Sciences, Professor at the Department of Psychology, St. Petersburg Academy of Postgraduate Pedagogical Studies (St.-Petersburg, Russian Federation)



This article examines the key presumptions and theoretical foundation of ecological, or nature-assisted creative arts therapies, a branch of contemporary ecotherapy. It is considered from the perspective of the eco-human multi-disciplinary approach defining the human being in a relation to the environment, and seeking to reveal one’s own subjectivity and to shape the world in order to fill one’s needs and take care of environmental well-being. Such key concepts of ecological creative arts therapies as ecological, eco-human perspective on health and illness, eco-identity formation, nature as the third part in the therapeutic relations, environmental and ecopsychology perception of the therapeutic setting, the role of the arts in providing meaningful human connection to nature are explained. This helps to understand ecological, nature-assisted arts therapies as providing both public and environmental health and establishing more harmonious relations of humans with nature.

Keywords: creative arts therapies, eco-human approach, ecopsychology, ecotherapy, ecopoiesis, poiesis, environment


Introduction: Defining ecological / nature-assisted arts therapies

Ecological or nature-assisted creative/expressive arts therapies represent an emerging therapeutic cluster, based on the new understanding of the role of the arts in providing public and environmental health and establishing more harmonious and mutually-supporting relations of humans with nature. These forms of therapy belong to an established group of mental health professions or specialized therapeutic approaches, such as art therapy, music therapy, dramatherapy, dance-movement therapy and expressive arts therapy. These disciplines focus on the therapeutic use of creative/expressive processes of clients and their relationship with the therapist. Ecological arts therapies are characterized by a new perspective on health issues and the role of the arts in providing public and planetary health and well-being. They are supported by scientific approaches such as ecopsychology and eco-philosophy and demonstrate a new perspective on our understanding of the therapeutic role of human bonds with nature.

The spectrum of expressive forms, used as environmental creative responses embraced in these therapies is broad and includes visual art, drama and ritual, music, dance and movement, and creative writing, as well as practices that integrate the expressive arts in terms of interacting with animals and plants, wilderness journeys, contemplative presence in nature, etc. Ecological / nature-assisted arts therapies together with ecotherapy, environmental philosophy, environmental education as well as the contemporary environmental arts support the emerging eco-human approach and the growing field of constructive innovations, eco-human technologies that can be applied in education, medicine, the wider social context in order to counteract the environmental crisis and enable a more harmonious co-evolution of human beings and the more-than-human world, the eco-sphere.

The emergence of nature-assisted, or ecological arts therapies marks a decisive moment in the development of these therapies, because they mean something more than just a set of innovations that can be implemented in already established therapeutic approaches. Rather they strive to form a new and even revolutionary platform for empirical forms of therapeutic and health-promoting work, supported by a constellation of distinct theoretical ideas and values.

Environmental psychology, ecopsychology, environmental education, deep ecology, the environmental arts/eco-arts, ecological arts therapies, as well as some forms of environmental activism belong to the environmental movement. This movement challenges the basic foundations of our current civilization and can even be considered as related to a paradigm shift, since paradigms, according to Kuhn [19], are not simply theories, but the entire worldview in which theories exist, and all of the implications that come with it. A significant part of the environmental movement is concerned with the need for radical change in personal beliefs, and the need for ideas about complex systems and organizations to replace former ways of thinking about human beings and organizing social and economic life in its relationships to the global life web. Ecological arts and arts therapies, together with environmental psychology/ecopsychology, environmental humanities, environmental education and deep ecology become a major source of ideas in the tradition of anti-reductionist thinking in science and in the humanities and bring forth the new environmental paradigm which reverses modernist, Cartesian thinking and perception of the human being and the world as machines.

Nature-assisted arts therapies and other branches of the ecological movement aligned to the need for a paradigm shift bring a new perspective to our understanding of health and pathology and new ways to address personal and collective mental distress, since at their most ambitious, they seek to redefine mental health within an environmental context and invite us to reexamine the human psyche as an integral part of the global web of life.

Nature-assisted arts therapies can involve experiences of becoming embedded in the ecosystem and empathic attuning to the living environment and forms of life. This process has the potential to allow us to actualize and bring to the conscious mind certain aspects of the human experience, in particular, those related to our biological history and our ‘ecological unconscious,’ according to Theodore Roszak [31]. The results of this include improved health, well-being and support for our perception of ourselves as ‘ecological subjects’ our eco-identity [28, 29]. Nature-assisted arts therapies can bring changes to humans’ perception of themselves in their interconnectedness with the life web and by doing so, they provide a modest but compelling acts of regeneration, an adaptive response to healing not only of human beings, but of the multitude of places on the planet that experience distress and ‘illness.’ They strive to achieve multiple therapeutic goals embracing both the micro- and macro-levels, since they not only deal with individual needs and health issues, but with environmental issues as well.

One of the characteristics of nature-assisted or ecological arts therapies can be summarized as follows. These practices usually include either outdoor or indoor activities that involve direct interaction with the natural world or natural materials and often lead to the perception of the environment and its inhabitants as other forms of life, which are then engaged with ethically. The activities can include series of exercises that awaken sensory awareness through relaxation, breathing, exploratory mindful walks, body scanning, journaling and other tasks which help to develop receptivity, focus attention and increase a sense of embodiment in the living environment.

Рис. 1

Figure 1. An example of building a mandala during the open air ecological art therapy session

How can we address these issues that are usually ignored in most conventional therapies?

As arts therapists we can address these issues in different ways. We can offer our clients the possibility to engage in creative non-instrumental environmental activities, to learn how to see and create beauty around themselves, and how to develop effective self-regulatory skills and coping strategies that can be used both in therapy and in everyday life to improve and promote their health and well-being.

We can also help our clients to enrich their ecological knowledge, develop their ecological consciousness and thus decrease their possible destructive impact on the natural environment and prevent risks of various physical and mental issues as a result of unsustainable ways of living and pathogenic environmental factors. We can do this, in particular, through waste reduction and an environmentally conscious attitude to our use of materials.

Nature-assisted arts therapies recognize that people have the fundamental need and right to live in a “healthy,” beautiful and unthreatened environment, and that such a need and a right must be fulfilled. According to the tenets of sustainable development, the balance between economic growth, care for the environment and social well-being are interconnected and must be guaranteed.

Unfortunately, arts therapists are not trained in the environmental paradigm and do not learn how to address these issues on both theoretical and practical levels. Therefore, special modules for arts therapists during their training and professional work, and even a specialization in the field of nature-assisted or ecological arts therapies, should be developed, so that our professional field can contribute to human and environmental health and well-being to a greater degree.

The eco-human approach as a new multi-professional theoretical framework. Defining human relationships to the environment

While considering the postulates and basic theoretical ideas that could be relevant for the emerging field of nature-assisted or ecological arts therapies, the eco-human multi-professional approach, which is formed in a situation of growing environmental crisis as well as a crisis in the humanities, appears to be a central option.

The eco-human approach recognizes that the key problem of the humanities – the problem of understanding ourselves as “environmental subjects” – cannot be solved within the framework of Cartesian science that separates a person (the subject) from the external world of objects. Rather, the eco-human approach posits that the subject be considered in relation to the living environment, the natural, more-than-human world. We believe that ecology in the broad sense of the term, as a worldview, needs a new conception of the human as much as the modern humanities need ecology and the environmental perspective. 

According to the current definition of the eco-human approach [18, 22], individuals should be considered as living in relationship to the living environment, the web of life, and seeking to reveal their own selves. as well as their environmental subjectivity, through their reciprocal intersubjective communication. In doing so, they shape both the world and themselves. The eco-human approach is aimed at overcoming the environmental crisis and the crisis in the humanities by strengthening the links of the humanities with environmental knowledge and ecology. This implies the task of developing the ecological consciousness and sustainable lifestyle that characterize “environmental subjects,” individuals with an “ecological identity” [28, 29].

According to Arne Næss, the underlying cause of the ecological crisis is the psychological organization of a personality which has been formed by industrialization and scientism. Accordingly, in order to overcome the environmental crisis, it is necessary to form a different psychological organization of the personality, based on the concept of environmental identity: eco-identity. This concept of eco-identity allows us to recognize and further develop theories that help (a) to exemplify a more ecological, or systems, view of the person, (b) offer an understanding of how an expanded self-concept might affect the functioning of individuals and their surrounding environment, and (c) suggest how self-constructs might be changed.

This approach postulates the “poietic” or creative nature of human beings, that is, their ability to shape the surrounding world and themselves. Humans exist in the mode of possibility; they can choose to shape the world and themselves in a way that is not yet actual but that is contained to bring forth beauty by propagating with the other. From the perspective of the eco-human approach, a person’s ability to love and support life can be considered to be a property of human being in its acts of co-creation with nature.

According to Levine [21, 22], poiesis indicates our basic capacity to shape the world. “The human being is distinct from other creatures in that it is not pre-adapted to a particular environment. Instead it has the ability to build radically different worlds suitable (or not) to life in a wide diversity of surroundings. In building its world, the human shapes the environment, and as it does so, it shapes itself. World building is self-building” [21, p. 23-24].

Based on the idea of poiesis, the concept of ecopoiesis (from the Greek words. “Οἶκος” - home, housing, and ποίησι – making, creating) is an important part of the eco-human approach, supporting the idea of humans as “environmental subjects” [18, 22]. This concept is designed to provide the foundation necessary to consider humans in their relations with the living environment as willing and able to take care of their “earthly home.” It recognizes the need for humans and their habitat to become a niche in the life web and their need to live non-destructively with other species.

Ecopoiesis designates a quality and mechanism of the co-evolution of humans and nature, a conscious and responsible co-creation of humankind with nature, based on our physical, emotional and spiritual connection with it. Through ecopoiesis, human beings, together with nature and as part of it, continue and support themselves, but also various forms of earthly life and the eco-sphere. Creative acts, perceived from the ecopoietic perspective are rooted not so much in the need of individual creative “self-expression” in the traditional sense of this word, but in the motivation to support and serve nature and life and to achieve nonduality, a balance between natural and cultural milieu. Ecopoiesis cannot be achieved without love for the Earth and for the beings that inhabit it, including ourselves.

“Ecopoiesis shifts the focus from the ego, the ‘I’ that sees the world and writes about the world, to the world itself and how the world poietically writes itself, or poietically expresses itself. Ecopoiesis is the expression of the eco-sphere and we are always already part and parcel of that eco-sphere.” [27]

Ecopoiesis as a creative human function is expressed through humans’ initiatives to care for and respect the environment, and to see ecosystems as a source of health and well-being for themselves and others who belong to both the human and more-than-human worlds. It implies a fundamental human need and ability to connect to the web of life, to arrange the life space and do something meaningful, beautiful and healing, both for themselves and the ecosphere together with nature. This can mean various things, in particular, gardening, animal encounters, simply spending more time in ecologically healthy settings, or more actively working on maintaining and restoring eco-health, and being involved in environmental action. The ecopoietic function can make one socio-politically active, able to engage further in eco-health promotion and to become an agent of change in the educational, public health and environmental spheres.

As a constructive component of the eco-human approach, eco-human technologies can be defined as methods of transforming the human being in its attitude to the environment and itself. Eco-human technologies can be used in the field of pedagogy, psychology, medicine and other fields, in a wide cultural domain, forming environmental awareness and values, contributing to preserving and developing the human and natural resources of the planet [18].

The role of the arts in providing meaningful human connection to nature

The visual and performing arts as well as other forms of organized and meaningful human-environmental interaction existed in human history long before civilized mind came to an understanding of creative acts as primarily the result of individual activity. The wider environmental perception of the arts can be found both in many world traditions, especially in those characterized, “by ideas about the interconnectedness of all things, perpetual movement, impermanence, and how small and humble acts generate larger changes in the world” [26, p.12]. Such perception of the arts is also implied in the contemporary environmental movement and represents perennial need of human beings to keep their intrinsic connection with nature around and in themselves.

Considerable similarity can be found between modern environmental and ecopsychological understanding of the arts and world traditions, with their environmental practices that support mind-body-spirit integration. Both contemporary ecotherapy and indigenous cultural traditions can be characterized in their perception of the arts as implying the vital function of supporting healthy bonds with nature, the web of life, and in doing so give voice and articulate meaning for earthly life. According to such a conception of the role of the arts, natural environments and various life forms can be highly attractive to humans not only due to their pragmatic value, but also to their aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual significance. 

The role of the arts, in the context of creative/expressive arts therapies, in providing meaningful human connection to nature should be emphasized. The arts possess their own means of solving the environmental and human issues that face us. The spectrum of ways to engage with nature through the arts is wide and involves the participant engaging in different roles: from objective observer to active interventionist. The functions of the arts that can be relevant for the goals of ecological/nature-assisted arts therapies can be outlined as follows:

The arts support meaningful action leading to changed perception of the natural environment. Study of the cultural history of humankind helps us to recognize that making art brings new meaning to human relations with nature; raises consciousness of our place in the natural world and our interdependence; encourages people to transcend their own personal problems and develop a sense of being part of a bigger whole, thus allowing the spiritual awareness of a relationship with the natural world; develop the self-directed need to be caring and to preserve and respect the natural world and develop lifestyles that will aid this [7]. Making art with and in nature also helps to reach such goals of ecotherapy as facilitating healing and accomplishing well-being as an inner state of wellness, including a physical, mental and emotional state of consonance which exists in a healthy environment and is based on a harmonious connection with its ecology.

According to environmental psychology, meaningful action is the opportunity to make a useful contribution to a genuine problem. It may involve being effective at a large scale (e.g. the choice of livelihood, a life-long struggle for environmental justice or food security, etc.), but perhaps more often it involves actions at a modest level (e.g. participating in a stewardship activity, community involvement, voting). The meaningfulness experienced is less a consequence of the scale of the effort involved and more about deriving a sense of making a difference, being listened to and respected, and feeling that we have a secure place within our social group.

Reasonable behavior is more likely when people feel that they are needed and that their participation matters. A number of studies indicate that doing something judged worthwhile or making a difference in the long run are primary motives underlying voluntary environmental stewardship behavior [10, 25]. In these studies, the notion of meaningful action emerged as one of the most significant sources of satisfaction.

One of the significant effects of making art with and in nature is that the arts give natural landscapes and objects some kind of ‘distinctive meaning, relevance and status’ [32, p. 28]. Making art as a form of environmental activity can help people to recognize the meaningfulness and beauty of nature, even if they initially didn’t recognize such qualities. If a person is focused even on the most depressed, sad and colorless environment and starts looking beneath the superficial exterior of things or places using the arts, she/he will often see some spark of life, unique, individual aspects that characterize those objects or places.

This necessarily requires however “turning ourselves inside out, with the heart as the site of reconnection” [6] in order to be able to dissolve through ‘the art of biophilia’ [17] the psychological barriers that characterize the history of our progressive alienation from the land and fuel the environmental crisis.

The arts help people to feel in control of the environment and participate in its management and restoration. Art-making can be used to promote individuals’ and communities’ active position in their relationship with the environment and develop their perception of themselves as people who are able to exert a certain amount of influence on it.

Being involved in environmental expressive/creative activities, people can ‘personalize’ and appropriate the environment. This can also be a significant factor in their feeling safe and in control of the space they occupy. This controlling function of the arts can be especially important in ecotherapy activities, when the client perceives the environment as lacking control (which is natural for most outdoor activities) and evoking anxiety. The arts mediate one’s interaction with the space involved and help to provide equilibrium between the dynamic quality of the natural environment and the more static nature of certain artworks.

The active stance in the human relationship to nature is the main characteristic of contemporary ecotherapy’ [4]; a significant factor of mutuality can also support collective behavioral change. According to Halpern and Bates [11], behavioral interventions tend to be more successful where there is an equal relationship between the influencer and the influenced and where both parties stand to gain from the outcome (p. 25). In public mental health, such mutuality can be seen in the relationships between practitioners and service users, where the latter assume greater responsibility.

For Burls [4], “In ecotherapeutic approaches, there seems to be a further level of mutuality: the role of the influencer is adopted by people who would normally be classed as the influenced. In benefiting from personal lifestyle changes and associated recovery, the service users help to develop a framework for reciprocity towards the environment and the community. In doing so, the community is influenced to care for and respect the environment and, in addition, to see their local green spaces as a source of health and well-being” (p. 35).

The arts can be considered as a form of ecological personalization and subjectification. Our perception of the constructive human interaction with nature through the arts can be enriched by concepts such as personalization of the environment [12, 20]. This concept is related to psychosocial aspects of a person's experience, for example, their territoriality and need to maintain a sense of belonging, ownership and control over their space. Personalization can also be understood as a human behavior that aims to express certain distinctive features of the individual in their surrounding environment. Environmental art can be understood as an ecological form of personalization based on the empathic and supportive human interaction with the natural world.

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Figure 2. An example of personalization of the environment based on the creation and placement of artworks made by participants at significant natural sites

The expressive arts and acts of creative personalization of the environment can promote an environmental ethic, and a more active and participatory position in people’s relationship with the world around, as well as supporting their self-esteem and empowerment.

Personalization of the environment and natural objects through the ecopoietic stance in the world can also imply subjectification of natural objects, their being perceived as having their own subjectivity, able or being in some form of reciprocity, a dialogue and communication with human beings. Subjectification implies both empathy and identification with natural objects and environments and plays a crucial role in the process of developing the human relationship to the more-than-human world; it also enables an ethical perception of nature to be established.

Doing environmental art supports mindfulness and a sense of physical presence in the environment, connecting the symbolic forms of the arts and language to the immediate physical experience of the natural world (the life process). Some environmental arts-based activities can be considered as a way of developing somatic awareness and an embodied sense of self in one’s relation to the environment. This effect is most obvious as a result of environmental arts-based activities which balance time between mindfulness and creative expression, when emphasis is placed on meditative journeys or path-working (walkabouts) as a form of mini-pilgrimages in the ‘green area,’ accompanied with  or followed by participants’ involvement in making art (drawing, taking photographs, making environmental constructions, botanical arrangements, etc.). Other expressive forms such as dance and movement, ritual, music improvisation, narrative-construction in order to express and integrate complex experiences, can expand the scope of expressive/creative arts therapeutic techniques.

Embodiment effects can be easily facilitated through various environmental creative activities, or mindful journeys that help us to feel more embeded in the web of life. Often, the projective nature of the arts enables one’s identification with natural objects and environments on a physical level, projecting one’s perception of the body or its parts onto natural processes and environments. Through this process, the symbolization of somatic phenomena and processes is possible.

Mindful creative activities can be integrated into ecotherapy practices and support the goals of ecotherapy by fostering reconnection and returning to experiencing ourselves in the here and now as embodied beings. This requires attention to physical sensations in their relation to mental states evoked by one’s presence and interaction with the environment. It should be emphasized that the curative powers of nature are enhanced by the degree of mindfulness and mental focus one brings to these interactions. People can immerse themselves in “quiet fascination” [9, p. 103] and a state of presence in the environment, as well as be encouraged to use different arts and instrumental media like photography to explore experiential awareness and practice mindful attention by documenting responses to sensory stimuli. For instance, they can be asked to take pictures of what they move toward as pleasant and to also photograph what they experience as unpleasant, in ways that are used in new mindfulness-based art therapy intervention [30], an example of a palliative environmental program.

Whichever particular expressive arts are used, participants can be encouraged to immerse themselves in a kind of meditation with their absorption in physical and emotional processes, on the one hand, and attentiveness to the environmental stimuli, on the other. They can walk or act mindfully keeping a sense of their presence in the environment with immediate experience here and now, appreciating their physical contact with the natural objects and sensory qualities of the ‘green space’ with its ‘field effects’.

Mindfulness-based environmental expressive arts therapies programs can include an introduction with mindfulness instruction and emphasis on the role of attention in health. Warming-up activities involving breathing and relaxation and exploratory walkabouts in certain environment can be introduced as helping to provide deeper effects [9, 23].

Ecological, eco-human perspective on health and illness

The eco-human approach recognizes a synergy between human health and well-being and environmental integrity. It emphasizes a new perspective on our understanding of health and pathology and ways in which personal and collective insanity could be cured, since this approach seeks to redefine sanity within an environmental context. It contends that seeking to heal the soul and the body without reference to the ecological system of which we are an integral part is a form of self-destructive blindness. The eco-human approach draws upon the ecological sciences to reexamine human health and well-being as an integral part of the web of life. If we are embedded in the wide web of life we somehow feel what happens ‘out there’, in the wider web of life of which we are a mindful part, and we respond to the deteriorating global situation deeply in our body, mind and psyche. Ecopsychology recognizes and seeks to address how the pain of the ecological world shows up as pain within and between human beings.

Ecopsychology together with environmental philosophy has come to understand that ecosystems can be healthy or unhealthy, and that their condition is in synergy with their constituent parts of the person. From the eco-human point of view, “health” is characterized by mutual augmenting of the whole community and the component communities of each other at multiple levels, facilitating their continued successful functioning, their resilience in response to new situations and stresses, and motivating ongoing change and development to maximize developmental options.

Climate change is currently the great issue of planetary health, together with other complex issues which we respond to deeply in our body, mind and psyche. However, we suffer even more, both individually and collectively, when we find ourselves unable to respond to the situation around us, when our creative response to reality is restricted and we experience ourselves as being in a helpless situation. The work of the change agent in the ecological arts therapeutic mission, then, is to restore and develop our capacity for ecopoietic creative action that we as individuals or communities are often lacking.

One of the characteristics of the increasing global environmental and human ‘pathology’ is the human relationship to beauty. Beauty has become a cultural fetish, a triviality, something relative and subjective, that is used to sell; it is today primarily an object and instrument of commodification. However, beauty is actually a core quality of life bringing health and resilience and is one of the key concepts associated with ecopoiesis, the eco-poietic attitude of human beings to the web of life and nature around and in themselves. The ecological idea of beauty with its connection to health is not limited to the sphere of human experience. It is not tied to the notion that beauty is inherent only in human beings with their capacity for artistic and aesthetic activity, but is a manifestation of natural life and part of our cultural experience: the cultural activity of human beings with their ability to aesthetically respond to the world and organize it in accordance with their ideas and experience.

Beauty in its environmental meaning is strongly connected to human and environmental health in their reciprocal relations with each other and the ability to support and cherish each other. Beauty is also an expression of the human and ecosystems’ capacity to continue to exist, adapt, cope with various challenges, flourish and multiply. However, beauty as a property of ‘healthy’ nature and culture is not limited to any one state of childhood, youth, and maturity, but rather characterizes the whole lifespan of any organism. The ecological idea of beauty is connected to the idea of the limitations that are inherent in any living organism. Our sense of beauty also implies our ability to meet with the limitations of our existence and our capabilities, to respond to them and to experience a mixture of trepidation, delight and humility. This vision of beauty with its connection to human and environmental health and sustainability provided in the arts can serve as a guideline for all our acts in our relationships with both culture and nature.

The environmental and ecopsychological perspective on personality formation

Whereas in most conventional therapies, the categories of nature and the living environment/ web of life are simply ignored, or considered to be secondary with regard to one’s relation to the human world, our primary caregivers (parental figures) and other people with whom significant relations can be established throughout the lifespan, from our perspective, one’s relations with the more-than-human world, the web of life, implies a greater significance in the eco-human approach.

According to environmentally or ecologically grounded personality theory, one’s relationship with nature occupies a special role, being considered as a vital factor of healthy personality formation; establishing an eco-identity has the same significance as one’s relations with people. Emotional bonds with nature and the attachment of human beings to nature, together with their bonds with other people, serve as a vital factor of healthy personality formation, beginning with the early developmental phase and ending with the final stage of the human lifespan.

Barrows [1] points out that Piaget, Stern, Fordham and others whose theories inform our work now may serve as a bridge to a more ecologically-based understanding of child development. “The place where transitional phenomena occur, then (to use Winnicott as a sort of bridge to a new formulation), might be understood, in this new paradigm of the self, to be the permeable membrane that suggests or delineates but does not divide us from the medium in which we exist. It is in this realm that distinctions between subjective and objective begin to blur and intersubjectivity is possible” (p. 106-107).

From an eco-human perspective, personality development takes place within a wider matrix of being and relationships that enables the formation of eco-identity. The notion of an eco-identity can be preeminent for the fields of ecopsychology and ecotherapy; it challenges most ‘conventional’ personality theories. It can be defined as the interiorized dynamical structure of our relationship with nature that embraces both the human and more-than-human worlds and serves as one of the significant foundations for self-perception and self-concept. This is a kind of self-perception and self-understanding that is linked to one’s mutually sustaining relationship with nature and implies one’s responsibility and care for nature. Ethical and aesthetic perception of the natural environment and some practical action aimed at its preservation and cultivation serve as important factors of one’s own health and well-being.

Eco-identity is considered to be opposed to a “consumer false self” [15], “an ideal that is taken to heart as part of a person’s identity… The consumer false self is false because it arises from a merciless distortion of authentic human needs and desires” (p. 83).

Nature as the third part in therapeutic relationships

Ecotherapy is sometimes believed to be ‘radical’ in regard to most modern therapies due to its different perception of the conditions, goals and therapeutic relationship involved. Ecotherapy, like most other therapies now, is based on relational theories of therapeutic action, with their focus “on the larger relational system established by the client and the therapists, within which psychological phenomena crystallize and in which experience is continually and mutually shaped in a dialogue of the client and the therapist” [3, p. 292]. However, while the main parties in this relational system in most therapies are client and therapist, nature assumes the role of the third party in ecotherapy and ecological arts therapies. Within this relational system, the crucial role is given to affective attachment both to the therapist and nature in the process of therapeutic change.

Nature is perceived here as a subject of a certain kind and requires environmental ethics that include emotional and subjective elements built on a relationship of care between human beings and the more-than-human world, the different subjects of the living environment, the eco-system. Ecotherapy invites clients to get involved in the relationship with nature, to develop a sense of reciprocity and empathy in human relationships to nature and to identify with various forms of natural life as a significant factor of therapeutic action. Clinebell [7] postulated that ecotherapy is characterized by the three-way relationship of person, therapist and nature, in which nature is considered to be a kind of a co-therapist or educator.

Understanding nature as the third party in therapeutic relationships implies specific psychological, ethical and existential attitudes towards it. Perceiving nature as subject with which some affective bond can be established is also possible as a result of intensified human-nature relationships typical within ecotherapy. Our experience of interaction with various life forms as a source of protection and nurture enables this effect. Corbett and Milton [8] even emphasize that, therapeutically, the natural world could bring another dimension into the transferential relationship. Further exploration would be required to develop this, for example, drawing on the work of various attachment, personality and object relations theorists. If we recognize that nature has provided human beings with care for millions of years, then our affective bond and attachment to the natural environment is possible, though its quality can vary depending on the developmental circumstances of the particular individual.

It should be recognized, however, that ecotherapy and ecological/nature-assisted arts therapies, like any other therapy requires an appropriately structured and accompanied therapeutic process. The presence of the therapist throughout a whole course of therapeutic work provides the client with the sense of safety, containment, order and comprehensibility and helps her/him to shape and crystallize experience.

Environmental and ecopsychological perception of the therapeutic setting

According to the traditional clinical model of the arts therapy setting, it is in both “an environment conducive to creativity” [24, p.80] and a container for powerful and unregulated experiences [16] that “the space in which the relationship between therapist and client develops” [6, p. 19]. The need for a client to reach a certain state of mind necessary to provide symbol formation in the atmosphere of the arts therapy setting, has been emphasized. Symbol formation as a means of effective therapeutic communication and the main focus for therapeutic discourse is given a central importance in clinical arts psychotherapy. It is postulated that “visual imagery - the quintessential stuff of symbolism - is the raw material of art therapy” [33, p. 40] which then can materialize through art-making. Since the symbol is defined as a representational object that can be evoked in the absence of an immediate stimulus, the therapeutic environment is arranged to evoke symbol formation based on the client’s immersion in her/his inner realm rather than in the outer reality and to help the client to begin using images as a reflection of her/his inner world based on the concept of ‘drawing from within’ (ibid., p. 56). Such perception of the symbol formation and the art as a reflection of our inner world is more typical for the clinical, psychoanalytic model which is different from the perception of the art in the framework of poiesis/ecopoiesis, in which the art that is made brings something new into the world.

In the arts therapies, clients’ relations to the outer environment is sometimes discussed to offer them additional opportunities for connecting to their inner worlds. As Case and Dalley [6] explain, “The outer environment in which the institution is set will also directly and indirectly impinge upon and influence the sessions as clients make use of the content of the rooms and whatever is offered by the external environment (for instance, offering clients views of the outside world can evoke memories, feelings and fantasies)” (p. 32).

However, it is unusual for most arts therapists, especially those following a psychodynamic orientation, to consider environmental factors implied in socio-cultural and natural surroundings as having much significance in the therapeutic process or action. The emphasis is rather placed on interpersonal therapeutic interaction and the psychological exploration of the arts product as a reflection of the client’s symptoms and her/his inner dynamics connected to therapeutic relations, with minimum or no attention given to immediate environmental stimuli. A client’s connection to the wider environment and expanding therapeutic boundaries is usually considered to be less significant and even counterproductive.

The eco-human approach, in particular, environmental ecopsychology together with socially-sensitive approaches in arts therapies and in contemporary therapies in general, however, has expanded our understanding of the therapeutic setting and therapeutic environment. Contemporary understanding of the therapeutic action also includes the healthcare facilities and ‘therapeutic team’ as well as the community. The therapeutic environment is designed and applied not only to support and facilitate state-of-the-art medicine and technology, patient safety, and quality patient care, but to also embrace the patients’ family and caregivers in a psycho-socially supportive therapeutic space. It is believed that the characteristics of the physical, social and psychological environment in which a patient receives care affects patient outcomes, patient satisfaction and safety, staff efficiency and satisfaction as well as organizational outcomes. Ecopsychology and ecotherapy seem to be congruent with this idea of the therapeutic environment, but give even more importance to natural environmental factors.

Since both ecopsychology and ecotherapy recognize the synergy between human health and well-being and the health and ecological integrity of the natural environment, eco-therapeutic practices usually take place within natural environments or in other ways are somehow related to nature. Though some ecotherapy practices, at least during certain parts of the session, can take place indoors, special significance is given to participants’ involvement in certain activities outdoors. Outdoor spaces used throughout these activities can vary considerably.

The wide continuum of environments used in nature-based or eco-arts therapies can embrace spaces with prevailing natural objects and characterized by greater biodiversity, on the one hand, and those with mostly built objects, on the other. The answer to the question “How much nature is needed in order to practice eco-arts therapies?” would include a wide variety of environments in which nature is present in one or another form. It could be the garden in a mental hospital or a public school, or more distant wilderness areas, “as long as the setting is maintained as a central reference to the process and its conduction” [2, p. 240].

The Green Studio model was introduced [17] to define a special place where eco-arts therapeutic sessions can take place. The Green Studio/Eco-Studio can be characterized as a therapeutic indoor or outdoor space with a certain abundance of natural living forms and materials, possibly some natural landscape, a part of the natural environment that can be chosen, maintained, and personalized by the client or community. Sometimes it cannot be as permanent as the traditional therapeutic setting and is characterized by a unique equilibrium of static and dynamic qualities. Its dynamic qualities are dependent on greater transparency of its boundaries and the natural processes involved.


Figure 3. An example of organizing a temporary "Green Studio" on the territory of a residential school

As we have defined it [17, p. 20], the Green Studio can be created as an accessible green area, a part of the institution (hospital, rehabilitation center, shelter, residential home etc.), or aligned with a private practitioner’s office. It can also be a kind of a ‘portable studio’ [13, 14] arranged in the municipality (park, garden, beach, etc.) or in the ‘wild’ environment. But even in this latter case a sense of order, permanence and comprehensibility for the client is possible as a result of her/his relationship with the therapist and the various activities which give her/him a possibility to personalize a natural space.

The Green Studio can be perceived as the space in which the human function of ecopoiesis can be materialized. It is possible and even necessary to perceive the Green Studio as providing a two-pronged system to achieve both individual health (at the micro-level) and public and environmental health outcomes (at the macro-level) [4].


The developing fields of community and social action therapies, including creative/expressive arts therapies professionals’ interest in exploring new ways of therapeutic work with environments, has been growing in the last decades. Ecological, or nature-assisted creative and expressive arts therapies, tend to constitute an increasingly significant part of the spectrum of contemporary ecotherapeutic methods characterized by an active stance in professionals’ and clients’ relationship to the environment.

The key presuppositions and theoretical foundation of ecological/nature-assisted arts therapies, a branch of contemporary ecotherapy and the ecological movement at large, have been presented. Though these forms of therapy belong to an established group of mental health professions or specialized therapeutic approaches, they are characterized by a new perspective on health issues and the role of the arts in providing public and planetary health and well-being. Ecological arts therapies have been seen to be supported by such scientific approaches as ecopsychology and ecophilosophy, and they demonstrate a new perspective on our understanding of the therapeutic role of human bonds and forms of environmental activity with nature.

Together with ecotherapy, environmental philosophy, environmental education as well as the contemporary environmental arts, ecological arts therapies are aligned with the emerging eco-human multi-disciplinary approach and the growing field of constructive innovations that can be  applied in education, medicine, the wider social context in order to counteract the environmental crisis and can be used to enable a more harmonious co-evolution of human beings and the more-than-human world. The eco-human multi-disciplinary approach should be seen as a worldview and a system of eco-human constructive innovations that recognize a synergy between human well-being and the health and ecological integrity of the natural environment. This is a perennial idea that has gained new currency and a sense of urgency in the modern environmental movement, particularly in its “deep ecology” wing.

Such key concepts of ecological expressive therapies as human health and illness, eco-identity formation, nature as the third part in the therapeutic relations, the therapeutic setting, and the role of the arts in providing meaningful human connection to nature have been considered from the eco-human perspective inviting mental health professionals to explore a new vision of the sustainable future and their role in bringing it to fruition. The eco-human approach maintains a rich network of researchers and practitioners who share the goals of creating durable behavior change at multiple levels, promoting an environmental ethic and maintaining harmonious human-nature relationships. Today this approach as well as the fields of environmental psychology, conservation psychology and ecopsychology are helping society to form an affirmative response to emerging environmental and natural resource constraints. This is a great challenge, since the response must plan for, motivate and maintain environmental stewardship behavior through a period of significant energy and resource depletion.

We as humans exist both in the mode of reality and in the mode of possibility; we can choose to shape the world and ourselves in a way that is not yet actual but that is contained potentially in what is already given. This ability is our creative, ecopoietic function, which means shaping the world around us, producing different phenomena and “products,” which either support or destroy the environment. We can use our poietic function to move the world of more sustainable living for humans and the more-than-human world, the web of life, from the realm of possibility to the realm of reality, but this transition requires our creative imagination, intention and activity together with the living environment.

While our multi-cultural community is striving to go through this transition, nature-assisted or ecological arts therapies can play a greater role in helping our clients and societies to survive, be healthy, and form an affirmative response to the constraints in the environmental and natural resources that are emerging now and that we will continue to face in the future.


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Reference for citations

Kopytin, A(2021). Ecological/nature-assisted arts therapiesEcopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2(2). [open access internet journal]. – URL: (d/m/y)


About the journal

“Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice” is the first international multidisciplinary Journal focused on building an eco-human paradigm, disseminating eco-human knowledge and technology based on the alliance of ecology, humanities and the arts. Our journal aims to be a vibrant forum of theories and practices aimed at harmonizing the relations of mankind and the natural world in the interests of sustainable development, the creation of Eco-Humanity as a new community of human beings and more-than-human world. The human being is an ecological being, not separate from the world. The Ecopoiesis journal is based on that premise and aims to develop a body of theory and practice within that framework.

The Journal promotes dialogue and cooperation between ecologists, philosophers, doctors, educators, psychologists, artists, musicians, designers, social activists, business representatives in the name of eco-human values, human health and well-being, in close connection with concern for the environment. The Journal supports the development and implementation of new environmentally-friendly concepts, technologies and practices in the various fields of health and public life, education and social work.

One of the priority tasks of the Journal is to demonstrate and support the significant role of the arts in their alliance with ecology and the humanities for the restoration and development of constructive relations with nature, raising environmental awareness and promoting nature-friendly lifestyles.

The Journal publishes articles describing new eco-human concepts and practices, technologies and applied research data at the intersection of humanities, ecology and the arts, as well as interviews and conference reports related to the emerging eco-human field. It encourages artwork, music and other creative products related to eco-human practices and the new global community of Eco-Humanity.