Outdoor Therapies Facilitate Context, Meaning,
and Healing for Different Populations
By Susan Morgan
Horticultural therapy practitioners draw on our collective biophilic desires to provide clients countless opportunities for direct, hands-on, and therapeutic experiences with plants and gardens. Delivered often within plant-rich settings, horticultural therapy activities are appealing to clients as unique, engaging, accessible, and benign. Nature is the co-therapist within the therapeutic process and a key element towards healing (Segal, Harper, & Rose, 2021).
“Horticultural therapy is a shining example of how therapy delivered in the non-threatening environment of a garden space teaches participants how to utilize the people-plant relationship as a tool to reduce stress in their daily lives,” says Colleen Griffin, HTR.
In a recent blog post on incorporating phenology, mindfulness, and metaphor within horticultural therapy (HT) programming, Griffin wrote that outdoor therapies, including HT, are “gaining attention as viable, holistic therapeutic practices” and can be used as one method to “a more natural, effective, and chemical-free pathway to wellness.”
Several outdoor therapeutic modalities and their foundational approaches, practices, and possibilities for serving various people are presented in the book, Outdoor Therapies: An Introduction to Practices, Possibilities, and Critical Perspectives, edited by Nevin J. Harper, PhD, and Will W. Dobud, PhD, MSW, and published in 2021. Horticultural Therapy Institute director and lead instructor Rebecca L. Haller, HTM, MS, contributes the chapter on the practice of HT.
According to the publisher Routledge, the foundation and practice of outdoor therapies outlined in the book “redefine the ‘person-in-environment’ approach to human health and well-being.”
Outdoor Therapies presents in-depth knowledge and supporting research on outdoor based therapeutic modalities, including HT, wilderness, adventure, nature-based, equine and animal assisted, surf, and forest therapies, as well as incorporating nature-based therapeutic activities with allied professions, such as occupational therapy. The book outlines the different ways and means through which outdoor based therapies can complement traditional therapeutic practices and benefit people who are resistant to or may not easily align with these traditional therapies.
Cultural competency is a key aspect of HT practitioners’ work with clients. The American Psychological Association loosely defines cultural competency as “the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one’s own.” “Recognizing each participant as an individual with a specific blend of beliefs, values, cultural experiences, personal background, and language helps the horticultural therapist to improve his or her ability to interact and engage with each client” (Morgan, 2019).
The book addresses cultural competence, privilege, and bias in respect to practitioners’ ability to engage with clients in outdoor therapies. This is also as it relates to a broader ecological relationship with the land as well as meaningful historic relationships of Indigenous cultures to the earth and landscape (Harper & Doherty, 2021; Claxton, 2021).
As chapter authors Segal et al note, nature-based therapy may not be for everyone, so it is up to the client and practitioner to determine the appropriateness of using the outdoors within a therapeutic context. One limiting factor, among others addressed in the book, is biophobia. Though nature is often interpreted by many as a healing and restorative environment, nature is wild and to be respected (Delaney, 2021).
For individuals immersed in industrialized, Western lifestyles, there is a growing disconnect between the wild outdoors and a more sedentary, technologically influenced way of life in controlled indoor environments. Nature may be viewed as unpredictable with severe weather patterns and frightening wildlife, such as bees, snakes, and spiders.
Delaney notes that doctors are now writing prescriptions to patients advising them to go for walks outdoors. Outdoor therapeutic professionals may be key to the slow reintroduction and reconnection of wary individuals with nature.
Outdoor Therapies is a useful and informative resource for the HT practitioner’s toolbox. While practitioners understand the various ways that HT techniques and the garden setting can benefit clients, it is equally important to understand the context of HT within the broader applications of nature as a healing tool in other complementary outdoor therapies.
Claxton, N.X. (2021). Indigenous land-based healing pedagogies: From the ground up. In N.J. Harper & W.W. Dobud (Eds.), Outdoor therapies: An introduction to practices, possibilities, and critical perspectives (pp. 54-65). Routledge.
Delaney, M.E. (2021). Ecopsychological approaches in therapy. In N.J. Harper & W.W. Dobud (Eds.), Outdoor therapies: An introduction to practices, possibilities, and critical perspectives (pp. 30-41). Routledge.
Harper, N.J. & Doherty. (2021). An introduction to outdoor therapies. In N.J. Harper & W.W. Dobud (Eds.), Outdoor therapies: An introduction to practices, possibilities, and critical perspectives (pp. 3-15). Routledge.
Morgan, S.C. (2019). Considerations and adaptations to safely accommodate program participants. In R.L. Haller, K.L. Kennedy, & C.L. Capra (Eds.), The profession and practice of horticultural therapy (pp. 271-301). CRC Press.
Segal, D., Harper, N.J., & Rose, K. (2021). Nature-based therapy. In N.J. Harper & W.W. Dobud (Eds.), Outdoor therapies: An introduction to practices, possibilities, and critical perspectives (pp. 95-107). Routledge.