Recreational therapists plan, direct, and coordinate recreation-based treatment programs for people with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses. These 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.

Duties

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.

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Work Environment

Recreational therapists held about 19,800 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of recreational therapists were as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private 38%
Government 17
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities)                    15
Ambulatory healthcare services 8
Social assistance 6

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 and Training

Recreational therapists typically need a bachelor’s degree. Many employers require therapists to be certified by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC).

Education

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.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

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.

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.

Pay

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.

In May 2019, the median annual wages for recreational therapists in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Government $60,140
Hospitals; state, local, and private 50,840
Ambulatory healthcare services 48,040
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities)                             42,110
Social assistance 42,000

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 7 percent from 2018 to 2028, faster than the average for all occupations.

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.

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, to teach patients about managing their conditions, and to help patients adjust recreational activities to accommodate any physical limitations. Therapists will be needed also to plan and lead programs designed to maintain overall wellness through participation in activities such as camps, day trips, and sports.

Recreational therapists will increasingly be utilized in helping veterans manage service-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or injuries such as the loss of a limb. Recreational therapists can lead activities that help veterans to reintegrate into their communities and help them to adjust to any physical, social, or cognitive limitations.

Job Prospects

Job prospects will be best for recreational therapists with both a bachelor’s degree and certification. Therapists who specialize in working with older adults may have particularly good job opportunities. In addition, demand may be greater in highly populated areas, so recreational therapists who are willing to relocate may have favorable job prospects.

For More Information

For more information and materials 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

 

FAQ

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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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