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How to Become a Recreational Therapist

Alternate Career Titles:

Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, CTRS

Recreational Therapist Job Description: Recreational Therapists establish and execute recreation-based treatment programs

Recreational Therapist Salary (Annual): $48,220

Recreational Therapist Salary Range: $30,880 to $77,970

How Long To Become a Recreational Therapist: 4 years

Recreational Therapist Requirements: Bachelor’s Degree in Recreational Therapy

How to Become a Recreational Therapist

Become a Recreational Therapist

Career Description

A Recreational Therapist is a healthcare professional responsible for planning, establishing, coordinating and assisting patients in completing recreation-based treatments. Often patients who seek the services of a Recreational Therapist are using the therapy to cope with and improve disabilities, injuries or illnesses. For Recreational Therapists, the goal of these therapies is to increase a patient’s physical, emotional and social well-being. To achieve successful outcomes, Therapeutic Recreation Specialists will utilize techniques based around art, exercise, music and other modalities.

From day to day these professionals will run tests, record and update medical records while working alongside Family Physicians, Counselors, Social Workers, Psychologists, Psychiatrists and other healthcare professionals. They will also educate and recommend to patients about coping mechanisms and ways to build confidence while becoming increasingly independent.

An example where recreational therapies might be very beneficial is when a patient has recently become wheelchair-bound. A Therapeutic Recreation Specialist would work with the patient, teaching them how to transport themselves and how to adapt so they can once again participate in activities they previously enjoyed. For instance, the Therapeutic Recreation Specialist might teach a person who loved to fish, but is now wheelchair bound, how to cast a fishing rod from the sitting position..

“I would describe my career as a Recreational Therapist as rewarding due to the amount of growth I gain as both a professional and an individual,” Ramir Lopez, a Recreational Therapist practicing in California, said. “Within the field, I am able to put my skills to the test and gauge my creativity to plan new innovative methods using recreation as a major coping tool for patients. I constantly look for new ways that I can be of service to my patients while obtaining new skills.”

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Education & Training

To become a Recreational Therapist professionals must complete a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy or a related-science. During these programs learners will receive instruction in psychiatric treatment and terminology, human anatomy, use of therapeutic device technology, illnesses and disabilities. Within the four-year program, learners will also typically complete a 560-hour internship and become certified.

There are two primary ways to acquire the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) credential: completing an undergraduate degree, internship and passing the certifying exam as previously stated, or through obtaining a bachelor’s degree in a related field and having substantial work and educational experience. Once employed, Therapeutic Recreation Specialists must maintain their certification every five years by either passing an exam or by completing work-related experiences with continuing education requirements.

“Becoming a Recreational Therapist involves 600 to 1,000 pre-internship hours, as well as another 560 to 600 hour internship under supervision of a full-time Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist,” Lopez confirmed. “Some of the classes were challenging but manageable, and so far everything I have learned in my upper division recreation therapy classes is applicable to my work now. However, trying to complete the pre-internship hour limit while being in school can be tough.”


When seeking to advance in a career as a Certified Therapeutic Recreation, these professionals can choose to pursue advanced degrees or certifications. They may also consider becoming certified in a specialty area of practice such as community inclusion services, behavioral health, geriatrics, physical medicine, rehabilitation and developmental disabilities. Therapeutic Recreation Specialists have also been known to specialize in certain types of therapeutic treatments, such as aromatherapy or aquatic therapy. Learn about careers in sports medicine.

“To advance in a career as a Recreational Therapist, professionals can supervise others or narrow their scope of work to specific populations, such as clinical, inpatient and outpatient programs, rehabilitative programs, correctional facilities, adaptive recreation centers and more,” Lopez advised.

Experience & Skills

Successful Therapeutic Recreation Specialists are known to have strong leadership skills, enabling them to establish their client’s treatment plans while offering guidance and support. Being able to lead therapeutic sessions helps these professionals to more effectively motivate patient participation and ultimately improve the quality of a patient’s life.

“Interpersonal skills and the ability to assess a situation or room with multiple patients are important skills because they help to establish camaraderie with other staff members and coworkers. They also help professionals establish strong rapport with patients,” Lopez said. “The ability to be able to assess a situation can also provide a fair warning as to how a group activity might affect the entire group, and whether the therapy will be stressful or therapeutic to others.”

Additionally, Therapeutic Recreation Specialists should further possess speaking and listening skills so that they can better communicate with their patients to best determine their needs. Clear directives also help identify which coping techniques are working, and when they need to be amended.

“As a Recreational Therapist, ‘planned’ groups may not always go as planned and patients or clients can sometimes be unpredictable,” Lopez explained. “A Recreational Therapist must be able to make last minute adjustments or adapt an activity for their group, patients or clientele so that they can gain maximum benefits from an activity.”


Patients seeking recreational therapy can have a variety of physical and emotional needs, and therefore Recreational Therapists must approach each of them with compassion, empathy and understanding. These professionals must offer support and guidance to their patients, helping them turn to recreational therapies to overcome certain life circumstances. As not every therapy will always meet a patients needs, Recreational Therapists must be patient and resourceful. This means they must be creative, flexible and determined when working to individualize treatment plans or activities.

“Having an open mind in this position is important because everyone you treat will have something that is different about them,” Lopez noted. “Being non-judgmental, accepting of other ways of thinking and having an holistic approach to everyone’s problems and concerns will help minimize conflict and avoid ‘power struggle’ arguments with some patients or clients.”


Today, most Therapeutic Recreation Specialists work full-time, however roughly 20 percent of the workforce is employed only part-time. While there are some of these professionals who are required to work evenings and weekends to meet patient needs, most tend to work “normal” 9 am to 5 pm weekday schedules.

Typically, Recreational Therapists will spend some of their time in an office setting, planning and completing other administrative tasks. Aside from being in an office, these professionals will spend a lot some of their time in clinical settings or out in the community. Sometimes days in this field require long periods of time up on one’s feet. Careful consideration must be taken to ensure the stress of helping patients reach successful outcomes is not brought home after work. Therefore, being able to manage a healthy work-life balance is crucial in this role.

“Day-to-day processes in this career may vary depending on the setting a professional works in, however typically all Recreational Therapist will assess patients, plan interventions, implement interventions, evaluate outcomes and make revisions if need be,” Lopez explained. “My typical day working for an adult inpatient unit starts with checking for new admits, or patients that have came in from the emergency room earlier or later on the day before. I then admit them onto the unit.”

Lopez added that next he will audit each patient to check if all paperwork (orders, assessments, weekly notes, daily notes, treatment team meetings, and discharge notes) and documentation is updated. Then he will write down a list of task that needs to be done by end of the day, begin his workload which normally consists of three assessments, three weekly visits and evaluating two discharge patients.

“Time Management is key in this career,” Lopez stressed.


Career opportunities for Recreational Therapists are on the rise! Over the course of the next decade, this occupation in healthcare is projected to grow 7 percent. One of the greatest contributing factors to this increase is an aging baby boomer population which now requires more therapies to combat age-related injuries and illnesses. For example, Recreational Therapists can help a stroke patient to regain mobility, functionality and independence.

Additionally, patients with chronic conditions are seeking Therapeutic Recreation Specialists at a greater rate to learn how to better manage their conditions and adjust to limitations. Veterans experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or service-related injuries also benefit from recreational therapy as well. Often these therapies can help veterans to most effectively reintegrate into civilian society.

“To find employment in this industry, I would recommend establishing connections in college and building strong professional relationships with internship supervisors,” Lopez advised. “Try using websites that advertise positions such as The career outlook is strong if you are willing to work in corrections or mental health, inpatient/outpatient services or even at a Veterans Affairs hospital.”

Overall, the facilities employing the greatest number of Recreational Therapists include hospitals, nursing care facilities, the government, social assistance programs and ambulatory healthcare services. The state with the highest employment in this occupation is New York, followed by California, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Texas.


Good news! There exists strong earning potential in a career as a Recreational Therapist. Currently, the mean annual wage for this occupation is $48,220. While the lowest earning 10 percent is recorded to make less than $30,880 annually, the top 10 percent can earn more than $77,970.

Furthermore, the top paying employers within this occupation are the government, hospitals, ambulatory healthcare services, social assistance programs and nursing care facilities. The top paying states for this occupation are California, Oregon, Nevada, New Jersey and the District of Columbia.

“Depending on the setting you work in, I believe there are different areas within the recreational therapy field that earn more than others. For example, correctional facilities and mental health jobs makes a higher percentage of the median salary for all Recreational Therapists,” Lopez asserted. “I’ve seen great earning potential for a seasoned Recreational Therapist within a psychiatric clinical setting, earning up to $100,000 per year, and alternatively some that are making about $30,000 per year.”

Unions, Groups and Associations

The American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA) is a national organization which represents the needs and interests of Recreational Therapists. The organization seeks to promote a world where all people have access to recreational therapy through research-based interventions to promote successful outcomes.

Getting Started

  • Gain related work experience through volunteering
  • Enroll in a Bachelor’s Degree program in recreational therapy
  • Network with industry professionals
  • Apply to internship programs
  • Become certified

All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Recreational Therapist Ramir LopezMeet the professional: Ramir Lopez

Age: 23
Practice: College Medical Center
Location: Hawthorne, CA

What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?

“Make time to take care of yourself, have a space where you are able to relieve yourself from stress, find leisure activities, socialize with others and take care of your emotional well-being to help keep you motivated and recharged each day you step into work.”

What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?

“The number one mistake people in this career make involves which certification exam to take. There is a state and a national exam, and some individuals choose to take the state exam and realize they want to move somewhere else in the country. They would not be allowed to practice somewhere else in this case because they are not nationally certified.”

What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?

“What is Recreational Therapy and how does it differ from other disciplines such as Occupational Therapy (OT), Art Therapy, Music Therapy, and Physical Therapy? People often mistake recreational therapy as ‘playing games’ or being similar to occupational or physical therapy. However, this is not the case.”

Why did you choose to become a Recreational Therapist?

“I love the idea of being able to use recreation or activities for leisure to be utilized as the ‘main engine’ or ‘tool’ in helping an individual rehabilitate or increase their physical or emotional well-being.”

If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?

“Personable or flexible.”


Credentialing organization: National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC)

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