Therapy outdoors: Playing with Winnicott

I’ve been doing much more outdoor therapy over the last few months. I think that’s partly because it’s been easier to meet face to face outdoors during lockdown, but maybe people have come to appreciate it more? I’ve been engaged with ecotherapy for years and it was part of my life before I knew it had a name! It was central to my PhD (2008), which is how I met up with some of the UK pioneers of ecotherapy. The many discussions we had inspired me to run nature connection workshops in London. Later I wrote my 2014 MSc dissertation on outdoor therapy and then I trained in the practicalities with Beth Collier. It’s been a rich journey!

Although the core principles are the same, outdoor therapy is very different from indoor sessions. The first thing that struck me when I was training with Beth was how much more fluid working outdoors is. Whatever action feels right for the client is open to them: They are free to stand, walk, stop, sit down or even lie on the ground. If a space feels too open, we can go somewhere more enclosed. If where we are feels claustrophobic, there’s the option to move. Of course wondering why a space feels uncomfortable gives us something to explore, but we have the option of how and where we work with that. Working outdoors can be much more playful than indoor practice, and I’m reminded of Winnicott’s belief that psychotherapy is ultimately about two people playing together (1971).

Patterns of light through green leaves

Saying that outdoor therapy is more playful and fluid suggests it might be less intense, but in fact the natural environment has a way of highlighting issues and pulling away our familiar masks. It’s a much more embodied way of doing therapy and that in itself tends to reveal ourselves to ourselves. Nature has a knack of holding up a mirror to us. What we think of as internal psychic processes somehow get symbolised in the space around us. Ecotherapist’s often refer to this kind of synchronicity: Somehow inner reality and external life get blurred.

I find myself back with Winnicott again. He thought of the consulting room as a transitional space that emerged between the therapist and the client. Transitional space is “is an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute” (Winnicott, 1971). I can’t help fantasizing that Winnicott would have very much enjoyed doing outdoor therapy!