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Recreational therapists, also called therapeutic recreation specialists, provide treatments and recreation activities to individuals with illnesses or disabling conditions to improve or maintain physical, mental and emotional well-being and help reduce depression, stress and anxiety.
Recreational therapies help patients recover basic motor functioning and reasoning abilities, build confidence, and socialize more effectively. Treatments may incorporate arts and crafts, animals, sports, games, dance and movement, drama, music, and community outings.
Patients are evaluated with information from standardized assessments, observations, medical records, and discussions with medical staff and family members as well as the individual. Recreational therapists may instruct patients in relaxation techniques, stretching and limbering exercises, proper body mechanics for participation in recreation activities, and pacing and energy-conservation techniques. Additionally, therapists observe and document patients' participation, reactions and progress.
Recreational therapists should not be confused with recreation workers, who organize recreational activities primarily for enjoyment.
Overall employment of recreational therapists is expected to grow at an average rate through 2020.
Employment will decline slightly in the two largest sectors employing recreational therapists — hospitals and nursing homes — as services shift to outpatient settings and employers emphasize cost containment. However, significant growth is expected in assisted living, outpatient physical and psychiatric rehabilitation, and services for people with disabilities.
Opportunities should be best for people with a bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation or in recreation with an emphasis in therapeutic recreation.
Recreational therapists held about 22,400 jobs in 2010. Almost 40 percent of salaried jobs for therapists were in nursing and personal care facilities, and more than 30 percent were in hospitals. Others worked in residential facilities, community mental health centers, adult care programs, correctional facilities, community programs for people with disabilities and substance abuse centers. A small percentage of therapists were self-employed, generally contracting with long-term care facilities or community agencies to develop and oversee programs.
Therapists may advance to supervisory or administrative positions. Some teach, conduct research, or consult for health or social services agencies.
In acute health care settings, such as hospitals and rehabilitation centers, recreational therapists treat and rehabilitate individuals in collaboration with physicians, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and physical and occupational therapists.
In long-term and residential care facilities, recreational therapists use structured group activities to improve and maintain patients' general health and well-being. They may also treat clients and provide interventions to prevent further medical problems and secondary complications related to illness and disabilities.
Community-based therapeutic recreation specialists may work in park and recreation departments, special education programs for school districts, or programs for older adults and people with disabilities (for example, those in assisted living, adult care and substance abuse rehabilitation centers). Therapists help clients develop specific skills while providing opportunities for exercise, mental stimulation, creativity and fun.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median annual earnings for recreational therapists were $42,280 as of 2012 (most recent data available).