Recreational therapists plan, direct, and coordinate recreation-based medical treatment programs to help maintain or improve patients’ physical, social, and emotional well-being. These therapists use a variety of techniques, including art expression; drama, music, and dance; sports and games; aquatics; and community outings.


Recreational therapists typically do the following:

  • Assess patients’ needs through observation, medical records, tests, and discussions with other healthcare workers and patients and their families
  • Develop and implement treatment plans that meet patients’ goals and interests
  • Engage patients in therapeutic activities, such as exercise, games, and community outings
  • Help patients learn social skills needed to become or remain independent
  • Help patients to reduce and cope with stress, anxiety, or depression
  • Document and analyze a patient’s progress to ensure that their goals are met and to modify treatment as needed

Recreational therapists use recreation-based medical treatment to help people reduce depression, stress, and anxiety; recover basic physical and mental abilities; build confidence; and socialize effectively.

Recreational therapists are trained to use interventions to help patients of all ages. For example, they may help people with physical disabilities by teaching them adaptive sports. Therapists also may inform people about how to use community resources and participate in recreational activities.

These therapists also help people improve their mental health. They may provide interventions to help patients develop social and coping skills for managing 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.

Work Environment

Recreational therapists held about 17,600 jobs in 2021. The largest employers of recreational therapists were as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private 40%
Government 18
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities)                 14
Ambulatory healthcare services 8
Social assistance 7

Recreational therapists work in an office setting for planning or other administrative activities, such as patient assessment, but they also may travel when working with patients. Therapy may be provided in a clinical or community setting. For example, therapists may take their patients to recreation centers or parks for sports and other activities.

Some therapists spend a lot of time standing when actively working with patients. They also may 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 and Training

Recreational therapists typically need a bachelor’s degree to enter the occupation. Employers may require or prefer therapists to be certified.


Recreational therapists typically need a bachelor’s degree in a healthcare field, such as recreational therapy, or in recreation and fitness.

Recreational therapy programs include courses in physiology, human anatomy, and psychology. Bachelor’s degree programs usually include an internship.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Employers may require or prefer recreational therapists to be certified. The National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC) offers the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) credential. Candidates may qualify for certification in more than one way. For example, one option requires a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, completing a supervised internship, and passing an exam. Another option also requires passing an exam but allows candidates with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated subject to qualify with a combination of education and work experience. In order to maintain certification, therapists must either pass an exam or complete work experience and continuing education requirements after a specified number of years.

The NCTRC also offers certification in specialization area designations, including adaptive sports and recreation, behavioral health, and developmental disabilities. Therapists also may earn certificates from other organizations to show proficiency in specific therapy techniques, such as aquatic therapy or aromatherapy.

A small number of states require recreational therapists to be licensed or certified. For specific requirements, contact a state’s licensing board.

Some employers prefer to hire recreational therapists who have basic life support (BLS) or cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification.

Personality and Interests

Recreational therapists typically have an interest in the Creating and Helping interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Creating interest area indicates a focus on being original and imaginative, and working with artistic media. The Helping interest area indicates a focus on assisting, serving, counseling, or teaching other people.

If you are not sure whether you have a Creating or Helping interest which might fit with a career as a recreational therapist, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Recreational therapists should also possess the following specific qualities:

Compassion. Recreational therapists should be kind, gentle, and sympathetic when providing support to patients and their families. They may deal with patients who are in pain or under emotional stress.

Critical-thinking skills. Recreational therapists should be able to quickly think of adaptations to activities when a patients’ therapy plan requires adjustment.

Leadership skills. Recreational therapists must be able to plan, develop, and implement intervention programs in an effective manner. They must motivate patients to participate in a variety of therapeutic activities.

Listening skills. Recreational therapists must listen to a patient’s problems and concerns. They can then determine an effective course of treatment or therapy program appropriate for that patient.

Patience. Recreational therapists may work with some patients who require more time and special attention than others.

Speaking skills. Recreational therapists need to communicate well with their patients. They need to be able to give clear directions during activities or instructions on healthy coping techniques.


The median annual wage for recreational therapists was $47,940 in May 2021. 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 $31,710, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $80,610.

In May 2021, the median annual wages for recreational therapists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Government $64,780
Ambulatory healthcare services 54,370
Hospitals; state, local, and private 50,970
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities)                    43,570
Social assistance 37,660

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

Job Outlook

Employment of recreational therapists is projected to grow 4 percent from 2021 to 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

About 1,500 openings for recreational therapists are projected each year, on average, over the decade. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire. 


As large numbers of the U.S. population move into older age groups, more people will need recreational therapists to help treat age-related injuries and illnesses. Older people are more likely than younger people to experience Alzheimer’s disease, a stroke, or mobility-related injuries and to benefit from treating these conditions with recreational therapy. Therapists also will be needed to help healthy seniors remain social, active, and independent in their communities as they age.

In addition, the number of people with chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, is growing. Recreational therapists will be needed to help patients maintain their mobility, learn how to manage their conditions, and adjust recreational activities to accommodate physical limitations. Therapists also will be needed to plan and lead programs designed to maintain overall wellness through participation in activities such as camps, day trips, and sports.

For More Information

For more information on careers and academic programs in recreational therapy, visit

American Therapeutic Recreation Association

For more information about certification, visit

National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification




Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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