Recreational therapists, also known as therapeutic recreation specialists, work with individuals who have disabilities or illnesses, participating in recreational activities and providing treatment to them. They attempt to maintain the emotional, physical, and mental well-being of their clients. In order to do this, they employ a variety of techniques, such as arts and crafts, animals, sports, games, dance and movement, drama, music, and community outings. These types of activities serve to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety in clients, as well as help them build motor functions, self-confidence, and social skills. The goal of recreational therapists is to assist their clients in becoming more independent.
In hospitals and similar facilities, recreational therapists work closely with physicians, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and physical and occupational therapists to rehabilitate people with a variety of different health conditions. In long-term or residential care facilities, recreational therapists create leisure activities that help maintain the general health of residents. Community-based recreational therapists work in park and recreation departments, special-education programs for school districts, or programs for older adults and people with disabilities. These therapists design programs of exercise, mental stimulation, creativity, and fun and often work with counselors, teachers, and parents.
Recreational therapists should have a high degree of patience and tact because their clients have special needs. They need to be comfortable working with individuals who have diseases or disabilities. A sense of humor and an active imagination are important qualities, as is good physical coordination.
In 2002, recreational therapists earned a median annual salary of $30,540. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $18,130, to the highest 10%, who earned more than $47,180.
Training and Education
Most entry-level positions in recreational therapy require a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation. However, other levels of training may be sufficient. An associate degree in therapeutic recreation or a healthcare-related field may be enough to qualify for certain paraprofessional jobs. Activity director positions may only require an associate degree in recreational therapy; training in art, drama, or music therapy; or qualifying work experience. There are about 140 programs that offer training in recreational therapy; most of them offer bachelor’s degrees, while some offer associate, master’s, or doctoral degrees. Courses include assessment, treatment, program planning, anatomy, physiology, abnormal psychology, medical and psychiatric terminology, and professional ethics.
Recreational therapists can become certified by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification. Requirements for this certification include providing proof of a bachelor’s degree, passing a written examination, and completing a 480 hour internship. Most employers prefer to hire candidates who have earned this certification. Therapists who earn this certification must meet more requirements in order to maintain their certification and to renew their certification.
In 2002, recreational therapists held about 27,000 jobs. About a third worked in nursing care facilities and another third worked in hospitals.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of recreational therapists is expected to increase more slowly than the average. In nursing care facilities, employment will grow faster than the overall occupation. However, employment in hospitals is expected to decline because of a shift to outpatient settings due to an increased emphasis on cost containment. Consequently, employment will grow fast in residential and outpatient centers. Opportunities will be best for those with a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation or in recreation with an option in therapeutic recreation.
For more information on becoming a recreational therapist, please see our directory of schools offering Medical Training.