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Why Wilderness, Why Wildness

Wilderness Therapy

Not an outward bound course but an inward bound journey.

The South Shield

He Who Walks with Courage; is 15 and has lived in 47 different placements. When he came into residential care. He was angry, often violent and lacking in any sense of self-worth. He entered the Four Shields with our Wilderness Therapy programme not knowing who he was or where he belonged. In the South Shield he names the childhood that did not exist, makes address labels with his 47 addresses on them and threads his name through them, he is searching for the lost child within. When the work is done he goes to the river with all of the other young people and workers and plays on a rope, swinging out and dropping into the water, screaming with delight,-he has found the child. He remembered the pain and loss of his childhood and reclaimed his right to play, this is the work of the South Shield.

Who We Work With

Child at Heart works with young people who have experienced trauma and abuse. We work with young people who have behavioural problems, have been excluded and are hard to engage. Our young people present with extremely challenging behaviours. We work with young people who have suffered neglect, witnessed domestic violence and those who are in the youth offending service. We work with teenagers between the ages of 13 and 19 years of age and we work with their parents, foster carers, residential workers and other professionals.

The West Shield

She Who Has Wings is 15, she lost her Mother when she was a child and has suffered many losses since. She has experienced neglect and emotional abuse, her needs have never been met. She arrived having never been in the country before and was scared of everything. She was asked to take a medicine walk, this is a walk with full awareness of everything that you see, smell, touch, taste and feel, a walk where you create a threshold and step through it out into the universe allowing the universe to be your teacher. She saw sheep for the first time and was afraid, she saw caterpillars and was afraid, thought they looked like small snakes. She found bones on the ground, the bones of a sheep, they reminded her of death and of her Mother. She went to look more closely and as she bent over a butterfly flew out of the centre of the bones. “That’s like me, when my Mum died I went on living”. The next day she walked into a dark forest and met her own darkness, her grief and her inability to let go. She found caterpillars and gathered them on her hand. A butterfly landed on her hand and stayed for a long time. She found red berries, her Mum’s favourite colour and back at base camp in her own ceremony put them on the fire to let go of her Mum, but not forget her. In the West she met her own fears and transformed them, this is the work of the West Shield.

What We Do

We run courses in Wilderness Therapy, using the Four Shields as our Eco therapy model. The Shields are an earth based psychology that come from the cycles and seasons in nature and the teachings of the land, these teachings did not come from the mind and so are not part of rational, linear thought but are part of mythical, intuitive thinking and as such are more linked to archetypal psychology and the ‘imaginal’ world talked about by James Hillman.

We bring young people into community through the use of Holding the Space, a radical approach to working with trauma and abuse. We sit in Council a deep listening practice that has its roots in many traditions, Native American Indian, the Nomadic Tribes of the Sahara, the Quakers and many others. In the council all people are equal, they all have an equal voice and we sit in the belief that each person is being the best that they can be. We take young people through the Four Shields which are a psychological and physical map of all nature of which we are a part. We tell stories and teach young people how to make medicine walks out on the land, how to learn from nature and see how nature reflects their own journey and can teach them how to move forward in life. This is not an outward bound course but an inward bound journey. We mirror the stories of young people, a powerful way of working in which you take the medicine of the young person’s story and drop it back into their hearts so they can really feel who they are in all of their beauty. We use the creative arts to help young people tell their stories, they make pictures, sculptures, medicine bundles, poems and songs. These are all shared in the Council and the stories mirrored by elders. Young people experience ceremony and what it is to be truly valued and belong to a community. They leave, becoming Carriers of the Council, taking this way of working back into their own worlds.

The North Shield

He Who Is Circled by Seven Birds; 15 he has experienced emotional abuse, neglect and domestic abuse. He is volatile with challenging behaviours and an explosive temper. He did not come to the West Shield but in the North Shield he did the work of the West and the North. He remembered his journey through life as he journeyed through nature. He stuck to the main path on his medicine walk, choosing to go off and explore wilder places but always keeping the road in sight. On leaving the road he was anxious about the uncertainty and kept marking the walk by writing his name on the earth. He made a map of his life with an explosion in the centre and roads leading out of that to different places. He loved making gifts out of natural materials found on his walks and giving them with deep thought and meaning to others in the group. In the North Shield, he climbed the hill to seek his vision for the gift he would bring the world as an adult. As he sat there alone on top of the hill, seven birds came and circled around him. When he got up to come back to the community, the birds left. His gift was to have children and teach them this way so that the world would be a better place. This is the work of the North Shield.

Why We Do It.

Many young people are not only damaged by trauma but also by the traumatic way they remember childhood, believing that they are wrongly shaped as a result of their past. Wilderness Therapy works to repair some of that damage, by connecting clients back to nature and the Four Shields, opening them to a bigger wilder space where there is more room. In this space they discover the bigger story of who they are, and of their trauma. They discover that they are so much more, they are enabled to realise that they have been living in an old story and that it is possible to step into a new story. They are more than their pathology as defined by others, more than the labels imposed on them. This work returns them to a bigger notion of destiny and of what must be recovered, they discover their personal calling in life, i.e. there is a reason I am alive.

To do this work we must set aside the psychological frames that are imposed on us all, they are not large enough; they trim us down to fit a frame that is imposed upon us. James Hillman, Archetypal Psychologist talks about how the concept of developmental growth limits us as we move step by step from infancy, through troubled youth, to mid life crisis, ageing and death. Plodding through a planned map in which a life becomes more and more boring with the central figure wandering in a desert of dried out experiences. It is not young people that need to change but us who create this narrative without plot on their behalf, without mystery and often without hope. As therapists too often, we decide what the outcome will be for a young person, pregnant by sixteen, in trouble and caught in the criminal justice system, etc. When we think like this we are robbing young people of their true biography of the destiny that is written into the bigger story. Wilderness Therapy takes young people out on to the land to rediscover a more expansive landscape that exists in all of us. Modern psychology is about the study of caged beings, The Four Shields takes us back to a time when we were uncaged, where anything is possible. This work revisions your story in terms of very large ideas and emotions such as myth, mystery, love, community and belonging.

Many of these young people have attachment disorders, damaged attachment patterns. They cannot manage foster care and the intimacy of one to one or family relationships. Wilderness Therapy, Holding the Space and The Medicine of Council, are ways of creating healthy and safe attachments, experiencing the sense of attaching to a community which includes the whole of nature. Young people in this work learn that they are parented by the world, that nature is their teacher. They are enabled to see in the telling of their stories that they are more than just a victim of the past, they are heroes/heroines of their own stories. This work encourages the heroic journey where they meet the whole of who they are in their connection to the forces of the natural world.

Young people retell their stories without the fear of the clinical data of dysfunction being imposed upon them. The Medicine of Council holds them in a non judgemental, non hierarchical space where they are free to express the whole of who they are. They move away from judgements which keep them from the mistrust and pleasure of the physical and the imaginal world. The more we believe that out nature comes from our parents and their parenting, the less we are open to the influences around us. In Wilderness Therapy the world is your story and your connection to that world is the life blood of your wellbeing and your ability to live a healthy life with healthy choices. This way of working asks of a young person that they take a leap of faith that brings them out of the parental home and into the home of the world around them, where they can discover true healing found in nature.

East Shield

She Who Writes Poetry; She is 15 and has a background of abuse and neglect. She has witnessed violence in the family and her Mum uses alcohol and drugs. In the East she met the trickster many times, in the form of tree roots tripping her up. She talked about the different voices in her life pulling her this way and that and how they were the tricksters. She heard the sound of water and followed it, knowing that it had a teaching for her. She noticed the dark and the light on the water and said this was like her life, sometimes dark and at others light and playful. She created ceremony to honour her Grandmother who had cared for her, offering a tea bag to the earth as her Grandmother liked tea. In the East she found her voice in the council and for the first time did not ask her link worker to speak for her as she had before, but told her own story and had it mirrored back to her. She wrote a poem, powerful words telling her story of being abandoned and left alone at birth. She became a carrier of the council and said that she wanted to train is this work and teach others this way of being.


Many of the young people that we work with change their behaviour patterns, not because they are told that they must but because they are able to make different choices as a result of this work. In the residential homes where Holding the Space, The Medicine of Council is used, there is a significant reduction in the use of restraint and sanctions. Young people begin to take responsibility for themselves and the way that they are and residential workers learn a therapeutic approach with this work. In the voice of young people when asked about this work, “It has changed my life, it has really changed my life”.

Rite of Passage

Finally the day comes

when you walk out through

the threshold of your own experience,

leaving behind everything and everyone

that you have known.

Climbing the steep path trodden by many

who have gone before, seeking the true way.

You find yourself alone,

no landmarks as far as the eye can see.

You sit like a new moon unfolding,

an insignificant slither

in the unfathomed darkness.

In this place there are no horizons,

no paths, no maps to help you.

No one to tell you which way to go.

You feel small and lost, longing for a new day.

Eventually the light returns, filtering through the dark.

Seven birds circle overhead announcing to the world,

you are found, you are found.

Simone Silver Path

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