How Can I Become a Recreational Therapist?

Explore the career requirements for recreational therapists. Get the facts about education and licensure requirements, salary, and potential job growth to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Allied Health degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is a Recreational Therapist?

Recreational therapists plan and implement recreational treatment programs for people with injuries, illnesses, and disabilities. They also help people develop social skills and manage anxiety and depression. Depending on a patient's needs and interests, recreational therapists may plan and lead activities involving arts and crafts, aquatics, music, games, sports and more. They ensure the safety of their patients during activities, and take detailed notes concerning the progress of each patient. Recreational therapists often evaluate the effectiveness of their activities and adapt activities and/or treatment plans as needed. They can specialize in working with a particular group of people, such as children or the elderly. The following table provides information about education and training, licensure and certification, job growth, and annual wages for this profession.

Degree RequiredBachelor's
Training RequiredSupervised internship and continuing education for certification
Education Field of StudyRecreational therapy
Licensure or CertificationMost employers hire certified recreational therapists; a few states require licensure
Job Growth (2014-2024)12%*
Median Salary (2015)$45,890*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Would I Do as a Recreational Therapist?

Recreational therapists develop activities and related services that are designed to promote healing for patients with physical, mental or emotional impairments, illnesses, injuries or other conditions. As a recreational therapist, you would interview and assess patients to determine their needs and set wellness goals for the level of progress desired by the patient's physician. You would plan, conduct and evaluate suitable activities to improve the patients' physical and mental wellness. Evaluation includes observing your patients, keeping accurate, detailed records of their progress and conferring with their physicians and other medical professionals.

Recreational therapists often use sports, games, music, art, animal interaction and other activities of therapeutic value. An example would be using puzzles and activities designed to improve eye-hand coordination and cognitive function in a patient recovering from a stroke.

What Degree Do I Need?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), recreational therapists need a bachelor's degree for most jobs, but you might be able to find work with less education if you have experience in the field. You can find associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctoral degree programs in recreational therapy or recreation with a concentration in therapy. These programs tend to be extensively hands-on, allowing you to gain experience through volunteering and internships.

Most accredited programs include courses such as anatomy, physiology, medical terminology, assessment, program planning and evaluation, assistive devices, ethics and psychology. Advancement typically comes with experience and further education.

How Do I Get Certified?

While most states don't require recreational therapists to obtain licensure, you can earn voluntary certification through the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC). You might be able to find a degree program that meets the NCTRC's certification exam requirements, which focus on clinical experience. You'll need at least 480 hours of supervised recreational therapy internship work, which must take place over 12 weeks, and you'll need to work at least 20 hours per week. Once you meet these qualifications, you'll need to pass an exam to become certified. Continuing education credits are required to maintain certification.

What Skills Do I Need?

To succeed as a recreational therapist, you need to be compassionate and have a strong desire to help others. You should have good interpersonal skills, be accurate, dependable and well-organized. You need to be creative in developing activities for a variety of people, and you need to communicate effectively with patients and medical staff. Physical strength is important since you might regularly lift and carry equipment, including various assistive devices and sports equipment. You also might have to assist patients with standing, walking or other activities.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Related jobs that require a bachelor's degree include special education teachers and exercise physiologists. Special education teachers educate children of different ages coping with a variety of disabilities. The children may have physical, learning, mental, emotional or other behavioral disorders, which require these teachers to adapt lesson plans to help teach them basic skills. Exercise physiologists help patients improve mobility and overall health by creating individualized exercise treatment plans.

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