David Christian is a high school counselor in the Denton Independent School District in Texas who opts to go outside the box – literally – to better connect with his students.

Christian, who is a doctoral candidate in the counseling program at the University of North Texas (UNT) and a member of the American Counseling Association, the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA), the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES) and the Texas Counseling Association, uses a method called adventure-based counseling, which uses physical activities to get to emotional roots.

Christian explains how spending his childhood summers roughing it Colorado helped spark his interest in adventure-based counseling and why he thinks the intervention would be useful for other school counselors.

To learn about other active interventions, read Counseling Today’s December 2011 cover story, Getting off the couch.

Describe how you first got involved in adventure-based counseling?

Although I am from Texas, growing up, I spent the summers camping in Colorado with my father and grandfather. Our days consisted of hiking, fishing and chatting. Looking back, I realize that our best conversations happened while we were doing something (i.e., fishing, hiking, canoeing). Sitting around the campfire at night also gave me a great opportunity to hear of family traditions and seek advice from those I looked up to. There was something about being outside in nature; it probably had a lot to do with not being distracted by electronics that seemed to foster reflection and conversation. As I grew older, I became active in rock climbing and all types of other outdoor activities. While completing my undergraduate degree in psychology, I became interested in how to improve father/son relationships. Based on my experiences, I wanted to incorporate outdoor experiences into helping others. It was not until I was working on my master’s degree in counseling that I heard about adventure-based counseling (ABC). No one in my program at the time was into it, but I happened to stumble upon a book called Exploring the Islands of Healing. As I read it, I knew that this was what I wanted to do and was excited that others were also interested. I was teaching high school at the time, so I began to incorporate activities into my teaching. I also started leading ABC groups after school as part of my internship. Since then, I have had the honor of collaborating with some pretty awesome people — mainly, Nate Folan of Project Adventure and Torey Protrie-Bethke of Antioch University in New Hampshire. They have been amazing in helping me improve my understanding and practice of ABC. Carolyn Kern (of UNT) and I have been working to incorporate resiliency into ABC.

What kind of an effect have you seen adventure-based counseling have on your students?

One of the main benefits I have seen from ABC is trust. As the students complete activities together, they begin to realize that they can trust each member to help the group be successful. This quickly translates to trust in other areas. The kinesthetic activity also helps students let their guard down and talk about what’s going on in their lives. I have noticed a big impact with my male participants. I’ve run groups where boys from all walks of life are sharing what they are going through, quickly realizing that they are not alone in their struggles. One of the greatest experiences I had was during a group when one of the guys stated that he didn’t have any money for lunch. None of the other members had his same lunchtime, but one offered to miss the first part of his class to run to the café and buy him lunch. These were two guys who hadn’t even met a few weeks before but were now going out of their way to help each other out. Another way I have seen ABC affect students is by helping them better understand who they are and what they have to offer society. When doing an activity toward the beginning of the groups, the “big and strong” guys are usually singled out to do the heavy lifting. We always process this and talk about why the others don’t step in and do their part. We process how everyone has a talent or gift and that by not offering it to the group, everyone missed out on it. One time, I had a group where we were doing an activity that one of the girls did not want to participate in. She decided to sit on the table and watch. Before long she was cheering on the team, offering up suggestions for success and at one point performed 25 pushups in order to help the group move forward. This same student would lead the group in funny songs during the activities and emerged as quite the humorous leader.

Describe a typical session with your students:

I always structure my sessions with a warm-up, an activity and a time for processing. The warm-up typically consists of a fun, “get to know you” activity. The main activities are sequenced to promote deeper psychological disclosure as the group progresses and trust is formed. The processing time is extremely important and is what separates ABC from [physical education classes]. I follow a modified version of David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. First we do the activity. Next we discuss what we just did. These are just the observations everyone made. Then we talk about the so what of the activity. Why did we do that? How does it relate to what they are going through? During this time the members might come up with some metaphors for the activity. Finally we discuss the now what. During this time we talk about how they might transfer their new insights and understandings to their everyday life.

What kinds of positive results have you seen through your work?

I love seeing kids gain new insight into who they are and how their behavior is affecting their interactions with others. It’s really awesome to hear the students use the metaphors they are learning in their everyday lives. Some of the key results I have seen are new friendships and support systems in the school, improved decision making, greater self-efficacy and increased trust.

Are there any misconceptions about adventure-based counseling?

Yes! The main one is that ABC has to be done at a ropes-course or in the wilderness. Although ropes courses are a great tool, you can do ABC anywhere. I regularly lead groups inside a school classroom. I prefer to be outside and do so whenever possible, but often times I find myself confined within four walls. Another misconception is that ABC is only for young people. I have led groups with middle school students all the way up to people with 20+ years of experience in school counseling. I have led them in group homes, high schools, universities and professional development settings. I always say that the group members will have as much fun as the facilitator has, regardless of age. In one group I was leading, I had a teenage boy who was living in a residential facility. He had clearly lived a rough life and had a pretty tough exterior. I was nervous he would not participate and [would] think what we were doing was silly. However, he jumped right in and was acting silly and having fun like the rest of us. I was later reminded of how hard his life had been when I offered him a blue bandana for an activity and he exploded in a fit of anger for my even expecting him to wear such a color: a mark of a rival street gang.

What kinds of counselors do you recommend taking advantage of adventure-based counseling?

School counselors can use ABC to facilitate discussion, especially with males. Males typically struggle with emotional communication, so it is helpful if [they] can act out their feelings and then discuss what everyone experienced. I was recently working with a director of guidance to add some ABC activities to a professional development to facilitate better understanding of the concepts. Although best done in groups, I have also adapted ABC to individual and paired counseling. I think if you are a counselor, and you like having fun, you should find a way to learn more about ABC and think about implementing it in parts of your practice.

Are there techniques used in adventure-based counseling that all counselors can use with their clients?

Absolutely. There are books with fun activities that can be adapted to fit any setting. However, I think it is important to seek out workshops and learning experiences related to ABC. Further, it is important to remain within one’s scope of competence. After all, we are responsible for our clients’/students’ physical and emotional safety.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

ABC is a wonderful way to have fun and promote growth and change in our students/clients. By using ABC, counselors are able to create a fun environment that feels more like P.E. than therapy. This allows students, especially males, to let their guard down and engage in the process. After all, what kid doesn’t like to have fun?

Looking for more information? Christian says Project Adventure has many resources and is a good place to start.

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.