The Value of Play at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy 

By Annette Pelletier, LCSW

Primary Therapist

When students aren’t deep in their therapeutic work, hiking, working on hard skills, or doing chores around camp, they are often engaged in play. One may wonder, “What is the benefit of play in wilderness therapy, and what do they even play in the woods?” I am here to answer these questions for you.   

Did you know that having fun and engaging in play is a form of learning and is a basic human need? We often find that people who are not able to have fun or allow themselves to have fun fall into a state of depression and can exasperate already deeply held beliefs about self. As a result of engaging in play, individuals can develop a sense of joy, something our students may not have experienced in a very long time. Play elicits laughter, celebration, and exploration. It can also enhance teamwork, lead to creative problem-solving skills, and the development of trusting relationships with others. 

Deschutes Wilderness Therapy is a relationship-based program emphasizing the importance of developing healthy and connected relationships. Play helps to facilitate the development and nurturance of these relationships in the field. When field guides and/or the student’s therapist are engaged in play with students, there is a greater opportunity for rapport to develop more quickly and easily. Students can also witness guides and therapists, allowing themselves to have fun and be silly. This type of modeling is essential for students to see, as we often see our students feeling as if they are “too cool” to have fun. 

Many of the students at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy have experienced traumatic events in their lives, resulting in their need for treatment. Play can often help these individuals feel more comfortable with their peers and the adults around them, resulting in an ability to start processing their traumatic experiences more easily. Play helps build community within the group and healthier relationships with one another. 

Through play, students practice engaging in more effective communication skills with one another and can translate those skills into their daily lives. Students also learn more about roles and responsibilities when engaging in play and are more likely to follow the rules and boundaries within a game, which, again, can be translated into their daily lives. 

Each group at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy has a dedicated canine. Deschutes’ canines, all of which are golden retrievers, are naturally playful and often coax students into playing with them, which is typically an organic process and does not need facilitation. 

However, many other forms of play are facilitated with rules and specific goals in mind. Some games played by the students, guides, and therapists are unique to wilderness. 

A few of the games played in the field are as follows: 

  1. Camo: This is one of the students’ favorite games in the field. It is played using a Nalgene water bottle, as are many games in the woods! Camo is a type of hide-and-seek game, but reversed to where the premise of the game is to be the first one to get to the student counting or the “counter.” 
  2. See-er/Speaker/Do-er: This activity is also often used in group therapy sessions to help with the development/practice of communication skills. Three people are in a group; the see-er, speaker, and do-er. The see-er is unable to speak but knows where the Nalgene is hidden. The speaker cannot see and must take nonverbal direction from the see-er to provide verbal direction to the do-er, who is blindfolded. The goal is for the do-er to retrieve the Nalgene bottle. 
  3. Nal Thief: This game is similar to the childhood game of “red light, green light.” However, in this game, students have to work together to “steal” the Nalgene bottle. 

Do you have a student with us at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy? Next time you are writing to or speaking with your student, get curious with them and ask them what they are doing for fun in the field. To learn more about their experiences, ask them to teach you or to play these games with you when you see each other again! 

If you want to learn more about Deschutes Wilderness Therapy and our therapeutic model, please reach out to