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What does a Recreational Therapist do?

By S. Gonzales
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A recreational therapist, or a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS), is a licensed professional who is trained to provide treatment through recreational activities to ill or disabled individuals. These activities are meant to support a patient's physical, emotional, cognitive, spiritual and mental state by counteracting stress, anxiety and depression associated with the patient's condition. Recreational therapists assess patients and create individual therapy plans to suit the patient's specific needs and interests.

For the recreational therapist, determining the specific needs of a patient is an important part in developing proper treatment. They may use standardized exams, medical records, conversations with doctors, family interviews and personal observations to create a treatment plan. Input from the patient himself is crucial, as a patient's reaction to the treatment can determine its success.

Building or recovering motor functioning and reasoning ability is usually at the forefront of a recreational therapist's goals. Because of this, many therapies include a physical aspect, however minor, in the treatment which requires the patient to use his or her mind to complete the activity. Activities can also be integrated or followed up with a "discussion" that allows patients to recognize his thoughts, feelings and reactions to the activity. These discussions can lead to personal revelations in the patient and help in his or her development, coping skills and ultimate recovery from the illness.

Recreational therapists are responsible for monitoring patients' reactions, participation levels and progress. If a patient is observed as not reacting well to the treatment, the treatment may be modified. Patients' personal interests are often aimed to be complemented when developing a therapy so as to increase its chances of success.

The types of activities a recreational therapist may plan vary between patients. While some patients may respond to or need some activities, others may require different ones. Some sample activities include stretching exercises, breathing techniques for relaxation, arts and crafts, animal play, dancing, drama, music and group gatherings.

A recreational therapist can also act as a mentor to patients who need recovery in social areas. The benefits of interacting with a recreational therapist may include a greater sense of independence and confidence in a patient who has previously had to rely on others due to his illness or disability. At best, recreational therapists reduce the effects of the illness or disability or completely eliminate them. Typically, these therapists may be found in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, private schools, nursing homes and psychiatric and corrections facilities.

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Discussion Comments
By JessiC — On Jul 13, 2011

Recreational therapy, I would think, would be a very rewarding kind of career to get into. I’ve got to tell you though, that although I want to do great works in the world I also need to get paid.

Is this a job that is going to last, or is it going to disappear the moment Medicare and Medicaid decide to change a rule or two? It’s sad that we have to consider these sorts of things when making big life choices, but it is indeed necessary.

By Eviemae — On Jul 13, 2011

A few years back, my brother-in-law was in a devastating motorcycle accident that rendered him close to paralyzed on the left side. There have been many other long term effects, but this and a lack of speech are probably the most noticeable.

We are a tightknit family, and we were all banding together to help my sister and my brother-in-law resume as normal a life as they possibly could.

Obviously, this wasn’t going to be very normal at all. He couldn’t even walk or go to the bathroom alone, let alone work or do anything he normally would have.

And then in comes this recreational therapist. Within weeks he had Glenn out and about doing things like fishing. He arranged for him to go to work one day a week, even when all he was capable of was sitting with the other boys when they came in for a break.

We found that although life was certainly different, that my sister and her husband could still have a life.

By sneakers41 — On Jul 12, 2011

I know that the demand for recreation therapist jobs is supposed to increase dramatically within the next ten years. I read that the average salary is about $40,000 a year, but I am sure that many recreation therapists probably earn even more than that.

Many of these jobs that offer therapy like this are really hot because there is so much demand and not enough therapists. I remember when my daughter needed speech therapy; I took her to a private speech therapist that charged $75 for a half an hour.

My daughter needed therapy twice a week so this was not cheap. She also had a lot of patients because many parents did not want to wait for their school to do an evaluation because the waiting list was too long.

My daughter enjoyed having speech therapy because most of the time the therapist was engaging her with games that focused on the target sound that she needed help with. She used a lot of alliteration exercises and gave additional exercises for her to do at home so that she could master the sounds.

For example, the most common problem was the S sound. Usually children like my daughter that had a lisp were not forming the right sound because their tongue was positioned incorrectly.

The sound is supposed to be made with the teeth clenched, but my daughther was letting her tongue protrude out. This was why the sound was not coming out right. My daughter had minor articulation issues that were cleared up in about two months with speech therapy. I am glad that the therapist was able to help her.

By icecream17 — On Jul 11, 2011

@Mutsy - I was reading that many of these recreation therapists also try to help a patient with dementia by scrapbooking with the patient.

They usually ask the family to supply pictures that might be able to help the dementia patient recall some of these memories.

I think that it takes a lot of compassion to work in a field like this because many of these people are trying to get better and probably want their mobility back. I know that some patients can become angry because the therapy might take longer than they would like.

I think that any therapy that involves interaction with others in a group setting can also be really therapeutic because sometimes a person that has limited mobility might withdraw from people because of their depression. Including them in simple group activities like a Bingo game could probably work wonders.

By mutsy — On Jul 10, 2011

I know that a lot of recreational therapists use art therapy or music therapy to relax patients. They are similar to occupational therapists because they try to restore the patient’s normal functions so that they can become more independent.

I had a friend whose father had to go to a rehabilitative center for a few weeks because he was having hip replacement surgery. She said that along with the physical therapy he also had occupational therapy and she told me that at the center they would take the patients to the mall so that they could practice walking on their own when they were ready. They would also help them with everyday functions.

For example, if the patient still drove, they would help them by practicing getting in and out of the car, and turning the key in the ignition. They also help them learn to cook for themselves or dress themselves so that they can leave the rehab center and be able to do most of their everyday functions with no trouble.

By NathanG — On Jul 10, 2011

@hamje32 - I know someone who graduated from high school and she decided right away she was going to college to become a speech pathologist.

It’s very rare for high school graduates to have such a focused goal upon entering college, especially for such a specialized field.

She said she wants to help kids with speaking disabilities. I don’t know if she’s had some life experiences with other kids who’ve been disabled in that way, and if that has motivated her to pursue that as a career. I think it’s a laudable one, however.

By hamje32 — On Jul 09, 2011

@miriam98 - I believe that recreation therapy is better than simple physical therapy, however.

That’s because I’m somewhat holistic in my view of medicine. I think that getting well involves spirit, soul and body, and that in recreation therapy you try to bring all of the patient’s faculties to bear on recovery, rather than focusing on the physical dimension alone.

I also appreciate the wide variety of activities available – including drama and music, for example – so that the less athletic types of people have other avenues of expression as part of their wellness program.

By miriam98 — On Jul 08, 2011

@SkyWhisperer - I do know that one difference between the physical therapist and the physical therapist assistant is the amount of education you need.

The assistant needs only a two-year associate’s degree whereas the physical therapist needs graduate level education. I would think that the physical therapist and the recreational therapist are comparable in their educational requirements, but I don’t think that you can match up either one of them with the physical therapist assistant.

There is a very wide variance in salary, too, from what I understand, with the assistants making low salaries and the therapists earning on the very high end of the scale, as would be expected.

By SkyWhisperer — On Jul 08, 2011

It seems to me that the recreational therapist's job functions are similar to that of a physical therapist or a physical therapist assistant. I think that some of the activities, such as stretching and so forth, actually overlap. I've done some research on physical therapy because my daughter is planning on pursuing that as a career.

The therapists put together a regimen of daily exercises in accordance with the doctor's recommendations, and then monitor the patient and help them along until they are fully recovered.

I think that the only difference between recreational therapy and the duties of a physical therapist or a physical therapist assistant is the use of games as part of the treatment. I'm sure that in all other respects the job functions are quite similar.

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