What Is a Recreational Therapist and Is It a Rewarding Career Choice?

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Discover what a recreational therapist is and if it is a good career choice based on salary, duties, responsibilities, training, job satisfaction, and more.

[Featured Image]:  A recreational therapist, wearing a blue shirt and holding a chart.  He is talking to a patient.

A recreational therapist designs and delivers recreational-based treatment to address the needs of patients with physical or mental illnesses, injuries, or disabilities. As a recreational therapist, you would provide treatments as programs to improve or maintain a person's cognitive functions, physical health, and mental well-being. 

According to a survey by Career Explorer, recreational therapists rate their jobs as very meaningful, with a 3.8 out of 5 [1].

What is a recreational therapist?

Recreational therapists use activities such as arts and crafts, music, dance, drama, sports, swimming, movement, and community trips to support their patients. If you were to work as a recreational therapist, you would design interventions to help reduce anxiety, depression, stress, and physical symptoms and aid recovery. You also help people socialize since having a physical disability or being isolated through illness can cause a lack of confidence and increased anxiety. 

With this in mind, many programs take place in groups, bringing patients with similar needs together for therapy. Recreational therapists also work with individuals and their families to ensure their support is appropriately tailored to a patient's needs and interests. 

What are the primary duties and responsibilities of a recreational therapist?

Recreational therapy covers a wide range of activities and serves various individuals. Whoever you are working with, your duties and responsibilities as a recreational therapist will primarily cover the following:

  • Evaluating the needs of patients by reviewing medical records, speaking with family members and other medical professionals, observing and interviewing the patients, and conducting tests

  • Creating and delivering treatment plans that include recreational activities to address the needs of patients

  • Designing and delivering group programs to meet the needs of patients requiring similar treatment or recovering from the same condition or injury or those with similar interests

  • Planning interventions to keep patients safe and supported

  • Supporting patients to develop social skills and build confidence

  • Teaching patients ways to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression through various activities

  • Recording patients' progress and reporting to relevant parties

  • Continually evaluating programs and implementing best practices

  • Collaborate with other members of a patient's treatment plan 

Where do recreational therapists work?

Recreational therapists are office-based when they plan programs and interventions and assess patients. However, they also travel to meet patients in the community and deliver programs, which may be held at community venues, outdoors, or at people’s homes.

Most recreational therapists work in hospitals, health care facilities, or care agencies. A growing number are employed by health centers, schools, residential facilities, hospices, and rehabilitation centers funded by a government agency or privately. 

As recreational therapy is so varied, workplaces and community facilities vary too. Recreational therapy programs in the community might encompass the following services:

  • Supporting children with cancer, using sports to stay active, and providing a social environment

  • Aiding people with physical disabilities to integrate back into the community through recreational activities

  • Supporting people with anxiety and depression with gentle social activities such as arts and crafts

  • Working with groups of elderly patients to keep them moving through dance and movement classes

  • Integrating veterans back into the community and helping them to manage symptoms of PTSD

  • Using dog therapy as a way to alleviate symptoms of depression in patients

Do recreational therapists have high job satisfaction?

Recreational therapy is a popular profession, set to grow by 10 percent between 2020 and 2030, with an estimated 1,900 new roles available yearly [2]. A study by Career Explorer looking at job satisfaction found that recreational therapists, on average, rate their job happiness as 3.4 out of 5, putting them in the top 37 percent of careers [1].  

The same study also showed that recreational therapists enjoy their work environment, scoring 3.6 out of 5, although they scored less when evaluating their salary. 

What do recreational therapists earn?

The median pay for a recreational therapist is $47,940 per year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics [3], with the lowest 10 percent earning $31,710 and the highest 10 percent earning $80,610 as of May 2021. Certified recreational therapists generally receive significantly higher pay at $73,908 on average, according to Glassdoor [4]. Salary tends to be higher for those employed by government departments and agencies over those employed by nursing and social care facilities.

How do I qualify as a recreational therapist?

To work as a recreational therapist, you usually need a bachelor's degree in a health-related subject, which is required if you want to be a certified recreational therapist. You can pursue a bachelor's degree in recreational therapy or a health care field, such as recreation and fitness, rehabilitation science, recreation management, psychology, or health education. Typical courses you'll take include:

  • Therapeutic recreation

  • Anatomy

  • Psychology

  • Assistive devices and technology

  • Medical and psychiatric terminology

  • Characteristics of illness and disability

  • Assessment

  • Biology

  • Event management

You will also likely serve as an intern as part of your bachelor's degree program.

Read more: Bachelor of Science (BS) Degree: What It Is and How to Earn One

In addition to a degree, many employers hire only professionals certified by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification. To achieve certification, you must complete an internship of 560 hours and pass an exam. Certificates need to be kept up to date with recertification every five years [5]

Where can I study to become a recreational therapist?

Bachelor's degrees in recreational therapy are available across the US and typically take four years to complete. Studying a recreational therapy program online is also possible, but these options are rare, as most degrees offer hands-on experience. Degree courses also usually offer an internship as part of the program. If this isn’t the case, you will need to organize your own internship or placement to log the practical hours required to become certified. 

What options are there for further development?

Some recreational therapists choose to specialize in a specific area by earning a master's or doctoral degree with a particular focus. This could focus on a type of therapy such as art or sports, or be related to the demographic they serve.

A wealth of courses are also available to aid your continued professional development in certain areas, such as sports, art, or certificates for working with groups. 

Get started

To start your career as a recreational therapist, take a look at some short courses introducing you to topics covered, such as Healing With the Arts delivered by the University of Florida or Music for Wellness offered by Berklee College of Music. These courses are also great options for your ongoing professional development if you are already certified as a recreational therapist. 

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Healing with the Arts

Through art projects—including visual arts, dance, writing, and music—along with spiritual practices and guided imagery, Healing With the Arts gives you the ...

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Article sources

1. Career Explorer. “Are recreational therapists happy?, https://www.careerexplorer.com/careers/recreational-therapist/satisfaction/.” Accessed June 3, 2022.

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Recreational therapists job outlook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/recreational-therapists.htm#tab-6.” Accessed June 3, 2022. 

3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Recreational therapists pay, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/recreational-therapists.htm#tab-5.” Accessed June 3, 2022.

4. Glassdoor. “Certified recreational therapist salaries, https://www.glassdoor.com/Salaries/us-certified-recreational-therapist-salary-SRCH_IL.0,2_IN1_KO3,35.htm.” Accessed June 3, 2022. 

5. National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification. "Certification Standards, https://www.nctrc.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/CertificationStandards.pdf." Accessed June 3. 2022.

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This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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