Recreational Therapists

Career, Salary and Education Information

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What Recreational Therapists Do[About this section] [To Top]

Recreational therapists plan, direct, and coordinate recreation-based treatment programs for people with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses. These therapists use a variety of modalities, including arts and crafts; drama, music, and dance; sports and games; aquatics; and community outings to help maintain or improve a patient’s physical, social, and emotional well-being.

Duties of Recreational Therapists

Recreational therapists typically do the following:

  • Assess patients’ needs through observations, medical records, tests, and discussions with other healthcare professionals, patients’ families, and patients
  • Create treatment plans and programs that meet patients’ needs and interests
  • Plan and implement interventions to prevent harm to a patient
  • Engage patients in therapeutic activities, such as exercise, games, and community outings
  • Help patients learn social skills needed to become or remain independent
  • Teach patients about ways to cope with stress, anxiety, or depression
  • Record and analyze a patient’s progress
  • Evaluate interventions for effectiveness

Recreational therapists help people reduce depression, stress, and anxiety; recover basic physical and mental abilities; build confidence; and socialize effectively.

They use activities, such as arts and crafts, dance, or sports, to help their patients. For example, a recreational therapist can help a patient who is paralyzed on one side of their body by teaching them to adapt activities, like casting a fishing rod or swinging a golf club, by using their functional side.

Therapists often treat specific groups of patients, such as children with cancer. Therapists may use activities such as kayaking or a ropes course to teach patients to stay active and to form social relationships.

Recreational therapists help people with disabilities integrate into the community by teaching them how to use community resources and recreational activities. For example, therapists may teach a patient who uses a wheelchair how to use public transportation.

Therapists may also provide interventions for patients who need help developing social and coping skills. For example, a therapist may use a therapy dog to help patients manage their depression or anxiety.

Therapists may work with physicians or surgeons, registered nurses, psychologists, social workers, physical therapists, teachers, or occupational therapists. Recreational therapists are different from recreation workers, who organize recreational activities primarily for enjoyment.

Work Environment for Recreational Therapists[About this section] [To Top]

Recreational therapists hold about 18,600 jobs. The industries that employ the most recreational therapists are as follows:

Hospitals; state, local, and private 35%
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) 20
Government 19
Ambulatory healthcare services 8
Continuing care retirement communities and assisted living facilities for the elderly 6

Recreational therapists work in a variety of settings. Therapists often work in hospitals or nursing and residential care facilities. They also work in places such as substance abuse centers, outpatient rehabilitation centers, special education departments, and parks and recreation departments.

They may use offices for planning or other administrative activities, such as patient assessment, but may travel when working with patients. Therapy may be provided in a clinical setting or out in a community. For example, therapists may take their patients to fields and parks for sports and other outdoor activities.

Some therapists may spend a lot of time on their feet actively working with patients. Recreational therapists may also need to physically assist patients or lift heavy objects such as wheelchairs.

Recreational Therapist Work Schedules

Most recreational therapists work full time, although about 1 in 4 work part time. Some recreational therapists work evenings and weekends to meet the needs of their patients.

How to Become a Recreational Therapist[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Recreational Therapists near you!

Recreational therapists typically need a bachelor’s degree. Many employers require therapists to be certified by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC).

Recreational Therapist Education

Recreational therapists typically need a bachelor’s degree, usually in recreational therapy or a related field such as recreation and leisure studies.

Recreational therapy programs include courses in assessment, human anatomy, medical and psychiatric terminology, characteristics of illnesses and disabilities, and the use of assistive devices and technology. Bachelor’s degree programs usually include an internship.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Most employers, particularly those in hospitals and other clinical settings, prefer to hire certified recreational therapists. The NCTRC offers the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) credential. Candidates may qualify for certification through one of two pathways. The first option requires a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, which includes the completion of a supervised internship of at least 560 hours, and passing an exam. The second option also requires passing an exam, but allows candidates with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated subject to qualify with a combination of education and work experience. Therapists must take continuing education classes to maintain certification.

NCTRC also offers specialty certification in five areas of practice: behavioral health, community inclusion services, developmental disabilities, geriatrics, and physical medicine/rehabilitation. Therapists also may earn certificates from other organizations to show proficiency in specific therapy techniques, such as aquatic therapy or aromatherapy.

As of 2014, only New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah required recreational therapists to obtain a license. Requirements vary by state. For specific requirements, contact the state’s medical board.

Important Qualities for Recreational Therapists

Compassion. Recreational therapists should be kind and empathetic when providing support to patients and their families. They may deal with patients who are in pain or under emotional stress.

Leadership skills. Recreational therapists must be able to plan, develop, and implement intervention programs in an effective manner. They must be engaging and able to motivate patients to participate in a variety of therapeutic activities.

Listening skills. Recreational therapists must listen carefully to a patient’s problems and concerns. They can then determine an appropriate course of treatment for that patient.

Patience. Recreational therapists may work with some patients who require more time and special attention than others.

Resourcefulness. Recreational therapists customize treatment plans for patients. They must be both creative and flexible when adapting activities or programs to each patient’s needs.

Speaking skills. Recreational therapists need to communicate well with their patients. They must give clear directions during activities or instructions on healthy coping techniques.

Recreational Therapist Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

The median annual wage for recreational therapists is $45,890. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $28,020, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $71,790.

The median annual wages for recreational therapists in the top industries in which they work are as follows:

Government $55,500
Hospitals; state, local, and private 48,320
Ambulatory healthcare services 46,200
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) 39,990
Continuing care retirement communities and assisted living facilities for the elderly 37,250

Most recreational therapists work full time, although about 1 in 4 work part time. Some recreational therapists work evenings and weekends to meet the needs of their patients.

Job Outlook for Recreational Therapists[About this section] [To Top]

Employment of recreational therapists is projected to grow 12 percent over the next ten years, faster than the average for all occupations.

As the U.S. population ages, more people will need recreational therapists to help treat age-related injuries and illnesses. Older people are more likely to suffer from stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and mobility-related injuries that may benefit from recreational therapy. Growth is expected in nursing care facilities, adult daycare programs, and other settings that care for geriatric patients.

Therapists will also be needed to help healthy seniors remain social and active in their communities. Recreational therapy services can help the aging population to maintain their independence later in life. For example, recreational therapists can help older people prevent falls by teaching them modified yoga exercises that improve balance and strength. Patients’ preferences for aging at home, combined with shorter hospital stays, will shift treatment to outpatient and community-based settings rather than more costly hospital settings.

In addition, the number of people with chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, is growing. Recreational therapists will be needed to help patients maintain their mobility, to teach patients about managing their conditions, and to help patients adjust recreational activities to meet any physical limitations. Therapists will be needed also to plan and lead programs designed to maintain overall wellness through participation in activities such as camps, day trips, and sports.

Recreational therapists will increasingly be utilized also in helping veterans manage service-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or injuries such as the loss of a limb. Recreational therapists can lead activities that help to reintegrate veterans into their communities and help them to adjust to any physical, social, or cognitive limitations.

Recreational Therapists Job Prospects

Job prospects will be best for recreational therapists with both a bachelor’s degree and certification. Therapists who specialize in working with the elderly or who earn certification in geriatric therapy may have the best job prospects. In addition, demand may be greater in highly populated areas, so recreational therapists who are willing to relocate may have the best job prospects.

Employment projections data for Recreational Therapists, 2014-24
Occupational Title Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24
Percent Numeric
Recreational therapists 18,600 20,900 12 2,200


*Some content used by permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

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