Recreational Therapists Overview

To become a Recreational Therapist, a bachelors degree in therapeutic recreation is the usual educational requirement. Some States regulate recreational therapists through licensure, registration, or regulation of titles, but requirements vary. Recreational therapists should be comfortable working with persons who have disabilities.

Nature of the Work for Recreational Therapists

Recreational Therapists

Recreational therapists are also known as therapeutic recreation specialists. They provide treatment services and recreational activities for individuals with disabilities or illnesses with a milieu of techniques. They may, for example, use arts and crafts, sports, games, dance and movement, drama, music, and community outings, which are used to improve and maintain the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of their clients. The goal of a recreational therapist is to reduce stress and anxiety that can cause depression, help the client recover or increase basic motor functioning; build confidence; and help them socialize effectively. Helping them enjoy quality of life with more independence and integration into their community while teaching them how to use community resources and recreational activities is the ultimate objective.

In healthcare facilities, recreational therapists treat and rehabilitate individuals, whereas, in long-term and residential care facilities, recreational therapists use the activities to improve and maintain their clients' general health and well-being. They also may provide interventions to help prevent the client from suffering further medical problems and complications all in collaboration with other healthcare professionals.

Recreational therapists evaluate their clients using information from observations, reviewing relevant medical records and conducting standardized assessments. They may also interview the client, the medical staff, and the client’s family. With this information they then develop, carry out, chart and reassess the progress of the interventions utilized consistent with the clients' needs and interests. For example, if a client is isolated from others or has limited social skills they might encourage social interaction through games or team sports, or they may teach left-handed people with left-side paralysis how to use their unaffected right side to throw a ball, for example. Recreational therapists may provide relaxation techniques; teach stretching and limbering exercises; or proper body mechanics for participation in recreational activities while teaching clients how to pace themselves for optimal energy conservation.

As a community-based recreational therapist, one might work in park and recreation departments, with children or adults in special education or day care programs, as well as assisted living and substance abuse rehabilitation centers. They will use interventions to develop needed skills, provide opportunities for exercise, mental stimulation, creativity, and fun. Those few who work in schools help personnel and parents address the special needs of students, including easing their transition into adult life.

Recreational therapists may provide services, plan activities and prepare documentation in offices. They may help clients with community integration; provide travel training that teaches clients how to use public transportation and access public areas, such as parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, restaurants, and theaters. Lifting and carrying equipment may be needed.

Recreational therapists typically work a 40-hour week, while some may work part time and for more than one employer, which will require traveling. Hours may include some evenings, weekends, and holidays.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Recreational Therapists

A therapeutic recreation bachelors degree is usually a requirement however some States may regulate recreational therapists, with varying requirements. Some recreational therapists may qualify with a combination of education, training, and work experience that would be equivalent to what is considered field competency. There are over 100 bachelor degree programs that prepare students to become recreational therapists, although some offer associates, masters, or doctoral degrees.

Therapeutic recreation programs include courses in assessment, treatment and program planning, intervention design, and evaluation. To understand the physical and psychological needs of their clients, students study human anatomy, physiology, and abnormal psychology. The curriculum includes instruction in medical and psychiatric terminology, characteristics of illnesses and disabilities, professional ethics, and the use of assistive devices and technology.

Bachelor’s degree programs typically require a field internship as part of their curriculum prior to graduation. Varying by State, some regulate recreational therapists through licensure, registration, or regulation of titles. Contact your State’s medical board for more information.

Depending on State certification policies or employer mandates a recreational therapist may be required to become certified. To work in clinical settings, the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC) often requires certification as well and a supervised internship of at least 480 hours. Although a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy from an accredited institution is typically required for credentialing, some States may qualify a recreational therapist with equivalent education, training, and experience. Therapists must meet additional requirements to maintain certification. Contact the NCTRC organization for specific details on credentialing.

Recreational therapists may want to concentrate on, or become credentialed in a specific type of therapy such as art or aquatic therapy and must be comfortable working with people who are ill or disabled. So patience, diplomacy, and persuasiveness are virtues when working with people who have a variety of special needs. Ingenuity, imagination and a sense of humor are needed to adapt activities to individual needs, also a recreational therapist must have good physical coordination to demonstrate or participate in recreational activities. Recreational therapists may advance to supervisory or administrative positions in health or social service agencies to teach help or conduct research, and consult with other professionals.

Top 10 Most Popular Therapeutic Recreation/Recreational Therapy Schools

1. East Carolina University (Greenville, North Carolina)
2. Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah)
3. Temple University (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
4. Southern University and A & M College (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
5. Suffolk County Community College, Ammerman (Selden, New York)
6. University of Wisconsin, La Crosse (La Crosse, Wisconsin)
7. Grand Valley State University (Allendale, Michigan)
8. University of North Carolina, Wilmington (Wilmington, North Carolina)
9. The University of Toledo, Health Science Campus (Toledo, Ohio)
10. University of Akron, Akron (Akron, Ohio)

See All Therapeutic Recreation/Recreational Therapy Schools

Employment and Job Outlook for Recreational Therapists

Number of People in Profession

21,960

Changing Employment (2008-2018)

Employment is projected to grow faster than average (increase 14 - 19%).

Recreational therapists hold about 23,300 jobs with approximately 24 percent in nursing care facilities. Others work primarily in hospitals, residential care facilities, and State and local government agencies.

Employment of recreational therapists is expected to increase 15 percent from now to 2018, faster than the average for all occupations due to the therapeutic needs of the aging population such as decreases in physical and or mental ability, which can be limited or managed with recreation therapy. Nursing care facilities are the largest industry employing recreational therapists and the need will grow faster than the occupation because the number of older adults continues to grow. Employment growth in schools may expand as a result of the increase of the school-age population of disabled students. However, because reimbursement for recreational therapy services is not readily available this will affect how and where therapeutic recreation is provided therefore, recreation therapy services will shift more to outpatient settings and away from hospitals.

Recreational therapists will experience competition for jobs because lower paid recreational therapy aides will be utilized in an effort to reduce costs. Job opportunities should be best for people with a bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation and the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist credential however recreational therapists may experience more competition for jobs in specific regions of the country as jobs in therapeutic recreation are more readily available in heavily populated areas.

Earnings and Salary for Recreational Therapists

Median annual wages of recreational therapists is $39,440. The highest 10 percent earned more than $62,170, whereas, the lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,510. The middle 50 percent earned between $31,050 and $50,370.

Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of recreational therapists are:

General medical and surgical hospitals: $42,210
State government: $40,310
Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals: $40,150
Nursing care facilities: $33,920
Community care facilities for the elderly: $33,490

Annual Salary for Recreational Therapists

On average, Recreational Therapists earn $39,440 per year.

10% 25% 75% 90% $24,510/yr $31,050/yr $50,370/yr $62,170/yr

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook