Recreation therapy, or therapeutic recreation, strives to improve the functioning and independence of individuals who are ill or disabled. Recreation therapists provide services in clinical facilities and in the community.
Incorporating a variety of interventions to treat individuals with physical, cognitive, and emotional conditions, recreation therapists educate their patients to make them better-informed participants in their own health care. As a result, patients are taught to use activity to cope with the stresses of illness and disability. Therapeutic recreation activities may include, for example, wheelchair sports, exercise programs, and social activities—which preserve physical, cognitive, social and emotional health, thereby reducing the need for medical services.
A recreation therapist's responsibilities vary according to the setting and the patients served. Most recreation therapists are involved in the assessment of physical, mental, emotional, and social functioning towards determining the patient's needs, interests, and abilities based on information from standardized evaluations, observations, medical records, medical staff, family, and the patients themselves. The role of the recreation therapist is to then develop and implement therapeutic interventions consistent with the individual's needs and interests. For example, patients who place themselves in isolation may be encouraged to play games with others; a person with paralysis may be instructed in adaptation and compensatory strategies to throw a ball or swing a racket. Patients may be instructed in relaxation techniques to reduce stress and tension, correct stretching and limbering exercises, proper body mechanics for participation in recreation activities, pacing and other energy conservation techniques, and individual as well as team activities.
Recreation therapists employed in hospitals are typically members of an interdisciplinary treatment team that develops patient treatment plans. Recreation therapists are often responsible for one or more group activities each day. Such activities might include, for example, stress management groups, community outings, family activities, exercise, and leisure education groups. Depending on the needs of the individuals, recreation therapists are responsible for the provision of programs that may include adapted aquatics, wheelchair basketball, social recreation for adults with mental retardation, downhill skiing for individuals with physical disabilities, summer camps, or adapted golf lessons. In addition, the patient may be met by the recreation therapist to conduct an assessment, or for developing a discharge plan. Responsibilities also include documenting the individual's progress in charts and communicating with other professionals, as well as with the patient's family members. Recreation therapists employed in an institution are usually expected to plan evening and weekend activities, special events, and holiday activities. Patients are often encouraged to participate in the creation and organization of these activities. The recreation therapist is also responsible for adapting activities as needed, and for providing adaptive equipment to enable the participation of individuals with disabilities or limitations. These services are designed to help meet the goals identified in the individual's treatment plan.
A variety of agencies and organizations employ recreation therapists. They may hold positions in acutecare hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals, community recreation centers, pediatric hospitals, group homes, senior centers, community mental health centers, public and private schools, correctional facilities, and private practice. Individuals of all ages and walks of life benefit from the services provided by recreation therapists.
The services of community-based recreation therapists are also used in park and recreation departments, special education programs for school districts, or programs for older adults and people with disabilities. In these programs, clients are helped to develop leisure activities. The role of the recreation therapist is to provide them with opportunities for exercise, mental stimulation, creativity, and fun.
In schools, recreation therapists assume an important role in helping counselors, parents, and special education teachers address the special needs of students. Recreation therapists are especially important in helping to ease the transition phase into adult life for children with disabilities. The recreation therapist may work with the client, the client's family, and other professionals to design and implement treatment and education plans.
Many recreation therapists fulfill the role of advocate on behalf of the individual with a disability. This may include addressing such issues as limited transportation resources, inaccessible facilities, and legislation that affects people with disabilities. Participation on advisory committees is a frequent activity of the recreation therapist, whose job also includes consultations with outside agencies to ensure that resources and services are provided for people with disabilities.
Education and training
Most employers require a minimum of a bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation or in recreation with an option or emphasis in therapeutic recreation. In addition, an associate degree in recreation therapy; training in art, drama, or music therapy; or qualifying work experience may be sufficient for employment in nursing homes.
A bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation is awarded upon successful completion of required course work and a supervised internship. During an internship, students are placed in an agency for a minimum of one semester so that what they have learned in the classroom can be put into practice.
In recent years, professional credentialing has become more important for employment. National certification is available through the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC), an independent credentialing body. The National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification awards the title of Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) based upon prescribed education and experience requirements and successful performance on a 200-item national examination. Some states have additional requirements for licensure, registration or certification as well. Credentialing helps ensure that the minimum requirements needed to safely provide therapeutic recreation services have been met.
Employment opportunities for recreation therapists are expected to grow. The projected demand is due to the increase in the need for long-term care, and physical and psychiatric rehabilitation.
In 1996, there were approximately 38,000 employed recreation therapists. Hospitals have 42% in their employ; nursing homes had 38% employed. Residential facilities, community mental health centers, adult day care programs, correctional facilities, community programs for people with disabilities, and substance abuse centers had these therapists working for them. One out of every four recreation therapists were self-employed; this vocational path generally involves contracting with long-term care facilities or community agencies to develop and oversee programs.
American Therapeutic Recreation Association. <http://www.atra-tr.org>.
National Therapeutic Recreation Society (NTRS). <http://www.nrpa.org/branches/ntrs.htm>.
Resources for the Recreation Therapy Professional. <http://www.recreationtherapy.com/>.
Bill Asenjo, MS, CRC