Recreational Therapists

There are fewer than 24,000 recreational therapists in the United States. Job growth statistics indicate that over the next ten years the field will grow by 15%, which is a little faster than average.

Recreational therapists, or therapeutic recreation specialists, treat people with disabilities and offer recreation therapies such as arts and crafts, working with animals, sports activities, game playing, dance and expressive movement, theater, music and singing, and community field trips. These activities are essential to the well-being of clients. They help clients learn or rebuild essential socialization skills and develop independence. In the event of accidental injury, these activities can help clients redevelop basic motor skills, reasoning ability, and social skills that will help build confidence. Keeping those with reduced abilities active helps banish depression and stress and their resulting anxiety.

Recreational therapists also help those with disabilities become involved with the community by using community resources and participating in recreational activities.

Some recreational therapists are employed at hospitals and rehabilitation centers where they participate in the rehabilitation of patients suffering from particular conditions. They might be placed on a team and work with doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, physical therapists, and occupational therapists. Patients in long-term or residential care facilities benefit from organized group programs. Remaining active helps reduce their stress and anxiety and improves both physical and mental health. In addition, they provide preventative care to reduce or eliminate the possibility of additional medical problems or complications to existing ones.

Client assessment is made using direct observation, standardized evaluative tests or approaches, medical records, and interviews with the medical staff, family members, and the client. A plan concerning the most appropriate therapeutic interventions for the particular client is developed, with attention given to the client’s own interests. For example, a client with few social skills who loves numbers might be taught to play bridge. Recreational therapists also introduce physical movement systems to reduce tension and keep the body limber and aligned. Yoga or T’ai Chi helps clients learn specific body clues that lead to relaxation and physical balance while simultaneously building strength and stamina. Clients are taught the most efficient and safest way to move their bodies for particular tasks, such as how to swing a bat or rake leaves. The recreational therapist also teaches clients how to pace themselves and conserve their energy to increase their stamina. During activities the recreational therapist pays attention to the patient’s involvement, progress, and response and documents these things for future reference.

Community-based recreational therapists are often employed by city or county park and recreation departments, public school special education programs, assisted living facilities, adult day care centers, or substance abuse rehabilitation programs. In all cases, the recreational therapy involves exercise, cognitive stimulation, creative expression, social connection while simultaneously building physical, social, emotional, and mental skills. Some recreational therapists who work in schools assist classroom teachers, special area teachers, counselors, and parents to understand and work with the students’ specific needs.

Recreational therapists work in a variety of settings. Some offer services in activity rooms specific to their purposes but use an office setting for documentation and planning. Many integrate traveling on buses or subways with their outings in order to teach clients how to use these things. They may take clients to a grocery store, a park, a theatrical production, or a petting zoo to expand the clients’ base of experience and to teach or reinforce specific skills.

Recreational therapists must be patient, have considerable stamina and enough strength to carry equipment or lift supplies. They will be on their feet often and must pay careful attention to detail. Fast reaction times can be important if a client is suddenly in a dangerous situation. A true affection for the range of human personality and emotions makes this type of work a good fit. These types of jobs are typically 40 hours per week, although the schedule may not be strictly adhered to. Working some evenings or weekends is common, depending upon the activity that will be undertaken.

Recreational therapists are usually required to have a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in therapeutic recreation; some locations accept an associate degree instead. While some states oversee recreational therapists, others do not; the regulations in those that do may vary. Over 100 colleges and universities offer preparatory courses for recreational therapists. Associates, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees are all available. Coursework covers assessment, program planning, interventions, anatomy, physiology, abnormal psychology, terminology, the characteristics of specific disorders or disabilities, ethics, and assistive devices and technology.

Some states require that recreational therapists be licensed, and many employers want job applicants who have been certified by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification.

With time and experience, some therapists can get promoted to supervisory or administrative posts. Teaching, becoming involved with research, or offering consultation are other ways to develop career skills.
The median annual salary for recreational therapists is around $39,000. Midrange earnings are between approximately $30,000 and $50,000. The lowest 10% earn less than $25,000, while those in the top 10% earn more than $60,000.