Recreational therapists plan, direct, and coordinate recreation-based treatment programs for people with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses. Recreational therapists use a variety of modalities, including arts and crafts, drama, music, dance, sports, games, and community reintegration field trips to help maintain or improve a patient’s physical, social, and emotional well-being.


Recreational therapists typically do the following:

  • Assess patients' needs through observations, medical records, tests, and talking with other healthcare professionals, patients’ families, and patients
  • Create treatment plans and programs that meet patients’ needs and interests
  • Plan and implement interventions to prevent harm to a patient
  • Engage patients in therapeutic activities, such as games and field trips
  • Help patients learn social skills needed to become or remain independent
  • Teach patients about ways to cope with anxiety or depression
  • Record and analyze a patient’s progress
  • Evaluate interventions for effectiveness

Recreational therapists help people reduce depression, stress, and anxiety; recover basic physical and mental abilities; build confidence; and socialize effectively. They 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.

Recreational therapists use activities, such as arts and crafts, dance, or sports, to help their patients. For instance, a recreational therapist can help a patient who is paralyzed on one side of their body by teaching them to adapt activities, like casting a fishing rod or playing a video game, to use their functional side.

Therapists may also provide interventions to patients who need help developing new social and coping skills. For example, a therapist may introduce a therapy dog to patients who need help managing 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.

Work Environment

Recreational therapists held about 19,800 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most recreational therapists in 2012 were as follows: 

Hospitals; state, local, and private 35%
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) 22
Government 19
Residential care facilities 10
Ambulatory health care services 6

Recreational therapists work in a variety of settings. Therapists often work in hospitals or nursing and residential care facilities. They also work in places such as substance abuse centers, rehabilitation centers, special education departments, and parks and recreation departments.

They may use offices for planning or other administrative activities, such as patient assessment, but may travel when working with patients. Therapists and their patients go to fields and parks for sports and other outdoor activities.

Some therapists may spend a lot of time on their feet actively working with patients. Recreational therapists also may need to physically assist patients or lift heavy objects such as wheelchairs.

Work Schedules

Most recreational therapists work full time, although about 1 in 5 worked part time in 2012. Some recreational therapists work evenings and weekends to meet the needs of their patients.

Education and Training

Recreational therapists typically need a bachelor’s degree. Many employers require therapists to be certified by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC).


Most recreational therapists need a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy or a related field. Though less common, associate’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees are also available.

Recreational therapy programs include courses in assessment, human anatomy, medical and psychiatric terminology, characteristics of illnesses and disabilities, and the use of assistive devices and technology. Bachelor’s degree programs usually include an internship.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Most employers, particularly those in hospitals and other clinical settings, prefer to hire certified recreational therapists. The National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC) offers the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) credential. Certification requires a bachelor’s degree, completion of a supervised internship (normally completed as part of their degree program) of at least 560 hours, and passing an exam. Although therapists typically need at least a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, in some cases therapists may qualify for certification with an alternate combination of education, training, and experience. Therapists must also take continuing education classes to maintain certification.

NCTRC also offers specialty certification in five areas of practice: behavioral health, community inclusion services, developmental disabilities, geriatrics, and physical medicine/rehabilitation. Therapists may also earn certificates from other organizations to show proficiency in specific therapy techniques, such as aquatic therapy or aromatherapy.

As of 2012, only New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah required recreational therapists to obtain a license. Requirements vary by state. For specific requirements, contact the state’s medical board.

Important Qualities

Compassion. Recreational therapists should be kind, gentle, and sympathetic when providing support to patients and their families. They may deal with patients who are in pain or under emotional stress.

Critical-thinking skills. Recreational therapists should be able to quickly think of adaptations to activities when a patients’ therapy plan requires adjustment.

Leadership skills. Recreational therapists must be able to plan, develop, and implement intervention programs in an effective manner. They must motivate patients to participate in a variety of therapeutic activities.

Listening skills. Recreational therapists must listen to a patient’s problems and concerns. They can then determine an effective course of treatment or therapy program appropriate for that patient.

Patience. Recreational therapists may work with some patients who require more time and special attention than others.

Speaking skills. Recreational therapists need to communicate well with their patients. They need to be able to give clear directions during activities or instructions on healthy coping techniques.


The median annual wage for recreational therapists was $42,280 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $26,410, and the top 10 percent earned more than $67,280.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for recreational therapists in the top five industries in which they worked were as follows:

Government $48,850
Hospitals; state, local, and private 46,160
Ambulatory health care services 39,770
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) 36,900
Residential care facilities 36,430

Most recreational therapists work full time, although about 1 in 5 worked part time in 2012. Some recreational therapists work evenings and weekends to meet the needs of their patients.

Job Outlook

Employment of recreational therapists is projected to grow 13 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations.

As the large baby-boom generation ages, they will need recreational therapists to help treat age-related injuries and illnesses. Older persons are more likely to suffer from stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and mobility-related injuries that require recreational therapy. Continued growth is expected in nursing care facilities, adult daycare programs, and other settings that care for geriatric patients. Therapists will also be needed to help healthy seniors remain active in their communities and maintain their independence later in life.

In addition, the number of people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity is growing. Recreational therapists will be needed to help patients maintain their mobility and to teach patients about managing their conditions. Therapists will also be needed to plan and lead programs designed to maintain overall wellness through participation in activities such as camps, day trips, and sports.

Legislation requiring federally funded services for students with disabilities will continue to shape the need for recreational therapists in education settings.

In addition, third party payers will continue to use therapists’ services as a way to cut costs in patients’ recoveries from injuries or illnesses, moving treatment to outpatient settings rather than more costly hospital settings.

Job Prospects

Job prospects will be best for recreational therapists with both a bachelor’s degree and certification. Therapists who specialize in working with the elderly or who earn certification in geriatric therapy may have the best job prospects.

For More Information

For information and materials on careers and academic programs in recreational therapy, visit

American Therapeutic Recreation Association

For information on certification, visit

National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification