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What Is Therapeutic Recreation?

Occupational therapy and physical therapy are well-known professions within healthcare. While they are often prescribed in conjunction with one another, they each serve a distinct purpose.

The same is true for recreational therapy. If you're considering the "therapy tract" for your career, the following information may help guide your decision.

Recreational Therapy, Defined

The National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC) defines recreational therapy (RT), also known as therapeutic recreation, as "a systematic process that utilizes recreation and other activity-based interventions to address the assessed needs of individuals with illnesses and/or disabling conditions, as a means to psychological and physical health, recovery and well-being." This involves taking a "whole person" approach to one's physical, cognitive, social, emotional and spiritual functioning.

It's also important to clarify that therapeutic recreation is not simply organizing recreational activities for enjoyment. Recreational therapy is an orchestrated healthcare approach that entails certain educational requirements. While some employers will hire recreational therapists with a Bachelor of Science degree, many prefer they have a Master of Science degree (MS), emphasizing therapeutic recreation.

5 Health Goals Therapeutic Recreation Helps Achieve

Recreational therapy has applications for individuals of all ages across many different categories of health goals. Below are a few examples of how RT serves as a vital rehabilitation strategy.

1) Improves Strength/Physical Fitness

Using more "nontraditional" strength-building approaches (tai chi, dance) as opposed to weight-based exercises has been shown to improve balance, flexibility and overall physical strength. This is beneficial for almost every age group, from children and adolescents who may have become weakened due to illness or hospitalization to the geriatric population.

One recent study looked at the benefits of RT among preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), specifically focusing on basketball. After 12 weeks, the research group showed marked improvement in speed, agility, muscle strength and social communication skills.

2) Mitigates Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety

Physical activity results in increased endorphins, which are often described as "feel good" hormones. Endorphins also spike during periods of social interaction or when individuals express bouts of creativity. All three (physical activity, social interaction, creativity) are employed during RT, with activities such as art therapy, music therapy, dance, dramatic expression, creative writing or any group activity such as a cooking class or gardening party.

Recreational therapy also benefits those who struggle with anxiety, whether chronic or situational in nature. For example, children who suffer from a chronic illness may have to spend a lot of time in the hospital. This can elicit feelings of stress, fear and vulnerability. Incorporating therapeutic play into their day-to-day activities provides a chance to get closer to hospital staff, better communicate their feelings and develop a much-needed sense of control.

Recreational therapy can also help those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Veterans of combat are often at risk for PTSD, but anyone who experiences a traumatic event can develop the disorder. Recreational therapy has been shown to improve the mental and emotional coping mechanisms PTSD patients utilize.

3) Strengthens Self-Esteem and Social Connections

Poor self-esteem and lack of self-confidence are very closely connected to reduced social connections and even total isolation. According to Healthline, multiple studies reveal that RT boosts self-esteem and improves the number and quality of social connections among individuals, including:

  • Older adults in long-term care facilities
  • Early dementia patients
  • People suffering from illness, injury or disability

4) Supports Cognitive Function

It has long been suggested that performing "brain games" like crossword puzzles, Sudoku or chess can boost your cognitive abilities. Research supports the claim that activities like these stimulate the brain, as does physical activity and social interactions. So while RT cannot overcome permanent brain damage, various therapies can support healthy functioning of the brain.

5) Restores Functional Independence Following Injury

Serious afflictions like multiple broken bones or spinal injuries can make daily activities challenging. Occupational therapy, physical therapy and recreational therapy would likely be prescribed together in order to help restore a patient's functional independence in these scenarios. RT contributes to both the social and physical aspects of resuming a patient's daily lifestyle.

A Promising Future for Patients and Providers Alike

Of course, the above is just a sampling of how RT can contribute to the overall health of patients. As this specialty continues to grow, so too will opportunities for recreational therapists. This can be particularly lucrative for therapists with a Master of Science degree and those who have achieved accreditation as a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS), which the NCTRC considers the "most professionally advanced credential for the field of therapeutic recreation."

Learn more about Northwest Missouri State University's Online Master of Science in Recreation with an Emphasis in Therapeutic Recreation.


Brain Sciences: Effects of Mini-Basketball Training Program on Executive Functions and Core Symptoms among Preschool Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

The Benefits of Recreational Therapy
Sudoku or Crosswords May Help Keep Your Brain 10 Years Younger

NCTRC: About Recreational Therapy

NRPA: Recreational Therapy: Helping Soldiers Cope With PTSD

WebMD: Exercise and Depression

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