Recreational Therapists - What They Do

Recreational therapists, also referred to as therapeutic recreation specialists, provide treatment services and recreation activities for individuals with disabilities or illnesses. Using a variety of techniques, including arts and crafts, animals, sports, games, dance and movement, drama, music, and community outings, therapists improve and maintain the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of their clients. Therapists help individuals reduce depression, stress, and anxiety; recover basic motor functioning and reasoning abilities; build confidence; and socialize effectively so that they can enjoy greater independence and reduce or eliminate the effects of their illness or disability. In addition, therapists help people with disabilities integrate into the community by teaching them how to use community resources and recreational activities. Recreational therapists are different from recreation workers, who organize recreational activities primarily for enjoyment.

In acute healthcare settings, such as hospitals and rehabilitation centers, recreational therapists treat and rehabilitate individuals with specific health conditions, usually in conjunction or collaboration with physicians, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and physical and occupational therapists. In long-term and residential care facilities, recreational therapists use leisure activities—especially structured group programs—to improve and maintain their clients' general health and well-being. They also may provide interventions to prevent the client from suffering further medical problems and complications.

Recreational therapists assess clients using information from observations, medical records, standardized assessments, the medical staff, the clients' families, and the clients themselves. They then develop and carry out therapeutic interventions consistent with the clients' needs and interests. For example, they may encourage clients who are isolated from others or who have limited social skills to play games with others, and they may teach right-handed people with right-side paralysis how to use their unaffected left side to throw a ball or swing a racket. Recreational therapists may instruct patients in relaxation techniques to reduce stress and tension, stretching and limbering exercises, proper body mechanics for participation in recreational activities, pacing and energy conservation techniques, and team activities. As they work, therapists observe and document a patient's participation, reactions, and progress.

Community-based recreational therapists may work in park and recreation departments, special education programs for school districts, or assisted living, adult day care, and substance abuse rehabilitation centers. In these programs, therapists use interventions to develop specific skills, while providing opportunities for exercise, mental stimulation, creativity, and fun. Those few who work in schools help counselors, teachers, and parents address the special needs of students, including easing disabled students' transition into adult life.

Work Environment

Recreational therapists held about 20,800 jobs in 2020. The largest employers of recreational therapists were as follows:

  • Hospitals; state, local, and private - 36%
  • Government - 16%
  • Social assistance - 14%
  • Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) - 13%
  • Ambulatory healthcare services - 7%

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.

Work Schedules

Most recreational therapists work full time. Some recreational therapists work evenings and weekends to meet the needs of their patients.

Education & Training Required

Most entry-level recreational therapists need a bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation, or in recreation with a concentration in therapeutic recreation. A few may qualify with some combination of education, training, and work experience that would be equivalent to what is considered competent in the field. There are more than 100 academic programs that prepare students to become recreational therapists. Most offer bachelor's degrees, although some offer associate’s, master's, or doctoral degrees. Therapeutic recreation programs include courses in assessment, treatment and program planning, intervention design, and evaluation. Students also study human anatomy, physiology, abnormal psychology, medical and psychiatric terminology, characteristics of illnesses and disabilities, professional ethics, and the use of assistive devices and technology. Bachelor’s degree programs include an internship in the field as part of their curriculum.

Certifications Needed (Licensure)

Some States regulate recreational therapists through licensure, registration, or regulation of titles. Requirements vary by State. In 2009, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Utah, and New Hampshire required licensure to practice as a recreational therapist. For specifics on regulations and requirements, contact the State’s medical board.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Although certification is voluntary, most employers prefer to hire candidates who are certified therapeutic recreation specialists. Work in clinical settings often requires certification by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification. The council offers the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist credential to candidates who pass a written certification examination and complete a supervised internship of at least 480 hours. A minimum of a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy from an accredited institution is required for credentialing, but some may qualify with equivalent education, training, and experience. Therapists must meet additional requirements to maintain certification. For specific details on credentialing, contact the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification. (See Sources of Additional Information below for address.)

Recreational therapists may dedicate themselves to a certain type of therapy. Therapists wanting to practice a concentration can also earn certifications in specific therapies, such as art therapy and aquatic therapy.

Recreational therapists must be comfortable working with people who are ill or disabled. Therapists must be patient, tactful, and persuasive when working with people who have a variety of special needs. Ingenuity, a sense of humor, and imagination are needed to adapt activities to individual needs, and good physical coordination is necessary to demonstrate or participate in recreational activities.

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