What Is a Recreation Therapist? Definitions and FAQs

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated August 28, 2022 | Published July 26, 2021

Updated August 28, 2022

Published July 26, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

For those with a passion for helping others, pursuing a career as a recreation therapist might be a rewarding profession. Recreation therapists have an important job where they get to help others overcome difficulties, learn new skills, and gain independence. Before committing to a career in this position, it is important to understand what a recreation therapist does and what it takes to become one. In this article, we explain what a recreation therapist is and answer some frequently asked questions about this role to help you decide whether this is the right career for you.

Related: How to Become a Therapist (Step-by-Step Guide and Job List)

What is a recreation therapist?

A recreation therapist is a healthcare professional who works to improve their patient's mental, physical, behavioural, or occupational health through structured activities. They work in a variety of settings and may specialize in working with a particular population, such as children with autism or ageing adults with cognitive challenges. Often, recreation therapists work as part of a team that includes other healthcare professionals like physical therapists, occupational therapists, registered nurses, and psychologists. In other settings, they may work alongside teachers, social workers, and community recreation workers.

Related: 17 Psychology Careers To Consider With Your Degree

What does a recreation therapist do?

A recreation therapist plans, implements, and coordinates recreational activities to help people with disabilities, illnesses, injuries, or other conditions improve their functioning and work toward their clinical goals. They may help their patients manage stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, recover physical or cognitive abilities, develop confidence, and improve social skills. For example, a recreation therapist may organize a bowling league for patients with paralysis to help them improve physical strength, learn adaptive techniques, and meet others with similar conditions to form supportive a community.

Some other responsibilities of recreation therapists include:

  • Using assessment tools to identify their patients' needs

  • Collaborating with other professionals to create comprehensive treatment plans

  • Creating and implementing recreational interventions to support their patients' needs

  • Engaging with patients to encourage, teach, and support them through activities

  • Monitoring patient progress and evaluating the effectiveness of intervention techniques

  • Working with patients to help them learn adaptive strategies or use community resources like public transportation

What skills do recreation therapists use?

Recreation therapists use a variety of hard and soft skills to excel in their roles. Here are some qualities of effective recreation therapists:

Empathy

Empathy is the ability to take the perspective of another person and understand their feelings. Recreation therapists may work with clients who are facing difficulties in their lives. They can use their empathetic abilities to understand the perspective of their clients, make meaningful connections with them, and support them in overcoming challenging situations. Through their empathy, recreation therapists can build trust with their clients. Earning a client's trust can improve a therapist's ability to communicate, understand their clients' needs, and construct therapeutic relationships.

Communication

Recreation therapists often use verbal and written communication skills in their roles. They use their communication abilities when meeting with patients to understand their needs, explain treatments, and teach adaptive strategies. Recreation therapists may work with clients who have unique communication needs, so they may need to be comfortable using assistive communication devices or working with translators or interpreters. They may also need to facilitate communication between groups, such as when conducting a group therapy session. Recreation therapists may use written communication skills to document a patient's progress, write reports, and communicate with others over email.

Related: Using Therapeutic Communication Effectively

Active listening

Active listening is the ability to give someone your full attention when they speak. As therapeutic practitioners, recreation therapists use active listening to understand their client's needs and validate their emotions and experiences. By practising active listening, therapists show they care for their clients, and they can learn about the client's needs and perspective so they can make effective therapeutic decisions. Some active listening skills include limiting distractions when listening to a speaker, using visual and verbal cues that show engagement, and paraphrasing the speaker's message to show understanding.

Creativity

Recreation therapists enjoy a position where they get to use their creativity to plan activities for their clients. They may engage their clients in activities that let them express their creativity, like creating art, writing stories, learning dances, and making music. A therapist may use their creativity to find adaptive solutions that improve the accessibility of activities for clients with disabilities.

Related: 7 Steps To Improve Your Creative Thinking Skills

Knowledge of common medical, behavioural, and cognitive conditions

A recreation therapist uses their knowledge of common conditions to inform their practice. Understanding the symptoms of common conditions may help them plan activities that improve or ease those symptoms. Knowledge of common conditions can also help therapists to contribute more to the healthcare team. When all members of the team share a foundation of understanding on different conditions and how to treat them, it may improve their ability to communicate and work together.

Analytical thinking

A therapist might use their analytical thinking skills to understand complex problems and plan solutions. A client may have a complicated health condition or multiple overlapping conditions. No two people experience their condition or disability in the same way. An effective recreation therapist can analyze each clients' unique situation and develop strategies that meet their individual needs.

How to become a recreation therapist

Here are the steps for becoming a recreation therapist:

1. Start early

If you are a high school student considering a career as a recreation therapist, there are some steps you can take to learn the basics and gain the skills used in this position. For example, taking courses in psychology, sociology, anatomy, biology, and statistics can be a great way to learn about the social and natural sciences so you can prepare for college work in these subjects.

Another way to prepare early is to look for volunteer opportunities in your community. If you have an interest in working with a certain population like ageing adults, search for opportunities to work with that group. You might find volunteer opportunities through care homes, hospitals, private clinics, and community organizations. Volunteering can be a great way to get to know professionals in the field, gain skills for working with different groups of people, and learn about working in the healthcare industry.

Related: Tips for Listing Volunteer Work on Resume (With Examples)

2. Earn a bachelor's degree

Recreation therapists need a bachelor's degree to practise. An undergraduate student hoping to start a career as a recreation therapist can earn a degree in recreation therapy, recreation and leisure studies, or a related field like psychology or disability studies. Some typical coursework in a recreation therapy program might include:

  • Anatomy and physiology

  • Strategies for assessment

  • Medical terminology

  • Recreational interventions

  • Characteristics of illness and disability

  • Foundations of recreation therapy

  • Use of assistive devices

3. Complete an internship

Many bachelor's programs require students to complete an internship as part of their degree. Internships allow students to gain practical experience working in the field. Often, interns work with diverse clinical groups in a variety of settings to gain a foundation of skills for working with different populations. Completing an internship is an important part of a recreation therapist's professional training. They apply the knowledge learned through their classroom instruction under the direct supervision of a professional in the field. Internships are essential for learning the clinical skills needed to perform in this job role.

4. Gain certification

Though not required, many employers may prefer to hire a recreation therapist who has earned certification. Even therapists who hope to own a private practice may benefit from certification to show potential clients their commitment to meeting the highest standards of professionalism and quality of service.

Recreation therapists gain certification through the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certificate (NCTRC). The NCTRC offers the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) certificate, which demonstrates that the therapist has met all requirements for education, experience, and professionalism. To qualify for CTRS certification, you must have a bachelor's degree in recreation therapy or a related field, complete an internship and meet a certain number of hours of clinical practise, and pass an exam. Certification holders must renew their certification every five years to show their commitment to continuing their professional development.

FAQs about recreation therapists

Here are some frequently asked questions about this position:

How much do recreation therapists make?

The average annual salary for a recreation therapist is $42,152 per year. However, this can vary by location, employment setting, level of education, and experience. For example, a recreation therapist who owns a private practice may make more than a recreation therapist employed in a nursing home.

Can a recreation therapist have a specialty?

Recreation therapists can choose to have a specialty. The NCTRC offers five areas of specialty for this job role:

  • Developmental disabilities

  • Behavioural health

  • Geriatrics

  • Rehabilitation and physical medicine

  • Community inclusion services

Where do recreation therapists work?

Recreation therapists can work in a variety of settings. Some settings include:

  • Private practices or clinics

  • Hospitals

  • Nursing homes

  • Assisted living facilities

  • Rehabilitation facilities

  • Correctional facilities

  • Recreation departments

  • Schools

Most recreation therapists work full-time. They typically work in an office setting but may also need to travel to work with patients. A recreation therapist might also travel to a community location like a public pool or library to conduct activities.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing.

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