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Recreational Therapist Career Guide

Do you thrive of helping others? Are you caring, compassionate and dedicated?

If the answers yes, then you may thrive as a recreational therapist.

A recreational therapist is responsible for planning, directing and coordinating recreation-based treatment programs for those with disabilities, injuries or illnesses. Their work is crucial, because they improve the physical, social and emotional well-being of their patients. To become a recreational therapist, you will need a bachelors degree in recreational therapy or a related field (e.g., recreation and leisure studies). Recreational therapy programs include courses in various related areas and an internship.

I cannot express the joy I feel when I get to watch one of my participants succeed. It’s an all encompassing, life giving kind of joy that arrives when I see the smile and relief my participants feel when they achieve something that they previously did not think was possible. It could be the success of a big goal like crossing the line at a 5K they have been training for. Or it could come from a smaller goal, like when I watch a participant who I know has social anxiety makes a new friend during group. Honestly, it’s usually the small success’ that light my heart up the most, because it’s the small wins that propel us forward and encourage us on the road to goal attainment.

Meagan Young

Recreational Therapist Career Ratings

Income

Career
Growth

Personal Growth

Contribution

Influence

Overview

What a recreational therapist actually does

A recreational therapist is responsible for planning, directing and coordinating recreation-based treatment programs for those with disabilities, injuries or illnesses. Their work is crucial because they improve the physical, social and emotional well-being of their patients.

Recreational therapists will use arts and crafts, drama, music, dance, sport and games help patients reduce their depression, stress and anxiety. Recreational therapy is carefully designed to help build confidence and socialization skills, so that people can get back into the community.

Many recreational therapists work for hospitals or nursing and residential care facilities. They can also work in places such as substance abuse centres, rehabilitation centres, special education departments or recreation departments. Regardless of where they work, their typical duties and responsibilities include:

  • Assessing the needs of their patients by observing them, checking their medical records and discussing with other healthcare professionals
  • Creating treatment plans and programs that are specific to each patient 
  • Analyzing their patients progress and how they are working towards their goals
  • Keeping up to date documents on the patients progress
  • Engaging patients in the recreational therapy
  • Teaching patients the skills needed to become more sociable and independent and to cope with anxiety, stress or depression
  • Evaluating interventions for effectiveness

Why they are needed

Recreational therapists treat and help maintain the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of their clients by seeking to reduce depression, stress, and anxiety; recover basic motor functioning and reasoning abilities; build confidence; and socialize effectively. The work of recreational therapists has huge benefits to those in need. Such benefits include:

  • Increased cooperation
  • Return of appetite
  • Improved conversational skills
  • Increased attention span
  • Reduced insomnia
  • Better body image perceptions
  • Reducing feelings of isolation (and improving friendships)

Pros and cons of a career as a recreational therapist:

Pros:

  • A career as a recreational therapist offers incredibly high job satisfaction. This is because their work makes a huge differences to the lives of their clients and improves their skills and confidence
  • There are lots of opportunities for skill development
  • It is a career with lots of scope and flexibility – recreational therapists can work in many fields and can pick the area that interests them the most
  • It is a very sociable career. Recreational therapists get to meet new people every day and develop valuable relationships
  • It is a fun job as each day, recreational therapists will be using creativity to inspire others

Cons:

  • Being an occupational therapist can be physically demanding job, as you may have to lift patients, to set up things and to be walking around/standing up all day
  • It is an incredibly emotionally challenging career as recreational therapists  might not see any progress in their patients
  • It is a competitive career field
  • In many circumstance, the work is often often part time and relatively low paying

Employability

Job market

The Bureau of labor statistics predicts that the employment of recreational therapists is projected to grow 8 percent from 2018 to 2028, which is faster than the average for all occupations.

This employment growth is expected because the aging U.S., populations will require recreational therapists to treat age-related injuries and illnesses, such as strokes, Alzheimer’s disease or mobility-related injuries. Recreational therapists will also be needed to help these aging adults remain sociable, active and independent.

In addition to the aging population, the number of people with chronic conditions (e.g., diabetes and obesity) is increasing. Recreational therapist will be needed to help these people maintain their mobility, manage their conditions and adjust their activities to accommodate any physical limitations.

Finally, the demand for recreational therapists will be increased by veterans who need help to manage service-related conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or injuries related to loss of limb. Recreational therapists will help veterans to adjust to any physical, social or cognitive limitations.

Career paths

The career path to becoming a recreational therapists begins with completing a bachelors degree. Ideally, this degree will be in recreational therapy or a related field (e.g., recreation and leisure studies). Recreational therapy programs include courses in assessment, human anatomy, medical and psychiatry terminology, characteristics of illnesses and disabilities and the use of assistive devices and technology. Bachelor’s degree programs in recreational therapy also include an internship, which allows aspiring recreational therapists to apply the skills they learnt during study.

After completing this bachelors degree, its is advisable (but not essential) to complete the Certified Therapeutic Specialist (CTRS) credential. You can specific in one of five areas of practice: behavioral health, community inclusion services, developmental disabilities, geriatrics, and physical medicine/rehabilitation.

Example Job Titles for Recreational Therapist

Below is a list of common job titles in the Recreational Therapist field. Click the links below for more information about these job titles, or view the next section for actual real-life job profiles.

Benefits & Conditions

Income and benefits

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for recreational therapists was $48,220 in 2019. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,880, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $77,970.

The top paying industry was the government, where the median annual salary was $60,140. This is followed by hospitals, where the median annual salary was $50,840. Next was ambulatory healthcare services ($48,040), nursing care facilities ($42,110) and social assistance ($42,000).

Autonomy and Flexibility

Recreational therapists have a lot of control over the sessions they plan, and how they plan them. However, recreational therapists must ensure that their clients remain in control of their decisions and have the final say – client autonomy and control is a key part of best practice for recreational therapists. Many recreational therapists will work in the community and will be travelling from client to client. Therefore, they will have little flexibility over how they plan their day.

Locations and commute

According to Zippia, the best states to be a recreation therapist, based on salary and total number of jobs, were:

  1. Nevada, where the average annual salary is $72,100
  2. Utah, where the average annual salary is $60,090
  3. Louisiana, where the average annual salary is $61,897
  4. California, where the average annual salary is $77,188
  5. Texas, where the average annual salary is $54,376

The worst states for recreation therapists were Wisconsin, Indiana, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois.

Work environment

38% of occupational therapists in the United States worked for hospitals (state local and private). 17% were employed by the government, 13% by nursing care facilities, 9% by ambulatory healthcare services and 7% by social assistance.

Recreation therapists will tend to have an office which is their ‘base’. They will use this space for planning and other administrative duties. They will then normal travel to meet patients, either in a clinical setting or in the community. Recreational therapists may spend a lot of time on their feet and may need to physically assist patients or lift heavy objects such as wheelchairs.

Career Satisfaction

Common Matching Personality Types

Which personalities tend to succeed and thrive in Recreational Therapist careers? Based on our research, there is a relatively strong positive correlation between the following personality types and Recreational Therapist career satisfaction. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t many exceptions, of course, but if you fit into one of the following personality types then we suggest you give strong consideration to a career in Recreational Therapist.

16 Types (Myers-Briggs)

Big Five (OCEAN)

  • None

DISC

  • None

Enneagram

Holland Codes (RIASEC)

Personality types

One study found that recreational therapists are likely to be a Myers-Briggs ESFP personality type. The ESFP is energetic and has the ability to raise the spirts of those around them. They like to socialize with different people, and often have friends who fall under several generations! This makes them great at interacting with the huge variety of people that recreational therapists will need to. ESFPs tend to be talkative, enthusiastic and fun-loving, which are key skills for recreational therapists.

Accomplishment and mastery

Firstly, as recreational therapists must continue to develop their skills throughout their career, they will have a high sense of accomplishment and mastery for as long as they continue to work. On top of this, recreational therapists will help people to have a better quality of life every single day. Each time one of their patients improves their skills or has increased confidence, recreational therapists will feel a sense of accomplishment and mastery.

Meaning and contribution

Recreational therapists have the hugely important job of helping those with disabilities, injuries or illnesses. Their work is crucial, because they improve the physical, social and emotional well-being of their patients. Based on this, it is hardly surprising that a huge 87% of recreational therapists believed that their work was meaningful to the lives of many. Without recreational therapists, many ill or disabled people would not have the help they need to get back into the community.

Life fit

Most recreational therapists will work normal full time hours (Monday to Friday, 40 hours per week). This provides an excellent life fit. However, some recreational therapists will work evenings and weekends to meet the needs of their patients.

Who will thrive in this career?

There are a few key qualities that occupational therapists must have in order to thrive:

  1. The desire to help others and improve their lives
  2. The ability to be non-judgemental about peoples and their lifestyle choices
  3. The ability to communicate and empathize with lots of different people
  4. Those who have the ability to solve problems will have an advantage, as recreational therapists will often have to help patients solve their problems
  5. You will thrive if you are physically fit, as you will struggle if you cannot deal with lifting heavy objects and being on your feet all day
  6. Naturally gentle people will thrive, as they will make clients feel safe and trusted

Who will struggle in this career?

Those who are seeking a desk job that doesn’t involve interacting with or helping lots of people are likely to struggle as a recreational therapist. Similarly, those who prefer to work in the one place and not travel from job to job may struggle, especially if you can’t drive and will have to rely on public transport. If you are not physically fit, you may struggle to keep up with the demands of job, which involves lifting heavy things and standing up all day.

Requirements

Skills and talents

As well as being able to endure standing up all day and lifting heavy equipment, recreational therapists need to have skills such as:

  • Problem solving skills, as recreational therapists will have to help clients find solutions to their daily struggles
  • Patience, as working with illness and disease can be a slow and frustrating process
  • Compassion and empathy, as recreational therapists need to help people improve their skills and confidence and therefore must understand their needs
  • Resourcefulness, as recreational therapists need to customize treatment plans for patients and need to be creative with the program
  • Communication skills, both written and verbal, as recreational therapists will need to communicate with patients, their family and other healthcare providers. They must also keep written documents up to date
  • Adaptability, as recreational therapists need to be flexible when treating patients because not every type of therapy will work for each patient

Education

Recreational therapists will need a bachelors degree in recreational therapy or a related field (e.g., recreation and leisure studies). Recreational therapy programs include courses in various related areas and an internship.

Certifications

Although it is not essential, most employers prefer to hire certified recreational therapists. The NCTRC offers the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) credential. This certification can be achieved by either:

a. Completing a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, completing a supervised internship of at least 560 hours, and passing an exam

or

b. If candidates do not have a bachelors degree in a related field, they can qualify with various combinations of education and work experience and by passing an exam.

In order to maintain certification, all recreational therapists must either pass an exam or complete work experience and continuing education requirements every 5 years.

The 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.

How to Become

Summary

A recreational therapist is responsible for planning, directing and coordinating recreation-based treatment programs for those with disabilities, injuries or illnesses. Their work is crucial, because they improve the physical, social and emotional well-being of their patients. Due to the aging population, it is a career that is set to offer many exciting job opportunities over the coming years.

Immediate action

The best thing to do to kickstart any career is to gather some work experience. Related work experience could be volunteering for a local mental health charity, working in a hospital or volunteering in a care home.

Education and learning

Recreational therapists will need a bachelors degree in recreational therapy or a related field (e.g., recreation and leisure studies). Recreational therapy programs include courses in various related areas and an internship.

Skill development

Recreational therapists will learn many of their skills through their degree and internship. In order to maintain certification, all recreational therapists must either pass an exam or complete work experience and continuing education requirements every 5 years – this means that their skills will continue to develop throughout their career.

FAQs

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Have a question about Recreational Therapist careers? If so, our mentors would love to help! Just click on a mentor’s profile below and then fill out the “Ask a Question” form on that page. Your question will then be emailed to the mentor, who can then email you a reply.

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