A recreational therapist uses sports, crafts, exercise and other fun activities to help people with disabilities and injuries recover, build muscles, fight off depression and increase mobility. The thinking is that while doing things that are enjoyable, patients will become more active, increasing and developing both their physical and emotional well-being. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 2010, the median income for recreational therapists was $39,410.
You need to have at least a bachelor’s degree for most jobs, though an associate degree may help you land an entry-level position. Some employers may even require a master's or Ph.D. in recreational therapy. At the same time, you’ll need to earn credentials from the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification to land most jobs. You can get a Certified Recreation Therapeutic Specialist designation after completing at least 480 hours of interning and passing an exam. In 2010, four states also required a recreational therapist license from the state medical board to practice.
During your training in recreational therapy, you’ll learn basic anatomy and the common medical and psychiatric terminology used by doctors that will help you read reports and design treatment programs. Courses you’ll take while pursuing a degree include how to make a patient assessment, characteristics of disabilities and illnesses you might encounter and how to employ assistive technology in your treatment. Increase your value to a specific employer by continuing your studies in a specialization that could cover geriatrics, developmental disabilities, community services or physical rehabilitation.
Once you have the technical skills down, you need to develop those soft skills that make an effective therapist. Strong communication abilities are the most important skills a recreational therapist needs. You need to be able to listen to patients’ concerns to find the most effective therapy that peaks their interests. You also must listen to direction from doctors and psychiatrists who have referred the patient for specific treatment. At the same time, your speaking skills must be spot-on so you can provide accurate directions to patients and explain procedures and activities. Finally, your writing skills must be accurate and concise because you’ll document all your assessments and findings throughout each patient’s therapy.
Very often, patients can’t explain how they’re feeling or what’s going on with them. You’ll need to be aware of how patients react to suggestions so that you can form an intelligent opinion about their abilities and interests. You’ll build relationships with patients so they come to trust you and your guidance. That trust also helps you to understand their reactions and behaviors so you can tailor your programs to best meet their needs. Finally, the medical community relies on recreational therapists for the ability to be creative and solve problems with unconventional approaches and clever ideas.
Linda Ray is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years reporting experience. She's covered business for newspapers and magazines, including the "Greenville News," "Success Magazine" and "American City Business Journals." Ray holds a journalism degree and teaches writing, career development and an FDIC course called "Money Smart."