What Is a Recreational Therapist? A Career Guide

Written by Coursera Staff • 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.

Recreational therapy is a unique form of therapy that involves leisure activities. Sometimes, patients with physical or mental illnesses, injuries, or disabilities require extra help to carry out what might be considered everyday hobbies.

As a recreational therapist, you would get to design and deliver recreational forms of treatment to address patients' needs. You would provide treatments as programs to improve or maintain a person's cognitive functions, physical health, and mental well-being. 

Read on to learn more about what a recreational therapist is and insight into this rewarding career in health care.

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. As a recreational therapist, you would design interventions to help reduce anxiety, depression, stress, and physical symptoms and aid recovery.

You might also help people socialize and be in the world after a physical disability or being isolated through illness, situations that can cause a lack of confidence and increased anxiety. Some recreational therapists conduct therapy in groups to foster socialization, bringing patients with similar needs together. They may also work with individuals' families to ensure appropriate support for their loved ones.

Duties and responsibilities

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 therapy 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

Where they work

Recreational therapists are office-based when they plan programs and interventions and assess patients. However, they may travel to meet patients in the community to 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. 

Examples of recreational therapy

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

Salary and job outlook

Recreational therapists can earn a median salary of $47,940 per year, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics [1]. Certified recreational therapists generally receive significantly higher pay at $75,900 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. They can vary greatly depending on location, specialty, place of work, and experience level.

Recreational therapy is profession that is expected to grow by 4 percent between 2021 and 2031, which is about the same rate as the average for all occupations [1]. As a large number of the population gets older, individuals will need recreational therapists to treat injuries and illnesses related to stroke, Alzheimer's disease, and more.

Job satisfaction for recreational therapists

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 [2].  The same study also showed that recreational therapists scored 3.6 out of 5 for enjoying their work environment, even though they were less satisfied with their salary.


Education requirements

To become 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 related health care field, such as recreation and fitness, rehabilitation science, recreation management, psychology, art or music therapy, or health education. Typical coursework includes:

  • Therapeutic recreation

  • Anatomy

  • Psychology

  • Assistive devices and technology

  • Medical and psychiatric terminology

  • Characteristics of illness and disability

  • Biology

  • Event management

It's possible to pursue a master's degree in recreational therapy (or some form of it, like arts, music, or sports therapy) after obtaining a completely unrelated bachelor's degree. You might work for a few years, become interested in recreational therapy later on, and decide to take some courses in it.

Certification requirements

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].

Start your career in recreational therapy

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. 

Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Recreational therapists job outlook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/recreational-therapists.htm#tab-6.” Accessed January 19, 2023.

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