Recreational Therapy and the Role of Recreational Therapists

picture of a recreational therapist working with a patient
Written by
Ana Gotter
July 9, 2023

So many prongs of medical care are needed to create a strong healthcare system that can best support patients. Recreational therapy—and thus, recreational therapists—is one of those prongs.

Recreational therapists can help improve your physical, mental, functional, social, and cognitive well-being, depending on your specific goals. As a result, it’s no surprise that they get an entire week in their honor. This year, National Therapeutic Recreation Week is celebrated from July 9-15th, so now is the perfect time to talk about what recreational therapists do and why they matter.

What Is Recreational Therapy?

Recreational therapy is sometimes also called recreation therapy or therapeutic recreation. It’s the process of using recreation and activity-based interventions to help people improve some aspect of their well-being, including their physical, cognitive, emotional, or functional health. 

Recovering physical or mental abilities, building confidence, establishing social skills, or reducing stress or other mental health concerns are all common goals of recreational therapy. It may involve programs or activities like the following:

  • Music or dance 
  • Games and puzzles 
  • Sports, including sports adapted for people with physical restrictions or disabilities
  • Outdoor activities, including hiking or swimming 
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Family activities 
  • Therapeutic outings to help with reintegration into a community 

Unlike other types of therapy, recreational therapy typically incorporates a patient’s interests, and it typically involves opportunities for patients to be involved with their families, friends, or communities. 

What Is a Recreational Therapist? 

A recreational therapist is a practitioner working directly with patients in recreational therapy. They help patients select therapeutic leisure-based activities based on their needs and interests, accounting for their well-being. 

Treatment plans are unique to each patient, but they all include a common approach that’s been carefully designed to result in a high level of success. To create a treatment plan, recreational therapists will discuss a patient’s needs or concerns, help them set specific goals, and explain how different therapies can help patients accomplish these goals. Plans may also incorporate resources available through the patient’s community. 

Recreational therapists can work with pediatric and geriatric patients and everyone in between. Many choose to specialize, but some don’t. They may work in the following locations:

What’s the Difference between a Recreational Therapist and a Physical Therapist? 

Physical therapists typically focus exclusively on healing specific physical injuries or concerns with a series of medical interventions and physical exercises or stretches. 

On the other hand, recreational therapists focus on the patient’s well-being and develop a treatment plan involving different leisure-based activities. 

Why Is Recreational Therapy Vital to Patient Recovery? 

Recreational therapy can be vital to patient recovery because it considers patients’ entire well-being. It can help patients rebuild skills (including physical, functional, emotional, and social skills), boost confidence, improve mood, increase social connections, and strengthen quality of life. These are significant benefits.

It doesn’t hurt, too, that recreational therapy activities are often more “fun” than other types of therapy, especially since they account for a patient’s interests. The fun aspect may increase the likelihood of patients completing the treatment program, and the more likely they are to complete it, the more likely it is to be successful. 

What Is a Recreational Therapy Degree?

To become a recreational therapist, you must have a four-year undergraduate degree in a related field. Some will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, but others may have degrees in areas like recreation. Others will complete healthcare education programs focusing on patient care, including nursing, psychology, or pre-med. 

Most recreational therapists have also become Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialists (CTRS), which means they have been certified by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC). Many employers require (or at least strongly prefer) this certification, which requires a bachelor’s degree, an internship or field placement with at least 560 hours, and passage of the certification exam. 

Because nurses consider a patient’s overall health, nurses are highly valued in the field and can make exceptional recreational therapists. 

What Skills Do I Need to Be a Recreational Therapist? 

The good news is that obtaining certification through the NCTRC will ensure that you have all the essential “hard” skills for working as a recreational therapist, which will include the following:

  • Knowledge of therapeutic activities 
  • Understanding of community resources
  • Training on how to engage with patients and their families
  • Knowledge about human anatomy, human health, and characteristics of disabilities and illnesses 
  • Common assistive devices and technology
  • Psychiatric and medical terminology (which is all standard with healthcare education)

Recreational therapists also need the following soft skills:

  • Compassion and patience to help patients who may be struggling 
  • Listening skills to really understand a patient’s needs, concerns, and goals 
  • Creative thinking and strong problem-solving skills, as you’ll be developing unique treatment plans for each patient
  • Leadership skills, as you’ll often be working independently 
  • Communication skills to clearly explain why patients should engage in certain activities and why it will help them  

How Can I Find Recreational Therapy Jobs? 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, recreational therapists had a median salary of $47,940 in 2021. Since common employers include healthcare facilities and government organizations, the benefits packages are strong; plus, government workers often have the opportunity to receive pensions. 

And here is the good news: If you’re interested in the field, the job market is expected to grow by 4% from 2021 to 2031. So if you’re working in healthcare as a nurse and are looking for another career path that doesn’t involve patient bedside care while still ensuring job stability, this is a good option to consider. 

If you’re ready to search for “recreational therapy jobs near me,” the first thing you should do is apply for certification—if you haven’t already. Once you do, consider what type of role you want to work in: Do you want to work in a school, helping children with emotional or learning needs? Or would you prefer to work with adults in your community center? Consider which job roles are most appealing to you, and then start researching to see what’s available near you. 

Considering a career change and aren’t sure what you’re interested in? Check out our Nursing Specialty Guides today!

Blog published on:
July 9, 2023

Meet Ana, a contributing copywriter at Nursa who specializes in content about nursing finances, career pathways, and nursing education.

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