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May 2016
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 Building a Home in Nature: An Innovative Framework for Practice

Ronen Berger
Journal of humanistic psychology. 2008, 48(2), 264-279.


This article presents an innovative framework that uses the natural environment as a partner in a creative and nonverbal therapeutic process. Integrating examples from practice, this article illustrates the ways in which the concepts and methods of “nature therapy” can be implemented with different clients and different settings.

 Key words: space, creativity, nature therapy, ritual, nature

The Issue of Space

In most cases the psychotherapeutic discourse makes it appear as if the therapeutic process takes place in a vacuum with scarcely a reference to the environment in which the process occurs (Barkan, 2002; Pendzik, 1994). Over the last few decades, with the emergence of environmental psychology and other post-modern disciplines, writers have become increasingly aware of different influences of the environment on the individual’s general social behavior and counselor–client transactions (Anthony & Watkins, 2002; Barker ,1976; Baron, Rea, & Daniels, 1992; Chaikin & Derlega ,1974; Gifford, 1988; Gross, Sasson, Zarhy, & Zohar, 1998; Hall, 1976; Lecomte, Berstin, & Dumont, 1981; Miwa & Hanyu, 2006: Morrow & McElroy, 1981; Orzek, 1987; Pendzik, 1994; Pilisuk & Joy, 2001; Pressly & Heesacker, 2001; Ulrich, 1983; Ulrich, Dimberg, & Driver, 1991). It has also become increasingly evident that the aesthetics of the surroundings affect people’s display of emotions (Maslow & Mintz, 1956) and their overall levels of stress (Miwa & Hanyu, 2006). In addition to the growing evidence of the considerable impacts of urban and indoor environment upon the therapeutic process, more and more writers have begun to explore the impact of natural spaces on parallel processes (Berger, 2005; Berger & McLoed, 2006; Hartig, Mang, & Evans, 1991; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Totton, 2003). Alongside these developments, together with the introduction of ecopsychology, adventure therapy, and nature therapy, researchers have begun to write about the ways in which nature and the contact with nature can support the therapeutic process (Berger, 2005; Berger & McLoed, 2006; Beringer, 2003; Beringer & Martin, 2003; Burns, 1998; Davis, 1998, 2004; Hartig, Mang, & Evans, 1991; Totton, 2003; Roszak, 2001; Roszak, Gomes, & Kanner 1995). However, despite this growing interest, only a few theorists have articulated the aforementioned into a therapeutic framework that incorporates the relationship with natural space as the key reference for therapy.

This article aims to illustrate an innovative framework based on and developed from these ideas. Integrating examples from practice, it presents ways in which the new framework – theory, concepts, and methods – can be implemented with different clients and in different settings.

Nature Therapy: An Innovative Therapeutic Approach

Nature therapy is an innovative experiential therapeutic approach that takes place in nature. It seeks to broaden the classical concept of setting as a static, permanent place under the control and ownership of the therapist (Barkan, 2002; Bleger, 1967), so that it includes the dynamic natural environment as a partner in the shaping of the setting and process (Berger, 2005; Berger & McLoed, 2006).  Nature therapy develops a framework--theory, concepts, and methods--that help it operate in a live and open environment while using that environment’s healing elements (Berger, 2005; Berger & McLoed, 2006) to support therapeutic processes and develop in new directions. Nature therapy is an integrative and postmodern approach combining elements from art and drama therapy, gestalt, the narrative approach, eco-psychology, transpersonal psychology, adventure therapy, shamanism, and mind–body practices. The approach also includes an environmental educational aspect, using the process with nature as a bridge between people and nature and to foster love and care for the environment (Berger, 2005; 2006). The conceptualization, analysis, and development of the framework is based on the author's action research oriented doctoral thesis (Berger 2007). Nature therapy has been implemented with different types of clients, in individual, group, and family settings in the private, educational, and health sectors in Israel. Postgraduate training is offered in academic institutions in Israel and additional programs are currently being developed in Europe.

Nature as a Therapeutic Setting

One of the basic concepts of nature therapy is the view of nature as a therapeutic setting. Nature is a live and dynamic environment that is not under the control or ownership of either therapist or client. It is an open and independent space, which was there before their arrival and will remain there long after they depart (Berger & McLoed, 2006). This characteristic is quite different from the indoor setting, which is usually owned by the therapist, who has furnished it for the purpose of seeing clients and doing therapy (Barkan, 2002).

This situation, in which the therapist does not control the location in which the work takes place, creates some basic assumptions that influence important aspects of the process, such as the therapeutic alliance, hierarchy, authority, and contract. As nature therapy chooses to relate to nature as a partner in process, it invites the therapist to relate to these issues while using a framework that not only takes these characteristics in account, but incorporates them into its rationale.

Building a Home in Nature – Example # 1

Joseph was a 12-year old boy, whose life was complicated by communication problems and social difficulties. From the onset of therapy, which took place at the school he attended for children with special needs, Joseph made it clear that he was not comfortable in the counseling room. Instead, he invited his therapist for walks near his classroom. In time, the range of these walks expanded from inside the well-known area of the institution to a nearby, yet unfamiliar, riverbank. As time went by, the boy chose a specific place on the riverbank, under a willow tree, hidden from passers-by. As the therapeutic goal of these sessions was to help Joseph expand his social and communication skills, the encounters began with concrete actions such as brewing tea over a fire. As time progressed, it became evident that he was paying careful attention to maintaining the exact location, manner, and order of the activities. In addition, it was evident that he was busily collecting sticks and stones from the riverbank to construct a small barrier around the area in which the “tea ceremony” took place, making sure it was performed precisely in the center. Little by little a relationship between Joseph and his therapist was created through the construction of the barrier, the direct physical encounter in nature, and the repetition of activities and ceremonies conducted in a specific place. A crucial turning point occurred when the construction of the barrier surrounding the “tea place” was completed. Joseph dramatically expanded his use of language, his desire to connect with the therapist and to tell his own story. Later on, as winter began, the sessions moved indoors to the clinic and the work continued through story making and drawing. When difficult, conflict-riddled situations arose, Joseph would once again lead his therapist to the place on the riverbank, which by then had been named the “Home in Nature.” It was as though Joseph needed to check and see that the safe sacred space that he and his therapist had physically built together, a space that also symbolized their therapeutic alliance, was still there. It seemed that he wanted to see what had changed during the season and what needed to be reconstructed.

Choosing to relate to nature as a place in which to conduct therapy beckons the therapist to relate to its unique characteristics and choose a framework that will not only take them into account but will incorporate them into the therapeutic rationale. In Joseph’s story, the process of choosing a location and later building a “home in nature” was central to his therapy. It began from the moment the therapist allowed him to take authority over the physical location of the encounters, inviting him to choose not only what to do with it but also where it would be located. This "step back" by the therapist allowed Joseph to step away from the familiar educational territory of the school to a distant riverbank, where he could encounter and construct a personal therapeutic space. On the site of his choice, he selected a hidden place under a willow tree, in which he created a circle of stones; forming a separate, enclosed territory where fire could be made, relationships built and stories told.

This way of working is consistent with White and Epston's narrative concept of hierarchy flattening (Freedman & Combs, 1996; White & Epston, 1990), developing it further by inviting therapist and client to construct the space for their encounter together, using natural materials that they find in the "here and now." This mode of working also combines elements from Gestalt and the narrative approach by beckoning the clients to shoulder responsibility and ownership over their own processes. It sends a non-verbal message about the options they have for reconstructing reality from elements that can be found in the “here and now” (Freedman & Combs, 1996; Kepner, 1987; White & Epston, 1990).

Expanding the Alliance 

Adventure therapy uses nature to expose the client to a controlled level of physical risk and challenge, for example, canoeing down rapids or hiking through the wilderness. Through this confrontation with nature clients encounter their fears and expand their coping skills. It is hoped that in this way they will discover new and more efficient ways of coping, for example, by making better use of group support (Beringer and Martin, 2003; Gillis and Ringer, 1999). However, other ways of working with the physical presence of the natural world can also be incorporated into nature-based therapy, thus extending it to additional dimensions.

The three-way relationship between client-therapist-nature is another key concept of nature therapy that can be applied to this process, expanding the classic therapist–client relationship by the addition of "nature" as a third partner. As such, it is designed to help the therapist relate to nature as an active partner (perhaps a kind of co-therapist), influencing not only the setting, but the entire therapeutic process (Berger, 2004, 2005; Berger & McLoed, 2006). With respect to this concept, therapists are encouraged to develop specific standpoints. They may take a central position and work directly with the client, relating to nature as a backdrop or tool provider. Alternatively, they may take a quieter role, remaining in the background and allowing the client to work directly with "nature," with the therapist as human witness, container, and mediator. The following is an example of how this concept can be incorporated into nature-informed therapy and can be used to achieve specific therapeutic and educational goals. It also demonstrates a way in which a year-long psycho-educational program can be operated within the limited space of a schoolyard.

Working Within the Three-Way Relationship: Client-Therapist-Nature – Example # 2

A class of seven children, aged 8  to 10 studying in a school for children with special needs participated in a year- long nature therapy program. Two-hour sessions were conducted on a weekly basis, facilitated in conjunction by a therapist and a teacher who had participated in nature therapy training and was receiving ongoing supervision. The aim of the program was to broaden the children's communication skills, to build their self-esteem and self-confidence, and to help establish their integration as a group. As the children were not accustomed to the concept of experiential therapy or to the option of working outdoors, the program began in the familiar classroom by inviting the children to look through the windows and observe the changes of autumn. This process was then used as a metaphor to present the new concept of doing experiential work in nature and working with the collaboration of the teacher and the therapist. Having established a safe foundation in a familiar environment, the sessions were gradually moved outdoors, into a remote and unused territory in the backyard of the school. After two months, it became clear that the group was dealing with issues such as independence, behavioral problems, personal boundaries, self-confidence, and self-expression. At this time, the facilitators decided to expand their original aims and address these issues, while remaining open to additional issues that might emerge. As most of the participants had communication and verbalization difficulties, it appeared that the active and creative Building a Home in Nature method (Berger, 2004) would be a good vehicle to support this work and to help the individuation process of the participants. The children did not need many explanations, as they happily joined in this playful and active task. The symbolism that emerged from the "home building" process was amazing: the home of a child who lived in a chaotic family had no boundaries, whereas that of the child with an aggressive and invasive mother was surrounded by a wide wall. The home of a new child, who had just joined the class, was built on the edge of the group territory, and the home of the dominant one was built at its center. The "concrete symbolism" that emerged from this creative work in nature allowed the participants to express basic issues in a non-verbal and creative way, utilizing nature as a mediator.

As winter intervened, the environment changed. Rain and mud took over, plants sprouted, and animals such as migrating birds appeared. These elements intrigued group members who were not accustomed to such direct contact with nature. The blooming of plants and the discovery of earthworms triggered the children to voice questions about the permanency and fluidity of life and about changes they go through as they grow up. In one session, after a particularly stormy day, it became evident that most of the "homes" were flooded and the ground was soaked through and through.

This encounter with the natural elements triggered participants to talk about their fears of the uncontrollable, including the fear of losing parents in a car accident or terrorist attack. In this sense, nature summoned an event that allowed the group to talk about taboo issues and to touch upon elements not usually addressed in the everyday reality of school. This simple sharing seemed to help participants normalize their fears; acknowledging that their personal fear is also a collective one. As time went by, each child found a specific interest and something to do in his home or in the territory near it. Dan was engaged by the sprouting and growth of a small plant that had emerged from the rock he used to build the boundaries of his "home." He was as excited by his discovery as he was overwhelmed by the strength and persistence of the plant as it pushed its way through the hard rock. Dan was worried that the plant’s roots would not have enough space to develop and that it would lack the nourishment it needs to grow. Using story-making techniques (Gersie, 1997; Lahad, 1992), it became evident that the "plant coping story" referred to a traumatic experience in Dan's own life – his separation from his biological parents and  moves from one home to another. The encounter with the plant seemed to trigger Dan’s reflection on basic questions regarding his own roots and belonging. Along this line, aiming to expand Dan's sense of capability, the "plant coping story" was used to extend his personal story, focusing on the coping mechanisms and strength Dan found in complex moments of his life. This mode of working combines elements from Lahad’s (1992) and White's (2004) approaches of working with traumatic episodes, using the story of the plant to connect the child with his own strength and abilities. Connecting to this real and natural story, present in the here and now, helped the child connect to a primal sense of continuity and a cycle he shared not only with the other group members but also with the surrounding  nature – the animals, the plants, and the landscape.

As winter came to an end and spring arrived, temperatures rose and the soft grass turned into yellow thorns. This independent dynamic of nature triggered the participants to air their discomfort and voice their desire to move from the present location into a new, shadier one. Relating to this uncontrolled and unexpected dynamic of natural space by using the concept of the three-way relationship, facilitators asked participants to reflect upon the seven- month long journey, while acknowledging the possibility of choosing a new territory. During this process it became clear that the participants wanted to design and build a new common "home" in a different location in the schoolyard. As the participants’ responsibility and involvement increased, the group debated their different wishes and the conversation shifted to the consideration of important questions: How large should it be? Should it be open or closed? Should it remain in the periphery of the school or move to a more central location? Should it be protected from other children and if so, how should this be done?  The choice of a new home, this time constructed as a group camp in a small grove at the center of the school grounds, emphasizes the relevance of the last question. Several of the children insisted upon surrounding the camp with a small barrier and symbolic traps to protect it and prevent the other schoolchildren from vandalizing or harming it. As the school was located in a poor and remote area of the city, it seemed like its history of thefts and vandalism had had a strong emotional impact over some of the kids; this action strengthened their sense of capability and security. During the design and building of the camp, the group process was highly evident; even when children expressed different wishes, there no physical fights were witnessed. It appeared that the ability to self-restrain and communicate had been significantly developed, thus providing space for positive verbal communication. It was also clear that a sense of partnership and togetherness had been formed as the scattered group united in one space. As the academic year drew to an end, the facilitators looked for a way to conclude and separate from the process, the therapist, and the space. The concept of "therapy as a journey" (Berger & McLoed, 2006) seemed like a good idea to work with; it could offer a creative way to reflect upon and make meaning out of the entire process. The children accepted this invitation and took the time to wander back and forth between the first location, where they had built their individual homes and the present location with the group “home.” During this journey meaningful moments were shared and relevant stories were told. This process seemed to take on a special meaning, as the separation included not only a departure from the group members and the therapist – its "human commonness of (potential) space" – but also from a live and physical home – nature. Although this separation process was not simple, triggering the sharing of uncompleted separation stories between the children and their parents or brothers and sisters, it was concluded with faith and hope. Sprouting plants and migrating birds became the dominant image, reminding participants of the connection between human and natural cycles (Berger, 2003, 2004).

This story, borrowed from a larger case study (Berger, 2007), presents a way in which nature and the relationship with nature can be addressed as partners in shaping a significant therapeutic-educational process. It highlights moments in which nature expanded the process and opened the door to additional dimensions, which would probably not have been reached without its active presence. The example illustrates a way in which nature can be used as a medium in a creative and nonverbal process. As such, it offers a mode of work that can be used at times when words and cognition may not be the most efficient or useful channels. 

This example illustrates the way in which the Building a Home in Nature method can be used not only as an intervention technique, but also as a diagnostic tools (Berger 2007). It uses the embodied and concrete figure of the home in nature as a symbol of the clients’ respective personalities and the issues that they are dealing with. Applying this concept, the therapist can observe the basic choices the client makes, such as the location of the home, what it contains, the materials used to build it, its state of permanence or mobility, the nature of its borders, its relationship to other homes and the surroundings and so forth. This knowledge can be incorporated with the inherent symbolism into a more profound, overall understanding of the person.

Nature as Sacred Space

The two previous examples presented above demonstrate the concept of nature as therapeutic space. An examination of anthropological literature reveals that the concept of transformative and healing work in nature is not new; it can be traced back to the beginnings of civilization in cultures where people lived in communities in nature. In these ancient times, shamans incorporated nature's healing powers into the performance of rituals and the context of traditional medicine. These rituals, which can be viewed as an ancient form of therapy (Al-Krena, 1999; Grainer, 1995; Jennings, 1995; Jerome, 1993; Jones, 1996; Pendzik, 1994; West, 2004), were used to help people recover from illness, cope with the unknown, and make the transition from one status to another (Eliade, 1959; Evans, 1997; Hazan, 1992; Jennings, 1995; Meged, 1998; Turner, 1986). A specific location was staked out within a larger territory, in order to create an enclosed healing place, protected from the intrusion of evil forces (spirits). The ritualistic space created by detaching a territory from its surrounding milieu and marking it as qualitatively different led to the shamanic concept of sacred space; a healing space par excellence (Eliade, 1959). Various applications of the Building a Home in Nature method highlight the potential that lies in the intentional act of detaching a territory from its surroundings and designating it for a special and unique purpose (Pendzik, 1994; Turner, 1986). Choosing, constructing and maintaining “sacred” therapeutic space can be regarded as a key element in nature-informed therapy. The act of building a home in nature can be used as a non-verbal method that invokes a wide range of issues and invites clients to use the time spent there to reflect on their homes in the city during the course of their daily life.

Between the Spaces – Example # 3

A training workshop took place in the forest near the college. At the opening ritual, people were invited to listen to the sounds of nature surrounding the circle as they reflected upon the concept of "home." Then participants were invited to share short stories about their homes by presenting relevant objects from their bags and saying something about them to the other participants in the circle. As the training was intended to present the Building a Home in Nature method, it was then suggested that people go wandering off on their own and choose a place in the forest in which to build a home. Sharon, a woman at her late fifties, a teacher by profession, returned soon afterwards and sat down on an uprooted tree trunk not far from the circle in which the opening activity had been held. "What do you mean – to build a home?" she asked the facilitator. "I don’t know," he said "but you have time to find out…"  Sharon remained sitting there, doing nothing. After a while as the facilitator visited the scenes of people's work, it was evident that Sharon had shaped a square figure in the pine leaves around the tree trunk she was sitting on. Then she took out her notebook and began to write intensively. After a while, when the facilitator visited Sharon's home for the second time she told him "it is amazing, all my life I wanted a small, square house but my ex-husband insisted on building a big round one. I hate it." When the facilitator asked her to say something about the position and location she had chosen to sit on in the house she said "this tree tells my story; this is what happened to me during our marriage, I shrunk myself and put my dreams in the corner. The complex relationship with my ex-husband managed to chop off many of my live parts; I have become a small, vulnerable woman sitting in the corner of my own life". Then the facilitator suggested that Sharon use this time in nature to write a letter to the Sharon she had been five years ago, before she got divorced, put it in an envelope, seal it, write her current address and give it to him to mail in a few days time. Sharon said that she did not feel she needed this exercise, as she had already understood quite a lot. The facilitator replied: "I am leaving you with the envelope and you can decide what to do with the time you have left…." A few minutes later, he returned and found Sharon crying. "Thank you,” she said, “I have never allowed myself to tell him how angry I am at him (relating to her husband); I have always tried to be polite and nice, so that the children wouldn’t hear. This is the first time I have allowed myself to express these feeling towards him, as I wrote him the letter. It remains to be seen whether I should send it to him, send it to myself, or settle for what has just happened." Later on, in the circle, another woman shared the story of her recent divorce when she had moved out of her beloved home. At this point Sharon could not hold back her tears and shared her pain with the group. Using basic drama therapy and psychodrama principles (Chesner, 1995; Jennings, 1998), the facilitator asked Sharon to stand at the center of the circle, close her eyes, breathe, and listen to the sounds of the wind and the song of the birds. Then he asked the group members to tighten the circle and be aware of Sharon's breathing. Shortly afterwards, as Sharon began to move inside the enclosed space, he asked her to tell the group something about the home in which she now lives. "At this moment I feel that my body is my home. After a long time during which I could hardly breathe properly, I feel I am regaining my breath. I feel like the trunk of one of these trees; my roots are drinking water from the ground, my head seeks the sun and I am breathing. The sounds of the birds and the smell of pine leaves remind me of the home I grew up in as a child. I had a beautiful childhood. Maybe I will bring my grandchildren to this place and show them these trees; after all, being a grandmother is also a form of being a home."

This example describes one way in which a Building a Home in Nature exercise can be incorporated into the creation and performance of rituals. This ritualistic way of working, another major nature therapy concept (Berger, 2005; Berger & McLoed, 2006), relates to the basic drama therapy concept of “theatrical distance” and the principle of the two realities – the fantastic and the concrete (Jennings, 1998; Lahad, 2002; Landy, 1996; Pendzik, 1994). According to these concepts, therapeutic work takes place in the fantastic-dramatic zone, which is qualitatively different from the client's mundane life. The entrance into this fantastic space, physically represented by the stage, allows the client to experience and explore behaviors and roles that may have been hard to explore in his or her "real life." The shift between the two realities helps transfer the learning gained from the fantastic zone into the person's concrete life and helps the person make the changes he or she wishes to implement (Jennings, 1998; Lahad, 2002; Landy, 1996; Pendzik, 1994). Sharon's story illustrates a way in which this drama therapy concept can be integrated into the Building a Home in Nature exercise using the distance and separation created to help the person touch and reflect upon painfully “close” issues. Furthermore, it can help the client link the two spaces, as this fantastic world is simultaneously a real and concrete one (Berger, 2005). In the context of this metaphoric approach to therapy, the example also sheds light on how nature can provide clients with many opportunities for identification; beckoning them to project personal stories upon it. Identification with a natural phenomenon, animal, landscape or plant helps people emotionally engage with nature and re-establish an ancient connection (Roszak, 2001; Seed, Macy, Fleming, & Naess, 1988) that has been severed. In this respect, nature therapy joins eco-psychology in offering a practical framework that can be used to broaden people's "ecological selves" (Totton, 2003) and hone the importance of this basic human-nature alliance.

Last but not least, the example highlights nature therapy's ritualistic mode of working, illustrating its potential in integrating mind-body processes (Berger & McLoed, 2006).

Towards a Conclusion

This presentation of the innovative and integrative Building a Home in Nature method has illustrated a framework in which nature can be incorporated into therapy.

 Integrating examples from fieldwork with new concepts and theory, it has demonstrated ways in which this method can be implemented with different clients and in different settings. The article challenges cognitive and verbal ways of working, which may miss important nuances embedded in creative and embodied processes, as well as leaving out populations with cognitive or verbal difficulties (Lahad 2002). In addition it has posed several questions regarding the use of therapeutic space, the concept of relationship, and issues of hierarchy, authority, and knowledge within therapy. The article has also illustrated the way in which nature-informed therapy can be used as a vehicle for engendering ecological awareness and expanding individual points of view to encompass social and collective perspectives.

At the present time there is little research evidence concerning nature therapy and only a few academic training programs. I am currently engaged in evaluative research on the effectiveness of such therapeutic and educational programs with children, adults, elderly, and families taking into account their different therapeutic characteristics and needs. Acknowledging nature's impact the study also relates to the different applications of the natural settings, using this data for the further design of professional training programs and interventions (Berger 2007). It seems like one of the issues that yet needs to be explored relates to the framework's limitations including client groups or phases within the therapeutic process that its operation might be in-suitable or need's special adjustments.

In developing the Nature therapy framework and the Building  a Home in Nature method, my basic assumption is that nature contains resources that can support emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical well-being, which in turn can be used for psychotherapeutic purposes. I believe that the intentional use of nature as a resource can be effectively integrated into work with any kind of client that seeks therapy. My hope is that as more counselors, psychotherapists, and educators develop and disseminate their own ways of incorporating nature into therapy, a broader set of cases studies and other research will emerge. Ultimately, this will lead to the construction and presentation of a more thoroughly articulated theoretical framework.


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