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Working as a Certified Recreational Therapist

What Does a Certified Recreational Therapist Do

Recreational therapists plan, direct, and coordinate recreation-based treatment programs for people with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses. These therapists use a variety of modalities, including arts and crafts; drama, music, and dance; sports and games; aquatics; and community outings 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 discussions 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 exercise, games, and community outings
  • Help patients learn social skills needed to become or remain independent
  • Teach patients about ways to cope with stress, 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 use activities, 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 their body by teaching them to adapt activities, like casting a fishing rod or swinging a golf club, by using their 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.

How To Become a Certified Recreational Therapist

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


Recreational therapists typically need a bachelor’s degree, usually in recreational therapy or a related field such as recreation and leisure studies.

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 NCTRC offers the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) credential. Candidates may qualify for certification through one of two pathways. The first option requires a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, which includes the completion of a supervised internship of at least 560 hours, and passing an exam. The second option also requires passing an exam, but allows candidates with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated subject to qualify with a combination of education and work experience. Therapists must 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 also may earn certificates from other organizations to show proficiency in specific therapy techniques, such as aquatic therapy or aromatherapy.

As of 2014, 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 and empathetic when providing support to patients and their families. They may deal with patients who are in pain or under emotional stress.

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

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

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

Resourcefulness. Recreational therapists customize treatment plans for patients. They must be both creative and flexible when adapting activities or programs to each patient’s needs.

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

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Average Salary$48,483
Job Growth Rate7%

Certified Recreational Therapist Demographics



76.0 %


19.8 %


4.2 %



67.6 %

Black or African American

17.7 %

Hispanic or Latino

6.6 %

Foreign Languages Spoken


50.0 %


25.0 %


25.0 %
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Certified Recreational Therapist Education



60.0 %


34.0 %


4.0 %

Top Colleges for Certified Recreational Therapists

1. California State University - Long Beach

Long Beach, CA • Public

In-State Tuition

2. California State University - Sacramento

Sacramento, CA • Public

In-State Tuition

3. University of Utah

Salt Lake City, UT • Public

In-State Tuition

4. San Diego State University

San Diego, CA • Public

In-State Tuition

5. Lehman College of the City University of New York

Bronx, NY • Public

In-State Tuition

6. SUNY College at Cortland

Cortland, NY • Public

In-State Tuition

7. University of Maryland - College Park

College Park, MD • Public

In-State Tuition

8. University of Minnesota - Twin Cities

Minneapolis, MN • Public

In-State Tuition

9. University of Georgia

Athens, GA • Public

In-State Tuition

10. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Champaign, IL • Public

In-State Tuition
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Top Skills For a Certified Recreational Therapist

The skills section on your resume can be almost as important as the experience section, so you want it to be an accurate portrayal of what you can do. Luckily, we've found all of the skills you'll need so even if you don't have these skills yet, you know what you need to work on. Out of all the resumes we looked through, 21.1% of certified recreational therapists listed therapeutic recreation on their resume, but soft skills such as leadership skills and listening skills are important as well.

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Top Certified Recreational Therapist Employers

1. Riverside Medical Clinic
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2. Hillcrest HealthCare System LLC
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3. Kennedy Krieger Institute
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4. OSF HealthCare
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5. Dignity Health
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6. CoxHealth
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Updated October 2, 2020