How to Become a Recreational Therapist: Education & Job Requirements

Oct 20, 2021

How to Become a Recreation Therapist

Recreational therapists are in a growing field in the therapy industry. Recreational therapists are required to gain certification through the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC). Recreational therapist education requirements include a bachelor's degree or higher from an accredited university. Aspiring therapists also need to complete a formal internship and pass the national certification examination.

A Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) needs to keep their credentials every five years through the NCTRC re-certification process. Recreational therapist school requirements also include programs in Therapeutic Recreation or Recreational Therapy and emphasize coursework in the physical, biological, and behavioral sciences and recreation and leisure theory.

Educational programs in recreation therapy, or therapeutic recreation, are available at both undergraduate and graduate degree levels. Two-year associate's programs provide students with basic information and some practical experience that can be applied to entry-level positions or relayed into further education. Four-year bachelor's degree programs provide more comprehensive knowledge and extensive hands-on experience for careers in the field. Master's programs are more research-based for those seeking research or upper-level administrative roles in the recreation therapy field.

Recreation Therapist Education Requirements

Associate's Degree

The most basic of recreation therapy degrees, the associate's degree in recreation therapy, qualifies students for entry-level jobs in the recreation therapy field. Students in this two-year program study patient interaction and the historical, practical, and theoretical aspects of recreation therapy. A high school diploma or G.E.D. will be required for admittance. These programs typically require field work, which allows students to gain hands-on experience for class credit. In addition to the core recreation therapy courses, students can take relevant classes in music, drama, social dance and art. Typical courses in the associate's degree program include:

  • Therapeutic recreation
  • Sociology
  • Recreation therapy program planning
  • Recreation leadership skills
  • Recreation for special needs
  • Counseling

While a bachelor's degree is required to become a certified recreation therapist, an associate's degree opens up a number of entry-level career options. The following jobs are available with a two-year recreation therapy degree:

  • Recreation therapy assistant
  • Rehabilitation activity director
  • Special recreation program leader
  • Adult activity coordinator
  • Assisted living program service coordinator

Bachelor's Degree in Recreation Therapy

An associate's degree on its own provides very few opportunities for advancement in the recreation therapy field. Most employers in the health care or human services field require recreational therapists hold a bachelor's degree and certification. Students who desire certification can continue on to a Bachelor of Science in Recreation Therapy program or a similar therapeutic recreation program. Students who complete the bachelor's degree program are eligible to become Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialists (CTRS). Certification can be acquired by successfully completing the exam administered by The National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification.

A Bachelor of Science in Recreation Therapy degree prepares students to become certified recreation therapists. A high school diploma and ACT or SAT scores will be needed to enroll in the program. Students are usually required to complete internships and volunteer work under the supervision of a certified therapeutic recreation specialist. The curriculum in these programs covers topics in therapeutic recreation, physical and behavioral sciences and recreation and leisure administration. General education requirements, such as anatomy and physiology, are also incorporated into the course load. Typical classes include:

  • Therapeutic recreation for the elderly
  • Recreation therapy administration
  • Abnormal psychology
  • Human development
  • Therapeutic recreation for the disabled
  • Client assessment

Those who wish to further their education can pursue a master's degree in recreation therapy or therapeutic recreation.

Master's Degree in Recreation Therapy

A Master of Science in Recreation Therapy degree allows graduates to move into administrative roles in the field. A bachelor's degree (preferably in a related field) is required to begin master's level work. Most students can complete requirements for a recreational therapist program within one to two years. The master's degree curriculum focuses on management and administration, in addition to various forms of therapy. The curriculum covers the assessment and evaluation of patient health, human development and program planning study. Students also conduct field work and advanced research in the field. Many programs require completion of a master's thesis or major project. Students study topics that include:

  • Art therapy
  • Recreation and leisure research methods
  • Leisure management theory and practice
  • Therapeutic recreation program development
  • Recreation and leisure trends and issues
  • Recreational therapy finance management

How Much Does a Recreation Therapist Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), recreational therapy positions are expected to increase about 8% from 2019-2029. The most demand is anticipated in positions that require working with children and the elderly. Recreational therapists earned a median salary of $48,220 in May 2019, per the BLS.

The top industries that are currently hiring for recreational therapists include hospitals, nursing homes, and government parks and recreation departments. Most therapists work full time.

Some of the highest paying states for recreational therapists are: California, Hawaii, Washington, and Connecticut.

Job Requirements and Skills Needed

Job requirements and special skills needed for this career include the following:

  • accurate assessment and meaningful communication with other healthcare professionals, patients and families
  • developing programs and treatment plans with individualization treatment plans
  • implementing interventions and supports for the client
  • coordinating and engaging patients in therapeutic activities
  • help patients acquire social skills to become independent and maintain growth
  • encouragement for elderly patients about ways to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression

Therapists use interventions, such as arts and crafts, dance, or sports, to help their patients. For example, a recreational therapist can help a patient who is paralyzed on one side of his or her body by teaching patients to adapt activities, such as casting a fishing rod or swinging a golf club, by using his or her functional side.

Therapists often treat specific groups of patients, such as children with cancer. Therapists may use activities such as kayaking or a ropes course to teach patients to stay active and to form social relationships.

Recreational therapists help people with disabilities integrate into the community by teaching them how to use community resources and recreational activities. For example, therapists may teach a patient who uses a wheelchair how to use public transportation.

Therapists may also provide interventions for patients who need help developing social and coping skills. For example, a therapist may use a therapy dog to help patients manage their depression or anxiety.

Therapists may work with physicians or surgeons, registered nurses, psychologists, social workers, physical therapists, teachers, or occupational therapists. Recreational therapists are different from recreation workers, who organize recreational activities primarily for enjoyment.

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