Job Profile: Therapeutic Recreation Specialist

Therapeutic recreation specialists treat people suffering from chronic disabilities, injuries, or illnesses, using recreational activities, such as sports, music, dance, arts and crafts. Over a third are employed by state, local, and private hospitals; a quarter are in nursing care facilities, and about 19 percent work for the government. Other common workplaces include rehabilitation centers, park and recreation departments, and special education. They typically work full-time although about 20 percent have part-time schedules. Much of the work is confined to indoor settings. However, they may travel to visit patients or go to parks and other outdoor areas to handle such activities as field sports. To meet the needs of patients who work or go to school, specialists may need to work evenings and weekends.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) puts the average salary of therapeutic recreation specialists at $45,520 annually, or $21.88 per hour. The lowest-paid 10 percent make less than $27,120 yearly, or $13.04 hourly, while the best-paid 10 percent receive over $68,950 annually, or $33.15 per hour.

Beginning Salary

According to PayScale, the starting salary of the position is about $35,493 per year, or about $17.75 per hour.

Key Responsibilities

When they meet a new patient, specialists first examine his medical history, run tests, and observe him to diagnose any problems. They then come up with a treatment plan to address his needs. They teach him new activities, such as painting and drawing, dancing, or playing computer games, and then encourage him as he performs those activities. If a patient becomes anxious or depressed, they may include additional therapies, such as introducing a dog. They make records of a patients progress and may forward the information to other healthcare professionals. The ultimate goal is to improve the patient’s physical, mental, and social abilities.

Necessary Skills

Arguably the most important skill for therapeutic recreation specialists to have is compassion. They must be able to put themselves in the shoes of the patient and his family so they can empathize and know how to deal with any stress. They must have the patience to listen to an individual with trouble communicating and to spend extra time with him when necessary. They need critical-thinking skills to define problems and find solutions. They must also show leadership for planning and implementing activities, and the speaking skill to communicate thoroughly and accurately with a patient, his family, and his doctor.

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Degree and Education Requirements

Therapeutic recreation specialists typically need a minimum bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy or a related subject, and some have master’s and doctor’s degrees. An associate degree is also acceptable in some cases. Typical programs cover medical and psychiatric terminology, assessing patients, human anatomy, and use of assistive technology. Many programs also require internships so students can learn to work in real-life settings. Most employers require specialists to have a Certified Therapeutic Recreational Specialist credential issued by the National Council for Therpaeutic Recreation Certification. Qualifications for this certification include at least a bachelor’s degree, a supervised internship with 560 hours, and passing an exam. Specialty certification is also available in behavioral health, community inclusion services, developmental disabilities, geriatric, and physical medicine/rehabilitation. Continuing education classes may be necessary to maintain any credentials. As of 2012, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah also demand licensing. Requirements differ by state medical board.

Pros and Cons

Aside from receiving respectable salaries and having a high demand for their services, recreational specialists get a great deal of emotional satisfaction from being able to ease the pain and suffering of their patients. Because each person has different needs and problems, there’s no such thing as a typical day of work. The variety may include assessing a patient at a private office, planning a program at a hospital, and a trip to the park to expose their patients to nature. The job can be highly stressful because it can deal with life-threatening conditions. A patient can be stressed out and suffering from worry and anxiety over health problems or insurance payments. He may take out his frustrations on the specialists who must remain calm and concerned. They also need the physical stamina to be on their feet all day and the strength to handle wheelchairs and other assistive devices.

Getting Started

Potential recreation specialists can start out by leading groups of people, preferably in recreational activities, even before they enter college. For example, they can head up sports teams, direct school plays, or organize groups to perform large-scale activities such as car washes to raise funds for the football team. When they discover that they have a talent for such social interaction, they can find out about the healthcare side of the profession by volunteering at a senior-citizen center, an old folks’ home, or a hospital. They can then gain experience in working with patients who have all kinds of medical conditions. Planning recreational activities in such settings gives a good idea of what the profession entails.


The BLS predicts that jobs for the profession will increase by 13 percent from 2012 to 2022. This is slightly higher than the 11 percent projected for all jobs in all professions. However, it is less than the 20 percent forecast for health diagnosing and treating practitioners. Driving this trend is the aging baby boomer population, who are more likely to suffer from debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, stroke or physical injuries. Modern lifestyles have also contributed to growing chronic conditions such as obesity or diabetes. Patients with these problems can turn to recreation specialists to help manage their problems and maintain mobility. Finally, insurance companies and other third-party payers prefer the use of recreational specialists for treatment in outpatient facilities because they are a more cost-effective alternative to doctors and hospitals.

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Therapeutic recreation specialists have a chance to alleviate pain and suffering in a fun and interesting way. Because the job is full of variety in the patients, problems, and treatments, it is never boring. The fact that the profession also has a good salary and good demand are added bonuses.

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