Adventure is Out There: Kerrie Bethel’s research on the methods behind adventure therapy

The ALEC department is so proud of spring 2020 master’s graduate, Kerrie Bethel. Kerrie has always had a passion for learning and has dedicated her graduate studies to research her thesis, taking a deeper look at the practice and effectiveness of adventure therapy. She moved to Athens with her now fiancé, not expecting to get involved in anything except 9-to-5 job. Little did she know, she was about to embark on an adventure of her own, diving deep into a 2-year research project that has proven to be a life-changing experience.

Kerrie accepted a job at the UGA Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities upon her arrival to Athens. She loved what she did, but her colleagues encouraged her to step out and pursue a master’s degree where she would be able to pour herself into something she truly loves - research. Kerrie says, “I’ve always been interested in what I don’t know.” She loves the pursuit of knowledge and is thankful to have been surrounded by others who share that same passion. It is this love of learning that inspired her to focus her research on a fun and inventive topic, adventure therapy.

“My research has focused on uncovering information about the characteristics and needs of recreational therapists who work outdoors with high promise youth…”, Kerrie says. “The basis for my interest was how environmental education, particularly informal or outdoor education, can impact mental health.”

Adventure therapy is similar to recreational or physical therapy in that they all require some form of full body engagement to recover from physical or mental trauma. Adventure therapy differs from other forms of therapy because the activities practiced are more focused on engaging the client with the outdoors and using the environment to help them regain their strength and health.

Making Connections with Adventure Therapists

She learned as much as she could about the topic before making one-on-one connections with adventure therapists, and learning firsthand what this program looks like from the therapist's perspective. Over a series of interviews with the adventure therapists, Kerrie was able to gain their trust and invest in their program by developing relationships with the team at the site in order to elicit resonant responses to the research questions which can benefit the clients and the therapists. She did this by comparing her previous research with the real-world application research from the interviews and categorizing their ideas into eight different sections of importance.

Of the eight overall themes, Kerrie grew especially attached to the “personal growth” section saying, “Personal growth, was the most interesting to me, because not only did it really solidify this optimism that the recreational therapists innately held toward their clients and their own progress, they reflected this back on themselves and indicated that while they were the leaders in this environment, they often learned from their clients. …I continue to be struck by the compassion and strength the therapists shared with me.”

In her interviews, she was also able to learn firsthand how challenging the adventure therapy process can be. Success in this form of therapy cannot be measured on one simple standard. Instead, achieving success is based on individual goals being conquered. Kerrie says, “This form of therapy is really about dealing with the emotional and physical needs of the clients simultaneously.”

Benefits of Being Down to Earth

Kerrie’s research has shown that as a society we are interdependent and rely on one another to provide comfort, support and inspiration. Adventure therapy is a great way to open the door to new ideas and promote determination to become successful in one’s own unique way.

“Access to nature and the natural environment, I believe, will continue to have importance not only for conservation but for education and mental wellness. Understanding professionals who choose to work with a variety of populations and to meet diverse objectives is so important for ensuring that we are able to recruit, train and retain those professionals who build the foundations for so many young people as they grow into adults who interact with their communities and environments,” Kerrie says. “If we are able to recruit people who are effective in these professions and appropriately support them, we may be able to address shortages in them in order to ensure that every young person has access to the tools they need to meet their potential.”

Adventure Therapy Meets Agriculture

The inspiring thing about Kerrie’s research is how she opens eyes to adventure therapy’s use of agriculture in its practices.

She says, “At first glance, there is not a lot of ag here, but there absolutely is the opportunity for it. As I mentioned earlier, one of the interventions at the site I worked with was a community garden. These efforts could absolutely be intertwined with or used in conjunction with small scale farming, or through livestock agriculture to provide therapeutic experiences with mutually beneficial partnerships and educational opportunities for youth involved.”

Kerrie is able to see past the present reality of adventure therapy and find ways to expand the horizons of new methods that can be explored.

Making Changes and Moving Forward

Kerrie Bethel’s research proves to be helpful for the future of adventure therapy, as it provides insight into the methodology behind the practice, and how it can be improved. She says, “This research contributes to our understanding of how these therapists come to the field, how they cope with the duty of care, and how they experience the work that they do. Understanding these fundamental orientations and needs has opened up a conversation about self-care and peer support networks in recreational therapy, as well as how they believe they are perceived by people outside of the profession.”

ALEC Faculty Inspiration and Support

Master’s programs require a great deal of dedication and passion for what you are researching. The MAEE program provided Kerrie with the opportunity to conduct an independent research project with some truly amazing faculty members. Kerrie mentions on more than one occasion what a pleasure and inspiration it was to be mentored by ALEC’s Dr. Nick Furhman. Dr. Furmhan is an Environmental Education Professor who uses out-of-the-box teaching methods to introduce students to environmental education. He uses live animals (reptiles, amphibians, and birds) as ambassadors of educational messages, and Kerrie has helped him in these efforts during her degree program.

Kerrie says, “I met with him for lunch one day to talk about my goals and how I might fit with the program, and his positive attitude, supportive nature, and genuine interest were enough for me to know I wanted to work with him.”

Kerrie also received support and assistance throughout her research from Dr. Borron and Dr. Kelsey, who she says, “offered insight on appropriate research methods for the questions I wanted to ask, provided guidance on finding and following threads in the literature base, and sometimes simply support when I was struggling with portions of the research process that didn’t turn out as planned. I am and will forever be grateful to have had such a positive research experience and to know how much the faculty are genuinely interested in seeing their students not only succeed, but learn how to conduct research as a professional and set us up for our future goals.”

Just Keep Learning

ALEC is proud of Kerrie and her dedication and excitement about learning. She truly embodies the characteristics of a forever learner and no doubt has a bright future ahead.

Kerrie has been accepted to the Integrative Conservation Ph.D. through the Odum School of Ecology here at the University of Georgia, where she will work with Dr. Catherine Pringle. Congratulations Kerrie on earning your master’s degree and we wish you the very best on all your adventures to come.

By Mary Beth Mallard

Bethel uses a snake to educate students about the environment
Kerrie Bethel, MAEE '20, has used "animal ambassadors" to teach various audiences during her time as an environmental education master's student.
Kerrie (right) participates in the Longleaf Pine: Ecology, Management, and Restoration Maymester in 2019 at the Jones Center at Ichauway with Warnell PhD student, Monica Harmen.