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Recreational therapists
Significant Points
  • Applicants for recreational therapist jobs will experience competition.
  • A bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation is the usual educational requirement.
  • Some States regulate recreational therapists through licensure, registration, or regulation of titles, but requirements vary.
  • Recreational therapists should be comfortable working with persons who are ill or who have disabilities.
Nature of the Work

Recreational therapists, also referred to as therapeutic recreation specialists, provide treatment services and recreation activities for individuals with disabilities or illnesses. Using a variety of techniques, including arts and crafts, animals, sports, games, dance and movement, drama, music, and community outings, therapists improve and maintain the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of their clients. Therapists help individuals reduce depression, stress, and anxiety; recover basic motor functioning and reasoning abilities; build confidence; and socialize effectively so that they can enjoy greater independence and reduce or eliminate the effects of their illness or disability. In addition, therapists help people with disabilities integrate into the community by teaching them how to use community resources and recreational activities. Recreational therapists are different from recreation workers, who organize recreational activities primarily for enjoyment.

In acute healthcare settings, such as hospitals and rehabilitation centers, recreational therapists treat and rehabilitate individuals with specific health conditions, usually in conjunction or collaboration with physicians, nurses, psychologists, social workers, and physical and occupational therapists. In long-term and residential care facilities, recreational therapists use leisure activities—especially structured group programs—to improve and maintain their clients' general health and well-being. They also may provide interventions to prevent the client from suffering further medical problems and complications.

Recreational therapists assess clients using information from observations, medical records, standardized assessments, the medical staff, the clients' families, and the clients themselves. They then develop and carry out therapeutic interventions consistent with the clients' needs and interests. For example, they may encourage clients who are isolated from others or who have limited social skills to play games with others, and they may teach right-handed people with right-side paralysis how to use their unaffected left side to throw a ball or swing a racket. Recreational therapists may instruct patients in relaxation techniques to reduce stress and tension, stretching and limbering exercises, proper body mechanics for participation in recreational activities, pacing and energy conservation techniques, and team activities. As they work, therapists observe and document a patient's participation, reactions, and progress.

Community-based recreational therapists may work in park and recreation departments, special education programs for school districts, or assisted living, adult day care, and substance abuse rehabilitation centers. In these programs, therapists use interventions to develop specific skills, while providing opportunities for exercise, mental stimulation, creativity, and fun. Those few who work in schools help counselors, teachers, and parents address the special needs of students, including easing disabled students' transition into adult life.

Work environment. Recreational therapists provide services in special activity rooms but also plan activities and prepare documentation in offices. When working with clients during community integration programs, they may travel locally to teach clients how to use public transportation and other public areas, such as parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, restaurants, and theaters. Therapists often lift and carry equipment.

Recreational therapists generally work a 40-hour week. Work hours may include some evenings, weekends, and holidays. Some therapists may work part time and for more than one employer, requiring travel.

Recreational Therapist, GS-0638-05

Nature, range, and complexity of work

This is the entry-level professional classification in this series. Incumbents apply basic principles, practices and techniques and seek guidance and advice from more experienced colleagues and are focused on gaining the knowledge and experience to perform more independently.

The following tasks are illustrative:

  • Observe, assess and evaluate the functional level, skills, abilities and needs of individuals for the purpose of determining recreational, educational, and social or leisure activities to meet therapeutic needs.
  • Teach life and social skills to individuals to promote greater independence, community integration and better quality of life.
  • Plan, organize, supervise and conduct leisure program activities (sports, creative arts, fitness) for individuals to meet their therapeutic needs.
  • Order supplies and equipment to ensure operational needs; arrange transportation and entertainment for scheduled activities and events.
  • Motivate individual and staff to participate in leisure program activities.
  • Level of responsibility

  • Determine the recreational needs and interests of individuals served.
  • Determine which individuals will participate in leisure activities or teams.
  • Determine alternate activities or changes in curriculum based on the individual’s needs.
  • Recreational Therapist, GS-0638-07

    Nature, range, and complexity of work

    Recreational Therapists GS-7 are expected to perform the duties described for GS-05 and perform work with more independence and receive less supervision and review.

    Recreational Therapists GS-7 provide functional direction to Recreational Therapist GS-05 and direct care staff and community participants that are assisting in the leisure program activities through advice, guidance and delegation of tasks. Incumbents may participate in the training and mentoring of new employees.The following assignments are illustrative:

  • Transcribe physician’s orders and write weekly progress notes into medical records system to ensure therapeutic goals and objectives are being met and individuals are receiving the best possible care; write and enter discharge summaries into medical records system for individuals leaving state care to ensure participation in activities after discharge.
  • Write quarterly assessment notes to document the achievement of program goals for individuals.
  • Recommend appropriate staffing levels for each program, planned activities and/or events.
  • Level of responsibility

  • Determine the appropriateness of volunteers to the facility or individuals being served.
  • Recommend appropriate staffing for programs or planned activities.
  • Coordinate recreational and/or leisure activities.
  • Recreational Therapists GS-7 receive general supervision from employees of a higher grade who provide training, instruction, work assignments and performance reviews through frequent formal and informal communications.

    Recreational Therapists GS-7 usually work indoors in institutional or residential settings. The noise level in the work environment is usually quiet; however, it may increase due activities. Incumbents may be exposed to stressful situations and may be exposed to verbal and/or physical confrontations. Incumbents may be exposed to blood born pathogens, communicable diseases, bodily fluids or spills and contaminated products. Incumbents may be required to work extended hours, nights or weekends. Incumbents may be required to travel for job-related purposes, such as community trips and events and may be exposed to traffic and other roadway or travel-related hazards.

    Recreational Therapist, GS-0638-11

    Nature, range, and complexity of work

    This is the fully competent, professional level and the second-level supervisory classification in this series. At this level, incumbents are expected to perform the duties described for GS-05 and GS-07 and show more expertise in specific areas. Recreational Therapists perform more complex duties and perform work with more independence and receive less supervision and review. At this level, incumbents exercise greater independence in making decisions.

    Recreational Therapists GS-11 provide functional direction to direct care staff, volunteers and interns at planned activities or events through advice, guidance and delegation of tasks. Incumbents may participate in the interviewing process and make recommendations for new hires. The following assignments are illustrative:

  • Supervise Recreational Therapist GS-05 and GS-07 to monitor their quality of performance and the effectiveness of the services they provide; assign cases to staff and employees to cover events, activities and programs.
  • Evaluate and assess the skills, abilities, interests and needs of the individuals served to ensure the quality of therapeutic recreational services provided; assess and evaluate the quality and effectiveness of treatment plans developed by subordinates to determine if the needs of the individual’s services are met.
  • Provide training to new Recreational Therapist GS-05 and GS-07 regarding safety procedures, the use of the medical records system, how to perform functional assessments, develop treatment plans and write progress notes.
  • Write and submit summaries of services, leisure calendars and additional reports for compliance and informational purposes.
  • Conduct tours for prospective families to educate them regarding available services.
  • Oversee and monitor the budget dedicated to recreational and/or leisure services or activities.
  • Plan residential/community-based activities, special events, trips and vacations to enhance the recreational/leisure experiences of individuals served.
  • Level of responsibility

  • Determine how to allocate the budget for recreational/leisure activities and events.
  • Interview candidates and make recommendation(s) for hire.
  • Assign cases to subordinates.
  • Determine staffing levels for planned events and activities.
  • Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

    A bachelor's degree with a major or concentration in therapeutic recreation is the usual requirement. Some States regulate recreational therapists, but requirements vary.

    Education and training. Most entry-level recreational therapists need a bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation, or in recreation with a concentration in therapeutic recreation. A few may qualify with some combination of education, training, and work experience that would be equivalent to what is considered competent in the field. There are more than 100 academic programs that prepare students to become recreational therapists. Most offer bachelor's degrees, although some offer associate’s, master's, or doctoral degrees. Therapeutic recreation programs include courses in assessment, treatment and program planning, intervention design, and evaluation. Students also study human anatomy, physiology, abnormal psychology, medical and psychiatric terminology, characteristics of illnesses and disabilities, professional ethics, and the use of assistive devices and technology. Bachelor’s degree programs include an internship in the field as part of their curriculum.

    Licensure. Some States regulate recreational therapists through licensure, registration, or regulation of titles. Requirements vary by State. In 2009, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Utah, and New Hampshire required licensure to practice as a recreational therapist. For specifics on regulations and requirements, contact the State’s medical board.

    Certification and other qualifications. Although certification is voluntary, most employers prefer to hire candidates who are certified therapeutic recreation specialists. Work in clinical settings often requires certification by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification. The council offers the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist credential to candidates who pass a written certification examination and complete a supervised internship of at least 480 hours. A minimum of a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy from an accredited institution is required for credentialing, but some may qualify with equivalent education, training, and experience. Therapists must meet additional requirements to maintain certification. For specific details on credentialing, contact the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification. (See Sources of Additional Information below for address.)

    Recreational therapists may dedicate themselves to a certain type of therapy. Therapists wanting to practice a concentration can also earn certifications in specific therapies, such as art therapy and aquatic therapy.

    Recreational therapists must be comfortable working with people who are ill or disabled. Therapists must be patient, tactful, and persuasive when working with people who have a variety of special needs. Ingenuity, a sense of humor, and imagination are needed to adapt activities to individual needs, and good physical coordination is necessary to demonstrate or participate in recreational activities.

    Advancement. Therapists may advance to supervisory or administrative positions. Some teach, conduct research, or consult for health or social services agencies.

    Job Outlook

    Employment is projected to grow faster than the average. Applicants will face competition for jobs.

    Employment change. Employment of recreational therapists is expected to increase 15 percent from 2008 to 2018, faster than the average for all occupations. Job growth will stem from the therapy needs of the aging population. With age comes an inevitable decrease in physical ability and, in some cases, mental ability, which can be limited or managed with recreation therapy. In nursing care facilities—the largest industry employing recreational therapists—employment will grow faster than the occupation as a whole as the number of older adults continues to grow.

    Employment growth in schools will result from the expansion of the school-age population and the federally funded extension of services for disabled students.

    Reimbursement for recreational therapy services will continue to affect how and where therapeutic recreation is provided. As payers and employers try to contain costs, recreation therapy services will shift to outpatient settings and away from hospitals.

    Job prospects. Recreational therapists will experience competition for jobs. Lower paid recreational therapy aides may be increasingly used in an effort to contain costs. Job opportunities should be best for people with a bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation and the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist credential. Recreational therapists might experience more competition for jobs in certain regions of the country as jobs in therapeutic recreation tend to cluster in more densely populated areas.


    Median annual wages of recreational therapists were $38,370 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $29,660 and $49,140. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $23,150, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $60,280. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of recreational therapists in May 2008 were:

    General medical and surgical hospitals $42,210
    State government 40,310
    Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals 40,150
    Nursing care facilities 33,920
    Community care facilities for the elderly 33,490

    Sources of Additional Information

    For information and materials on careers and academic programs in recreational therapy, contact:

    • American Therapeutic Recreation Association, 629 N. Main St., Hattiesburg, MS 39401. Internet:
    • National Therapeutic Recreation Society, 22377 Belmont Ridge Rd., Ashburn, VA 20148-4501. Internet:

    Information on certification may be obtained from:

    • National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification, 7 Elmwood Dr., New City, NY 10956. Internet:

    For information on licensure requirements, contact the appropriate recreational therapy regulatory agency for your State.

    Information on obtaining Recreational Therapist positions with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724–1850 or  (703) 724–1850  or TDD (978) 461–8404 and   (978) 461–8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result. For advice on how to find and apply for Federal jobs, download the Insider's Guide to the Federal Hiring Process” online here.


    • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition; and
    • Office of Personnel Management, Position Classification Standards.

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