“Adventure Counseling.” Many people initially assume that a master’s-level counseling class with this title involves frivolous “fun and games” and offers little in the way of valuable content. In reality, it is a course unique in its educational potential and unlike any other educational experience I have taken part in as a professor.

Researchers have investigated the overall efficacy of adventure-based counseling (ABC) and its relationship to self-esteem. In 1994, D. Cason and H. Lee Gillis conducted a meta-analysis of ABC in 44 research studies with adolescents and self-esteem, social competence/life skills and training and reported an overall rate of improvement of 12.2 percent. That same year, Jennifer Davis-Berman and Denes Berman looked at self-efficacy, behavioral difficulties and locus of control in 31 therapeutic wilderness programs at both post-test and long-term follow-up and found that improvements were maintained over time (one and two years).

The conceptual framework of ABC is based on several counseling theories, including behavioral, cognitive and experiential learning. Reported psychological benefits of ABC include new levels of self-confidence, an increased willingness to take risks, improved self-concept, greater reflective thinking and enhanced skills in leadership and logical reasoning.

To paint a picture of what this class might look like, imagine a group of graduate-level adult learners spending one week together in the woods without desks or chalkboards, laptops or lectures, papers or exams. “Tests” come in the form of mental, emotional and physical hurdles that students encounter and overcome. These challenges are both stumbled upon and plotted by the students throughout the course. For example, students face tests of character and will as diverse as forcing themselves to speak up when they are usually reserved or looking at a 15-foot high wall and contemplating how to get over it when the most athletic endeavor they typically engage in is walking from their car to the classroom. Having to ask fellow group members for help or confiding in them that you are afraid to attempt an obstacle are representative of the unplanned challenges students face.

In ABC, activities once reserved for “kids” are used as teaching tools for adult learners — walking on wires, being passed through a tire by a group or falling off a platform into the arms of the group. Bonds develop not only among group members but also between the teacher and the students, which is a result not commonly found in the traditional classroom setting. In the process, some individuals push themselves further physically than they thought themselves capable of, while others fail to conquer the challenges they set for themselves.

In ABC, students set both individual and group goals for the week. For example, in the class that I led, one student who is normally a leader decided to take a back seat in group activities to observe and participate from a different perspective. Another decided that her demeanor was always very serious, so she set a goal to “have fun.” One student wrote that it was a challenge all week to remain aware of her goal — to refrain from judging people and to truly accept them. She came to recognize that another student’s physical challenges were just as valid as her emotional challenge. Group goals included being open and honest with fellow members and speaking up and informing the group of needs.

Students were given opportunities for reflection in the form of both journal writing and group debriefing after each course element and at the conclusion of the day’s instruction and group interaction. Participants spoke about the group cohesiveness that developed and how this aided them in attaining their personal goals or in gaining a sense of new self-acceptance even when they failed to reach a goal.

Distinct insights emerged out of the week’s activities and reflections, including an experiential understanding of how these skills and knowledge apply to the counseling setting. This allowed the counseling students to “walk in the shoes” of potential clients and to empathetically and cognitively understand the powerful potential for change that a group can exert on a client. Being helped, accepted and valued as a person by the group, even when personal goals go unmet, is an experience that encourages change.

Students regularly discussed the new level of personal insight gained through the ABC activities, freshly recognizing how their thoughts and actions had impacted interactions with others. Some members spoke about their competitiveness and how that colored their view of a task — expressing frustration when they felt fellow group members weren’t “trying hard enough,” for example. This realization led to an understanding regarding not living in the present and how this could become a countertransference issue in therapy.

One participant found herself taking responsibility for another student’s failings, despite 10 other group members being present during the process. This led to an important question: Would this student also take responsibility for her client’s failings in therapy?

Group members also tackled trust issues, because they found they had to rely on others for the successful completion of a task. This became an empathy lesson in understanding what some clients experience when faced with having to trust their counselor. One student wrote about her feelings of being led through a challenge blindfolded. When her partner led her into an object that caused her to hurt her leg, the result was an inability to trust the “guiding” partner. Compounding the situation was the partner’s laughter. Through this process, she came to realize that communication is the cornerstone of the counseling process and that people interpret actions according to their own phenomenological views. A laugh, even if only nervous laughter, might be interpreted as uncaring.

Other insights involved the participants’ “imaginary audience.” Many students focused on how the group might perceive them and acted according to this self-conscious view. For example, body image and weight were of great concern to a number of group members. This became a source of inhibition and a limiting factor for some as they performed activities. Another example was group members’ awareness of their physical abilities or age differences in comparison to others. Students experienced how these biases controlled their behaviors and were thus able to envision how these perceptions might impact a client in the counseling relationship.

Group members also commented on absorbing the value of debriefing, group process, teamwork, sequencing and reading your group through the week’s interactions. Many spoke about how they intended to apply the lessons learned to the particular populations with which they worked.

As a climax to the week, each participant was asked to lead a group through an activity of his or her own design. Individuals recounted the anticipatory anxiety they felt as well as the sense of accomplishment they garnered from being a leader and applying the knowledge learned through adventure counseling. Students were required to evaluate themselves both as leaders and as group participants and received written feedback from the group. In their journals, students commented on the applicability of the activities led by their peers as well as their experience in leading the group.

As the instructor for this course, I had an experience unlike any other, not just because of the physical setting but also in the development and education of the counseling students. I witnessed personal growth, watched students overcome enormous challenges and felt a sense of unparalleled community in class. Adventure counseling translates directly into clinical or school counselor settings. It was a wonderful opportunity and process for me as the instructor, and I thank all the students for allowing me to be a part of their experience.

Louise Graham is an associate professor in the Graduate Department of Counselor Education at Bridgewater State College. She also holds clinical privileges at the Boston Veterans New England Healthcare System and has a Harvard Clinical appointment.