Connecting with Special Populations through Forest Therapy

Brenda Spitzer

Connecting with Special Populations Through Forest Therapy

​For the past year, I have had the opportunity to guide Forest Therapy walks for a group of adults from The Western DuPage Special Recreation Association who take part in a program known as ‘Rec & Roll’.  “Rec & Roll is a therapeutic based day program for individuals aged 22+ with a developmental disability.  Therapeutic recreation uses educational and recreational services to help people with disabilities develop and enhance their quality of life.” --The Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. This program was created to provide the participants with therapeutic recreational activities and opportunities for ongoing social interaction. This program also promotes independent daily living skills and encourages functioning in the community as an active member.

As I have guided my Rec & Roll group walks over the past year, I have noticed many changes in the group. On our first walk, many participants seemed a bit shy, and hesitant as they got off of the bus. I could tell that they did not know what to expect on a Forest Therapy Walk.

A year later, they arrive at our starting point with smiles and an enthusiastic spirit of adventure!  

The biggest differences that I noticed with my Rec & Roll group from the time when our walks began was that many of the Rec & Roll participants seemed a bit unsure and timid about using their senses to connect with nature. Specifically, they were unsure and sometimes unwilling to touch or smell natural elements like plants or tree bark. It has been very rewarding for me to see their comfort level, with being in nature, develop and increase as we have gone on more forest therapy walks together. Participants that were once unsure of interacting with nature, now immerse themselves in the process.  They now enthusiastically, smell, touch and taste natural elements that we encounter.

Brenda Spitzer with the special population group of adults from The Western Dupage Special Recreation Association on a forest therapy walk as part of the  ‘Rec & Roll’ program.

On our earlier walks, I offered many short invitations that lasted 5 to 10 minutes each. I did not include sit spots, since I observed that participants seemed more comfortable when moving. A year later, I am able to offer longer invitations of 10 to 20 minutes. I, also, now include a sit spot invitation, since the participants have become comfortable with stopping. They now seem to look forward to and enjoy this special time.

On our first walk, participants shared briefly and spontaneously as we walked along the trail. We did not use a talking piece. On our most recent walks we have started using a talking piece as we share council style.

​The participants enjoy the space for sharing that the talking piece gives to each them. They now share openly and readily.

The early walks were one hour and 15 minutes in length including our closing tea ceremony. Our walks are now one hour and 45 minutes with tea ceremony. After observing so many positive changes in the group over the past year, I was interested in the observations of their instructors.

To learn more about their  perspective, I was able to interview Claire Gornicki, the head instructor for the ‘Rec & Roll’ group. Claire shares the following insights:

Q-What changes are you noticing in our group after a Forest Therapy walk?
“I have noticed that my group has developed a great appreciation for nature. They have learned to ‘stop and smell the flowers’ and take time to explore the outdoors in a relaxing and comforting environment. They have also learned to engage in quiet time with ease.”

Q-What have been the favorite or most effective invitations for our group, so far?
A-“We loved the mirror invitation, using the mirror to look up. My group also loves music, so the singing invitation was also a favorite!”

Q-What is the best time of day for our group to experience Forest Therapy walks?
A-“The morning is a great time for our walks. Everyone is aware of their surroundings at this time and ready to explore!”

Q-What is the optimum length of time for our walks, including our closing tea ceremony?
A-“An hour and a half to two hours is the optimum time. My group has had great energy for enduring our walks.”

​Q-Describe the features of the ideal trail for our Forest Therapy Walks?
A-“So far the environment of our walks has been ideal as well as familiar. My group enjoys walking on different terrains such as grass, gravel, hills, etc. These various sensory inputs expand the quality of our walks and provide comfort to my participants.  It is also important to have an accessible bathroom near our trail.”

Q-Do you have any other tips to share about the best ways to work with the participants in our group?
A-“It is important to recognize that the needs of participants vary within the group. Everyone functions at their own pace and remaining sensitive to this factor benefits the group as a whole.”

Q-What plans to you have to integrate Forest Therapy Walks into your program in the future?
A-“We hope to expand this opportunity to our other ‘Rec & Roll” locations."
"The therapeutic benefits from our Forest Therapy Walks have been unique and extremely fulfilling."
"We intend to continue working with Brenda on a monthly basis in order to provide our group with such a special experience in nature.”

As for  what I have learned from my Rec & Roll group and the emotional impact it has had on me, I, too, was uncertain of how to proceed when I began guiding them on walks.  I was uncertain of what their interests would be, and I did not want them to be bored too quickly. I was uncertain of the most effective pace for our walks.  As we have gotten to know each other over many walks, we have all become more comfortable and confident. I have learned to attune to the reactions of each member of the group and have found that we can all, comfortably, move more slowly. I have learned that they love the opportunity to just stop, sit, and be in nature. I love the opportunity that they give me to guide them and share with them those special moments in nature.

It has been a joyful privilege to guide this special group over the past year.  We have learned a great deal from each other.

I have learned to stay attuned to their reactions and needs during our walks and adapt the pace and invitations accordingly.  They have learned to slow down, notice the small details, relax with nature and share with one another.  It has been rewarding to see their comfort level increase and their love for nature expand as we have walked together.