Recreational therapists help patients play to win

A line of work that allows you to parlay your people skills into a fun and fulfilling career.

Recreational therapists help patients play to win

Maybe you already know about physical or occupational therapy; this week we’re introducing you to another form of therapy and a terrific career.

Today’s focus is: Recreational Therapists

You’re a people person, which is why you’re drawn to health care. Recreational therapy presents an even greater opportunity for you to parlay your people skills into a fun and fulfilling career that’s poised for even greater growth. As the multidisciplinary team concept takes center stage under the Affordable Care Act, you’ll be hearing more about recreational therapy.

The American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA) says therapeutic recreation is a treatment service designed to:

  • Restore, remediate and rehabilitate a person’s level of functioning and independence in life activities;
  • Promote health and wellness;
  • Reduce or eliminate the activity limitations and restrictions to participation in life situations caused by an illness or disabling condition.

Where you’ll work

Recreational therapists can work in a variety of hospital-based settings, says ATRA President Debbie Robinson, M.S., CTRS/L, FACHE. Robinson is also the administrator of the secure psychiatric unit at the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord.

Community-based opportunities include residential facilities, community mental health centers, adult day care programs, substance abuse centers, hospice care, community centers and school systems. Private practice provides services in both home and community.

“We work to improve the physical, cognitive, emotional, social, and leisure needs of our clients,” Robinson says. “It’s about the process and not the location, and that process includes assessment, planning, intervention, evaluation and documentation.”

In a field that is predominantly female, RTs may work in geriatrics, mental health, addictions, general medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation, developmental disabilities and pediatrics.

What you need to succeed

About semantics: The field in totality is called therapeutic recreation, while recreational therapy is the practice, Robinson says. You receive certification as a practitioner — a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS).

Education: Obtain a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy and complete an internship. You complete specific coursework requirements to sit for the exam, per the nationally recognized credentialing body, the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification or NCTRC. You may then go on to a master’s or doctoral degree and NCTRC offers five specialty certifications:

  • Behavioral health, including addictions;
  • Community inclusion services (RT in a community setting);
  • Geriatrics;
  • Physical medicine and rehabilitation;
  • Developmental disabilities.

Licensure:  Four states offer it currently: New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Utah. Robinson co-chairs ATRA’s committee to obtain licensure in all 50 states. “Bills are pending in New York and Pennsylvania, with active legislation in New Mexico,” she says.

Accreditation: There’s still no over-arching accreditation process in the field, says Robinson. “In dental school, the same curricula must be offered by all accredited dental schools. We don’t have that yet.” Academic institutions using the same standards would allow students to achieve like competencies and perform to an equal set of standards, she says.

What you’ll receive

Salaries: An NCTRC survey from 2014 shows the average salary at $48,000+. Breaking it down, 34% make $26,000 - $40,000; 28% make $41,000 - $50,000, 18% make $51,000 - $60,000, and 5% make $76,000 - $100,000. Only 1% make $101,000+.

The highest-paying jobs are, in order: administrator, therapist/administrator, TR leader/supervisor, recreation therapist and TR leader/programmer.

Why recreational therapy is a great job

Meet four professionals who love their work, and think you’ll love it, too:

  1. Martha E. Kemeny, Ph.D., CTRS, is an assistant professor in parks and recreation at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania. “You can graduate after four years, get certified and actually practice as a therapist right away,” she says, compared to other health care careers.

    “This is a very holistic field,” she says. “We treat the whole person. For instance, with autism we know patients may have a coordination disorder, but may also have issues with communication and social skills, even hypersensitivity.”

  2. Brent Wolfe, Ph.D., CTRS, is an associate professor of recreation and tourism management at the University of Georgia in Statesboro. “I came into this career kicking and screaming, because I’d always wanted to work with juvenile delinquents and didn’t see how RT would connect. All it took was once course to convince me,” he says.

    Wolfe likes working with people across the life span and treasures experiences when clients show him what they can do, instead of what they can’t.  

    “As you age and interests change, you can move into other areas within the profession,” he says.

  3. Laurie Reddick Pickard, M.A., LRT/CTRS, CCLS, is assistant director of rehabilitation therapies at the University of North Carolina Hospitals in Chapel Hill. “We help patients find their own motivators and strengths, and we do it with activity,” she says. “Many times we help with interventions for anxiety, stress, relaxation and biofeedback.

    “We ask, ‘In a short amount of time, how can we make the most impact?’ We want to help patients get their needs met or show them how to do it themselves by making better choices.”

  4. Vinnie Bonadies, M.S., CTRS, works at a long-term care facility in the Bronx, N.Y. Originally set on social work, once exposed to recreational therapy, he was sold. “It uses leisure as a primary modality to improve functioning and quality of life, and it’s non-pharmacological,” he says. Bonadies began in mental/behavioral health and then moved to HIV/AIDS before choosing his current specialty.

    After 37 years, he wants “to see the day when RT is a household name like OT or PT.” To new hires, he says “if you’re headed to RT, remember you need to earn people’s respect, so be aware of how you behave professionally,” he says.

See what’s new in jobs for recreational therapists here on Monster now.