Recreational therapists plan, direct, and coordinate recreation-based treatment programs for people with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses.
What they do
Recreational therapists use a variety of modalities, including arts and crafts; drama, music, and dance; sports and games; aquatics; and community outings to help maintain or improve a patient’s physical, social, and emotional well-being.
Recreational therapists typically do the following:
- Assess patients’ needs using observation, medical records, tests, and discussions with other healthcare professionals, patients’ families, and patients
- Develop treatment plans and programs that meet patients’ needs and interests
- Plan and implement interventions to support the client in meeting his or her goals
- Engage patients in therapeutic activities, such as exercise, games, and community outings
- Help patients learn social skills needed to become or remain independent
- Teach patients about ways to cope with stress, anxiety, or depression
- Document and analyze a patient’s progress
- Evaluate interventions for effectiveness
Recreational therapists help people reduce depression, stress, and anxiety; recover basic physical and mental abilities; build confidence; and socialize effectively.
They use interventions, such as arts and crafts, dance, or sports, to help their patients. For example, a recreational therapist can help a patient who is paralyzed on one side of his or her body by teaching patients to adapt activities, such as casting a fishing rod or swinging a golf club, by using his or her functional side.
Therapists often treat specific groups of patients, such as children with cancer. Therapists may use activities such as kayaking or a ropes course to teach patients to stay active and to form social relationships.
Recreational therapists help people with disabilities integrate into the community by teaching them how to use community resources and recreational activities. For example, therapists may teach a patient who uses a wheelchair how to use public transportation.
Therapists may also provide interventions for patients who need help developing social and coping skills. For example, a therapist may use a therapy dog to help patients manage their depression or anxiety.
Therapists may work with physicians or surgeons, registered nurses, psychologists, social workers, physical therapists, teachers, or occupational therapists. Recreational therapists are different from recreation workers, who organize recreational activities primarily for enjoyment.
They use offices for planning or other administrative activities, such as patient assessment, but may travel when working with patients. Therapy may be provided in a clinical setting or out in a community. For example, therapists may take their patients to community recreation centers or parks for sports and other outdoor activities.
Some therapists may spend a lot of time on their feet actively working with patients. They may also need to physically assist patients or lift heavy objects such as wheelchairs.
Most recreational therapists work full time. Some recreational therapists work evenings and weekends to meet the needs of their patients.
How to become a Recreational Therapist
Recreational therapists typically need a bachelor’s degree. Many employers require therapists to be certified by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC).
Recreational therapists typically need a bachelor’s degree, usually in recreational therapy or a related field such as recreation and leisure studies.
Recreational therapy programs include courses in assessment, human anatomy, medical and psychiatric terminology, characteristics of illnesses and disabilities, and the use of assistive devices and technology. Bachelor’s degree programs usually include an internship.
Most employers prefer to hire certified recreational therapists. The NCTRC offers the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) credential. Candidates may qualify for certification through one of three pathways. The first option requires a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, completion of a supervised internship of at least 560 hours, and passing an exam. The other options also require passing an exam, but allow candidates with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated subject to qualify with various combinations of education and work experience. In order to maintain certification, therapists must either pass an exam or complete work experience and continuing education requirements every 5 years.
The NCTRC also offers specialty certification in five areas of practice: behavioral health, community inclusion services, developmental disabilities, geriatrics, and physical medicine/rehabilitation. Therapists also may earn certificates from other organizations to show proficiency in specific therapy techniques, such as aquatic therapy or aromatherapy.
As of 2017, only a small number of states require licensure or otherwise regulate the work of recreational therapists. For specific requirements, contact the state’s medical board.
The median annual wage for recreational therapists was $48,220 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,880, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $77,970.
Employment of recreational therapists is projected to grow 8 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. However, because it is a small occupation, the fast growth will result in only about 1,700 new jobs over the 10-year period.
As the U.S. population ages, more people will need recreational therapists to help treat age-related injuries and illnesses. Older people are more likely to experience a stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and mobility-related injuries that may benefit from recreational therapy. Therapists will also be needed to help healthy seniors remain social and active in their communities. Recreational therapy services can help the aging population to maintain their independence later in life. For example, recreational therapists can help older people prevent falls by teaching them modified yoga exercises that improve balance and strength.
Similar Job Titles
Activities Director, Activity Assistant, Activity Coordinator, Activity Director, Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS), General Activities Therapist, Recreation Therapist, Recreational Therapist, Rehabilitation Therapist, Therapeutic Recreation Specialist
Health Educator, Career/Technical Education Teacher-Middle School, Special Education Teacher-Secondary School, Recreation Worker, Residential Advisor
The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.
- American Music Therapy Association
- American Occupational Therapy Association
- American Therapeutic Recreation Association
- National Association of Activity Professionals
- National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification
- National Recreation and Park Association
Magazines and Publications
While the word “therapist” might conjure up images of either an armchair in a quiet office, or treadmills in a clinic, recreational therapists actual work settings may include theaters, athletic fields, and swimming pools. Recreational therapists plan and coordinate recreation-based treatment programs for people with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses. They use activities, such as drama and dance or sports and community outings, to improve a patient’s well-being. Their efforts help people reduce symptoms like depression and anxiety, and improve physical and mental abilities. Recreational therapists lead active lives— often meeting with clients at different locations. They lift heavy objects such as wheelchairs, and often physically assist patients. Treating patients with long-term, or complicated conditions takes resourcefulness, patience and above all— good communication skills. The difficulties their patients experience can sometimes weigh heavily on these therapists; they must be both compassionate and resilient. Recreational therapists are employed by hospitals, nursing homes, rehab centers, substance abuse treatment facilities, and parks and recreation departments. You will need a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy or a related field to enter this career. Many employers prefer to hire candidates with a certification. Providing their clients the opportunity to live with greater enjoyment and well-being is one of the meaningful rewards of being a recreational therapist.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org