Career Path Options for a Recreational Therapist

The average value of the Bachelor degree needed to become a Recreational therapists is $849,765.00.

Current Points of Interest

True of most careers in the field of medicine, there is expected to be a rise in the number of jobs for recreational therapists, but due to the popular nature of this career, competition for those jobs is expected to be a factor. The recreational therapist may benefit from combining this field of study with other similar fields, such as occupational therapy, to broaden job prospects.

Although each state has different regulations, most have minimum requirements for entry into this field. Some require licensure or certification with a general minimum of a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation required.

Nature of the Recreational Therapist Job

The duties of the recreational therapist revolve around the therapeutic administration of treatments that provide both enjoyment and medical benefit to the patient. The recreational therapist, or therapeutic recreation specialist, in coordination with other medical professionals treating the patient, uses activities that include music, dance, pets, sports, drama, and art to improve the patients’ physical and mental health. Community activities and socialization through games and other activities are also used to enhance all aspects of health.

One reason that this is one of the most popular of the medical professions is its enjoyable aspect. While the therapists seeks to improve the health of patients using a wide variety of activities, the secondary goal is to enhance the quality of life of the patient by bringing pleasurable participation in recreational activities. The therapist finds both satisfaction in improving the health and lives of the patients and also enjoys the activities. There is a low turnover rate in this occupation making it a competitive field when job openings do occur. Patients range from accident victims to short-term and chronic sufferers of illnesses and disabilities.

recreational therapists

Recreational activities are used to increase or maintain motor skills and improve reasoning function. When regaining lost functions is not an option, the recreational therapist helps the patient learn to compensate for losses. Most activities are done in a social environment to assist the patient with confidence building and reduce emotional and mental difficulties such as anxiety and depression. Community based activities help the patient actively participate in their communities in an attempt to increase independence and confidence.

Recreational therapists may work in nursing homes, helping patients maintain skills impaired by age-related disorders. Dance, music, and arts and crafts are popular activities that help keep the mind sharp while improving fine and gross motor skills. Movement activities other than dance may be used. Stretching and relaxation techniques that use gentle movement improve both physical function and emotional. Structured group activities encourage social interactions decreasing the effects of depression and isolation.

Many of the activities may be designed to prevent future medical problems by helping the patient maintain a level of functioning that helps extend their wellbeing. Therapists also work in hospitals and rehabilitation centers where they target specific injuries or difficulties resulting from acute or chronic illness. Working closely with a team of other health professionals, they plan and implement activities that facilitate the patient’s improvement in all areas, physical, mental, and emotional. Activities are based on individual patient’s needs and interests.

Accident and stoke patients who have lost the use of parts of the body are taught how to compensate by using unaffected limbs. If recovery of function is possible, the recreation therapist devises activities such as games or movements that progressively improve functioning. In the hospital or clinical setting, the therapist works with a wide range of patients from children to adults.

At each step in the therapeutic activities, the recreational therapist works with medical records and assessments. Careful observations and recording of data about the patient’s condition and progress are an integral part of the job. Therapists must be capable of creating, understanding, and maintaining records.

Recreational Therapists Work Environment and Employment

No matter what the setting, recreational therapists spend most of their time working with patients suffering from illness, injury, or disabilities. This is an important consideration when deciding on a career in recreational therapy. It takes someone with patience and strong mental fortitude.

Since the purpose of the activities is to provide pleasurable as well as therapeutic recreation, this is one of the less stressful of patient care professions. Important skills and characteristics for success in this career include being a practiced active listener who gives their entire attention to others during communication. Written communication skills need to be excellent as reports will be shared with a variety of professionals. An orientation to service is vital, as helping others is an essential part of the career.

Management skills are also needed for working with clients in group settings. The recreational therapist will generally have an office space where programs are planned and records are maintained. Most work-related activities may take place in rooms devoted to recreational activities, but community based activities will require travel and offer varying conditions. Therapists working exclusively with community-based programs will travel with patients to settings as varied as the swimming pool or theater. Some lifting of equipment used in activities may be required as well as the ability to help manipulate or move patients.

Most therapists work a standard 40-hour week, although the times may be flexible and include weekends and evenings. Some recreational therapists work for more than one employer, others work part-time. Currently, there are approximately 22,000 jobs for recreational therapists. Seventy percent of recreational therapist jobs are in nursing homes and hospitals. Other primary employers include, psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals, correctional facilities, community agencies that work with people with disabilities or substance abuse problems, day care facilities for adults, and mental health centers.

Possibilities for advancement increase with experience and continued education. Master’s or doctoral degrees may lead to supervisory positions or educational careers in universities and technical colleges. Research into improved therapies and private consulting jobs are other options.

Required Training

Minimum requirements for entry-level position are a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation, or recreation with an emphasis on therapy. There are over 100 programs offered at colleges and universities throughout the United States.

Most are traditional four-year programs but more colleges are offering flexible hours with weekend and evening classes for students who are employed. Coursework includes anatomy and physiology, psychology, medical terminology, and coursework studying illnesses, disabilities, and injuries. Additional classes teach ethics and assistive technologies. Classes in various forms of art, music, drama, and sports that will be used therapeutically are also taken.

To understand group behaviors and societal interactions, courses in sociology and anthropology are generally included in the undergraduate work. In addition to career-specific courses, classes in computer technology and written and oral communication are advised. Recreational therapists work with patients, family members, school personnel, other medical professionals, and members of the community and must have proficient communication skills. Master’s and doctoral programs extend learning and explore specialty areas. Depending on the state where the therapist is employed, continuing education may be a requirement to maintain certification or licensure.

Licensure and Certification

Regulation of recreational therapists varies by state, with some having no regulatory requirements. As of 2009, four states required licensure before being allowed to practice.

The number of states with regulatory requirements is expected to grow. Certification by the National Council for therapeutic Recreation Certification is not required, but employers frequently prefer it. In order to gain certification, a therapist must pass an exam and complete an internship. This is in addition to holding a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy.

Job Outlook and Projections

Over the next decade, the number of positions in this career is expected to increase by approximately 15 percent. The main factor driving job growth is the aging of the American population. Increased demand for recreational therapists will be found in nursing care facilities and other agencies that will cater to the increasing numbers of geriatric patients. Employment opportunities are expected to be the best in nursing care facilities.

Another area of increase will be in public school districts, as federal funding for services for disabled students is maintained. An increasing number of students with disabilities will drive a corresponding need for recreational therapists. Financial considerations may change the site of services.

The change in reimbursement for services may alter the method of delivery of recreational therapy with a trend towards outpatient services rather than hospital based care. As facilities continue to contain costs, more duties may be passed to recreational therapy aides and other lower paid positions. Due to the low turnover rate in this profession, job openings are scarce and competition is a factor.

Certification through the National Council of therapeutic Recreation Certification, even if not required in the state where seeking employment, is a definite advantage.

Salary and Earnings

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in 2009 the median salary for recreation therapists was $39,440. The 10th percentile and lower may earn less than $24,000 while the 90th percentile and above earn over $62,000. Annual mean wages with the largest employer of recreational therapists, nursing care facilities, is $36,210. Those working in general medical and surgical hospitals earn a mean wage of $44,840.

Highest mean salaries of $63,250 are earned by those employed by the federal executive branch of the United States government. States with the largest numbers of recreational therapists include California, Missouri, Connecticut, and New Jersey. The highest salaries are reported in the District of Columbia, California, Washington, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Jobs are concentrated in regions near urban centers with the highest paying regions in San Jose, Sacramento, and Santa Ana, California.

Professional Organizations

The American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA) is recognized as the largest professional organization in the United States for recreational therapists. This organization is devoted to meeting the needs of its members through education, information, and discussion of current issues facing the profession. Local chapters are important so that the organization continues to respond to members’ needs. They are also responsive to consumer input in order to help maintain the highest standards in the profession.

recreational therapist

The National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC) oversees certification of recreational therapists and has a goal of promoting excellence in the profession for the protection of consumers. They maintain stringent standards of education and experience that must be met for certification. They also have specialty certifications in the areas of geriatrics, developmental disabilities, behavioral health, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and community inclusion services.

Related Careers

  • Recreational Therapist Assistant (Aide)
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Occupational Therapist Assistant (Aide)

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