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Therapists Trade the Couch for the Great Outdoors

Sometimes a pine cone is just a pine cone.

But on a January day, the rough edges of the cone — and the lone feather sticking out of it — meant something different to Rachel Oppenheimer, 25, a counselor at the Chesapeake Mental Health Collaborative in Towson, Md.

“Growing up, I had some challenges,” Ms. Oppenheimer said, referring to her prickly teenage past, “some struggles with managing my emotions.”

But her grandmother, who died four years ago, was soft like the feather, and gave her unconditional love that reminded Ms. Oppenheimer how important it was to treat herself with “soothing tenderness,” especially when she became self-critical.

Ms. Oppenheimer and her clinical supervisor, Heidi Schreiber-Pan, were visiting Talmar, a nonprofit farm that offers therapeutic programs and vocational training — a short drive from the busy road and nondescript strip malls near their office. At the farm, the only sounds were a burbling stream, trilling birds and several inches of snow crunching beneath their feet. It was the perfect location to teach Ms. Oppenheimer therapeutic techniques that make use of the natural world.

They set up camping chairs under a bright blue sky during their session — a makeshift office without walls — and discussed how to create a circular design called a mandala. Next they would arrange items that Ms. Oppenheimer found on the ground, each symbolizing the complex feelings that stemmed from mourning her grandmother.

Dr. Schreiber-Pan is one of a growing number of therapists who are taking their therapy sessions outdoors and, in some cases, training other counselors to do the same. They say that combining traditional talk therapy with nature and movement can help clients feel more open, find new perspectives and express their feelings, all while helping them connect with the outside world.

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