Recreational Therapist Career Guide

The Basics

Many people live life with a chronic illness or disease, a mental health issue, a cognitive impairment, or a physical disability. For many of these people, this means having difficulty in many realms of life. Going grocery shopping, taking kids to the park, or enjoying playing games with friends may be quite difficult, if not impossible. Yet, many professional health care workers strive to improve the functioning of people that have been afflicted by health difficulties. One such professional, who uses fun activities as a therapeutic treatment, is a recreational therapist.

What is a Recreational Therapist?

Recreational therapists are highly trained workers that utilize leisure activities as a primary intervention for addressing social, emotional, cognitive, and physical ailments. The purpose of their work is to assist their clients in bringing about positive life change, such that the client’s functioning is restored, if at the very least remediated.

The work of recreational therapists is just one aspect of a much larger group effort toward rehabilitation. Recreational therapists often work as part of a team that includes, but is not limited to, occupational and physical therapists, speech therapists, psychiatrists, and nursing staff.

In addition to taking a unique approach to treatment, recreational therapists also have a unique relationship with their clients. Working together as a team, recreational therapists take input from their client and the client’s loved ones regarding how therapy proceeds. Therapists take each client’s individual interests to heart when designing intervention programs to promote improved functioning, independence, and involvement in the community.

What Does a Recreational Therapist Do?

Individuals employed as a recreational therapist have a unique toolkit by which to bring about therapeutic change. Using everything from therapy animals to arts and crafts to music and dance, recreational therapists endeavor to improve the well-being of their clientele.

Much of the initial stage of recreational therapy involves assessment and treatment planning. Recreational therapists work with clients, their family members, medical staff, and other human services workers to determine the best course of action for each patient. The assessment phase might involve examining medical records and test results, mental health evaluations, making firsthand observations, and considering input from the aforementioned stakeholders. Once a proper assessment is complete, recreational therapists go about structuring a treatment plan that will address the unique needs of the client.

The ways in which recreational therapists go about performing their work varies from one employment setting to another. Those who work with geriatric patients might focus on increasing social interaction. Focusing on group activities such as games, exercising, and dancing might achieve this. Work with geriatric clients might also include outings into the community such that clients have the opportunity to get some much-needed time outdoors and away from their residence, nursing home, or assisted living center. A prime example of recreational therapy for these patients would be a picnic outing at a local park.

Recreational therapists that work with hospital-bound patients would take a different approach to facilitating improved social and emotional functioning. For example, work with terminally-ill children might involve activities to boost their spirits, such as plays, visits from therapy animals, and games. When working with other hospital patients, such as those that have a severe physical disability, like paralysis, recreational therapists might focus instead on activities that promote rebuilding some physical strength and skill. For example, when working with a patient that has paralysis on his or her left side, a recreational therapist might choose activities that promote improved coordination on the right side. This might take the form of learning to shoot baskets, swing a badminton racket, or throw a bean back with their functional side.

For residents of a long-term care facility, the duties of a recreational therapist might be more toward providing interventions that promote overall health and wellness. For example, in a residential treatment facility for individuals that have a cognitive disability, a recreational therapist might use arts and crafts time to teach residents about following rules, maintaining a clean and safe workspace, sharing, and other essential skills for daily living. Conversely, in a long-term care facility that caters to clients that are recovering from a major surgery, recreational therapists would instead focus on physical activities that promote muscle strength, stability, and flexibility, such as light aerobics or aquatic therapy.

Where Do Recreational Therapists Work?

Recreational therapists enjoy the capability of working in a wide variety of settings. However, the largest number of workers in this field are employed in a hospital setting. State hospitals, such as those for mentally ill patients, HMOs, federal hospitals such as those for veterans of the armed forces, and private hospitals are among those that most often employ recreation therapists.

Another popular work environment for recreational therapists is in nursing homes and assisted living centers, where the primary clientele are those that are aged. Residential care facilities, including those that specialize in treating a specific issue like substance abuse or eating disorders, are common employment settings as well.

Many local and state governments employ recreation therapists as well. For example, a local parks and recreation department might employ a recreation therapist to lead community-based events that promote social, emotional, and physical health. To a lesser degree, recreational therapists also work in health care services settings, such as those that specialize in ambulatory care.

How to Become a Recreational Therapist?

Education

Becoming a recreational therapist requires extensive schooling and training. Typically, recreational therapists hold a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy or a very closely related area of study. Undergraduate programs involve a variety of coursework, including psychology, anatomy and physiology, and the use of medical equipment and assistive devices. An internship component is often required as well. Undergraduate work typically takes at least four years of full-time study, after which graduates can enter the workforce in an entry-level position or choose to continue their schooling and earn a graduate degree.

Most graduate degree programs in recreational therapy focus on advanced therapeutic topics, as well as administrative components that are typical job duties of recreational therapists that have more education and experience. Advanced studies are undertaken in assessment and treatment, as well as management, program development, and research methods. There is usually an opportunity for graduate students to specialize in a particular treatment as well, such as art therapy or aquatic therapy. Graduate programs are usually completed in just one to two years, depending on whether a student is enrolled full-time or part-time.

Training

Training will often be a requirement for recreational therapists once they are hired. The type and length of training received will depend upon the employment setting. For example, a recreational therapist beginning a job in a treatment center for individuals with a developmental disability might be required to complete training related to restraining clients in the event that they pose a danger to themselves or others. Likewise, a recreational therapist that works in a children’s hospital might be required to complete a training program to learn about the most effective methods to communicate with children and adolescents.

Licensing Requirements

Only four states require recreational therapists to be licensed – Oklahoma, Utah, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. While each state’s specific licensing requirements vary, they typically involve a combination of appropriate education and experience, with a degree conferred by an accredited institution, practicum or internship experience, and a successful score on an examination. Most states, however, rely on certification procedures to determine the quality of recreational therapists.

What is a Certified Recreational Therapist?

Certified recreational therapists, also known as certified therapeutic recreation specialists, have the distinction of credentialing that signifies advanced studies, training, and work experience. The National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification governs certification processes. Eligibility requirements for certification are as follows:

  • Applicants must have a bachelor’s degree, or some combination of education and experience that would roughly equate to bachelor’s level education.
  • Anywhere from 1-5 years of experience working in the recreational therapy field. The number of years required depends on the educational level of the applicant.
  • Applicants must successfully pass a written examination.

In addition to certification as a recreational therapist, areas of specialized certification are available, including:

  • Behavioral health recreation therapist
  • Geriatric recreation therapist
  • Rehabilitation and physical medicine recreation therapist
  • Developmental disabilities recreation therapist
  • Community inclusion services recreation therapist

These specialties can be achieved in one of two ways. The first requires workers to have at least five years of experience in the field, active status as a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, at least 75 hours of continuing education credits obtained within five years, and two professional references. The second method of obtaining specialty certification requires a master’s degree in recreation therapy, at least nine graduate-level hours of study in the area of specialization, one year of work experience, and two professional references.

What is an Online Recreational Therapy Degree?

While some coursework related to recreational therapy can be completed online, very rarely can one earn a degree in this field completely online. This is because of the need for hands-on learning as it pertains to working effectively with clients. Instead, most online recreational therapy programs are hybrid in nature, with a significant online component combined with on-campus learning.

These hybrid programs are extremely popular and can be found in colleges and universities throughout the country. The online coursework in these programs often relates to general studies areas, such as English, math, and the humanities. Some coursework specific to recreational therapy can be taken online as well, such as classes related to counseling and psychology. These courses usually involve a heavy dose of online interactivity as well, such as chat rooms and discussion boards, in which class members discuss important topics related to their studies. Often, teleconferencing or video conferencing are also available, so students and teachers can conduct classes virtually.

Specialized coursework in recreational therapy typically must occur in an on-campus or work environment. For example, students that wish to learn about aquatic therapy techniques would need to take a course related to that subject on campus such that they could practice those techniques in a pool with actual clients. Students might be able to fulfill course requirements through work placement or job shadowing experiences as well, such as working for a physical therapy clinic that provides aquatic therapy as part of their regimen of treatments.

Like traditional bachelor’s degree programs, online and hybrid programs are usually four years in length and require completion of approximately 120 semester credits, of which approximately 60 must be in the specialization of recreational therapy. The knowledge and skills students gain in these programs are commensurate with entry-level work, and prepare students to work effectively in therapeutic environments with a variety of clients.

What Personality Traits are Required for a Recreational Therapist?

Before entering a career as a recreational therapist, it is important to determine whether you have the personal qualities required for success in this field. To determine if this is the right job for you, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you have a desire to help others? First and foremost, recreational therapists must have a strong desire to help others improve their lives. This career field is not for the selfish or the faint of heart. Putting the needs of others first is a hallmark trait of a good recreational therapist.
  • Are you compassionate? Recreational therapy can be a highly rewarding and fun career, but it necessitates a high level of compassion. The clientele, who are often severely ill or disabled, need to be treated with care, kindness, and gentleness.
  • Are you a good listener? Recreational therapists aren’t just glorified event planners. They must be able to engage their clients in meaningful discussions of feelings and emotions. Having the capacity for conversation, including having active listening skills to elicit responses from clients, is an absolute must.
  • Are you organized? Recreational therapists must plan, organize, and implement activities for a variety of clients with a variety of needs in a variety of settings. This requires workers in this field to be highly organized, with an ability to juggle multiple tasks and deadlines simultaneously.
  • Do you have mental, emotional, and physical strength? Recreational therapists work on a variety of levels, requiring a strong mind and body. Working with injured and ill patients day in and day out requires workers in this field to be able to handle highly emotional situations with ease. Likewise, recreational therapists need to have the physical capacity to stay on their feet most of the day and provide physical assistance to patients when needed.

How Much Does a Recreational Therapist Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, recreational therapists can expect to make an average annual wage of $42,280. Recreational therapists that work for government agencies, such as the Veterans Affairs Administration, earn a higher average income of $48,850. Conversely, recreational therapists that work in a residential care setting earn a lower-than-average wage of $36,430 per year.

Likewise, one’s geographic location will determine the level of wages. In the central plains, workers in this field average less than $38,960 in annual earnings. However, on the west coast, recreational therapists average more than $47,740 per year in wages. Good wages can be found in the Northeast as well, with New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut having among the highest average wages for this career area in the nation.

The level of education and experience one has in the field of recreation therapy will greatly impact wages as well. Workers with a bachelor’s degree are most common and represent workers that earn average wages. However, those that hold a master’s degree stand to be rewarded with a higher starting income. As experience is gained on the job, income rises along with it, with the top ten percent of earners in this career area making an average of $67,280 per year.

What are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Being a Recreational Therapist?

There are many positive and negative aspects to working as a recreational therapist. Among the most important are:

Advantages

  • Helping others – Recreational therapists conduct their work for the benefit of others. Seeing the progress that their clients make, and their diminished level of pain, can be extremely satisfying and enjoyable to see.
  • Opportunity for creativity – Recreational therapists are responsible for organizing and implementing a variety of activities for a variety of clients. This allows recreational therapists to be creative and innovative in the manner in which they provide therapy to their patients.
  • Variety – Because each client has unique needs, recreational therapists’ workdays are full of variety. From assessing the needs of a client to planning activities for patients in a hospital to accompanying clients on outdoor excursions, no two days on the job are ever exactly alike.

Disadvantages

  • Stress – Like any human services job, this one has a lot of potential stress associated with it. Seeing people in emotional and physical pain can be difficult to deal with. Likewise, many patients are themselves experiencing high levels of stress, which recreational therapists must learn to deal with in a healthy and helpful manner.
  • Competition – There is often much competition for jobs in this career field, with more applicants than positions available. Therefore, it can be difficult at times to find employment.
  • Physically demanding – Not all recreational activities that therapists plan involve physical activity, but many do. In addition to being on their feet a lot, recreational therapists may have to exert further energy to assist clients with a physical ailment or disability.

What is the Difference Between an Occupational Therapist, a Recreational Therapist and an Art Therapist?

The essential difference between occupational therapists, recreational therapists, and art therapists is in the types of treatments they utilize to help their clients achieve greater well-being. For occupational therapists, treatments revolve around those that are physical in nature, such as exercising, as well as those that are assistive in nature, such as walkers and wheelchairs. In this regard, occupational therapists are mostly focused on issues related to physical health and mobility.

Art therapists use artistic means as a springboard for assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental and behavioral health disorders. Art therapists receive highly specialized training that allows them to utilize art as a therapeutic technique. They are also highly trained in observing and analyzing the metaphors and symbols that people incorporate into their art as a means of better understanding their clients’ struggles. Art therapists are not merely artists; they are also trained therapists with expertise in counseling or psychology.

Recreational therapists, meanwhile, use an entire toolkit of interventions and approaches to help their clients overcome obstacles in their lives. They may use the physical interventions associated with occupational therapy, or they may use artistic interventions often utilized by art therapists. Additionally, as discussed above, recreational therapists will also plan activities and events, including games, social gatherings, and community outings as part of their therapeutic regimen.

What Careers are Similar to Recreational Therapist?

Recreational therapists are just one member of a large group of medical and mental health workers that strive to improve the well-being of individuals with an illness or disability. Among the most closely related occupations are:

Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists are responsible for treating patients that have chronic or acute illnesses, diseases, or disabilities. Treatments often focus on improving functionality and mobility, while reducing pain. An example would be teaching a client stretches and exercises to help ease the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. To become an occupational therapist, one must have at least a master’s degree in occupational therapy. There are additional requirements to become licensed, which is required, and certified, which is voluntary.

Physical Therapist

Like occupational therapists, physical therapists focus on helping patients improve mobility and physical strength. They utilize their knowledge of the body’s skeletal and muscular systems to develop exercises that will address the specific physical issue their client is facing. The use of gym equipment, hands-on therapy, and assistive equipment are common in physical therapy. Physical therapists are required to have a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree. They are likewise required to be licensed by the state in which they practice.

Rehabilitation Counselor

Rather than focusing on physical factors, rehabilitation counselors tend to work more with the social and emotional aspects of being ill or disabled. Counselors working in this field often conduct individual and group therapy with the goal of improving clients’ ability to cope with the difficulties in their lives. They are also often responsible for seeking out other treatment professionals, such as occupational and physical therapists, to provide services as part of an overall treatment plan. A master’s degree in counseling is required to enter this field of work. State licensure is required as well.

Mental Health Counselor

Like rehabilitation counselors, mental health counselors focus on helping their clients manage mental health-related issues and develop skills for overcoming such obstacles. Mental health counselors may diagnose and treat mental disorders, provide individual, couples, and group therapy, and coordinate treatment with other professionals, such as medical staff and other human services workers. Mental health counselors must have at least a master’s degree in order to practice, and must also be licensed as a counselor by the state.

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