Let’s face it, on a scale of hot or not, attending therapy doesn’t make any client jump with excitement.
But what if that could be changed? What if clients were eager to engage with therapy and follow their treatment plan with ease?
It is quite possible, and we can do that by adding recreational therapy to our skill set.
Recreational therapy is gaining recognition as an important beneficial component of holistic health care.
Below we will look into the certifications necessary to provide this holistic, dynamic, and comprehensive service offering to clients. We will take a quick look at how it works, types of activities, and the multitude of benefits of recreational therapy.
Let’s start by exploring the ins and outs of recreational therapy.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology, including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.
Recreational therapy is the application of recreational or leisure activities to achieve therapeutic outcomes (Austin et al., 2020). Or, in simpler language, it is the use of everyday hobbies and activities to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of people with illnesses or disabilities.
The goal of recreational therapy is to help clients feel better and improve their quality of life and overall wellbeing. Now that we have a basic idea of what it is, let’s look a little deeper by exploring the types of activities, settings commonly used, and who might benefit.
Assess the strengths, needs, abilities, and interests of individuals to develop personalized intervention or care plans.
Create a tailored treatment plan that incorporates various recreational activities based on the above assessment. The specific activities are chosen together with the client to address specific goals and objectives.
Implement the treatment plan by engaging individuals in the above chosen activities.
Evaluate the progress of individuals throughout the process, making adjustments to the treatment plan based on the individual’s responses and improvements.
To learn more about what it’s like to work in this field, have a look at this video interview with Guy Forson, a practicing recreation therapist.
Recreational therapist: careers in mental health - oshmp
Where can you practice recreational therapy?
Recreational therapy can be implemented as a part of in- or outpatient programs, and it is performed within a variety of settings, including:
Mental health settings
Schools and community-based settings
Long-term care facilities
6 Recreational Therapy Activities
Any hobby or leisure activity can be used as a part of a recreational therapy program (Carter & Andel, 2019).
The choice of the activity depends on several factors, including the client’s ability, preferences, and the overall goals of the program. Examples might include the following:
1. Gardening therapy
Gardening is often used within recreational therapy programs as it is a hands-on activity that encourages physical, social, and creative engagement (Soga et al., 2017).
It is a tactile and sensory-rich activity that benefits several client groups with varied needs and conditions and is adaptable to diverse settings and abilities. This makes it an ideal recreational therapy activity.
Over the last decade, several celebrities including singer Will Young have been advocating for gardening as a therapeutic activity. Celebrity gardener and author Monty Don has also shared his experience with seasonal affective disorder and depression and how gardening has helped him improve his wellbeing.
In an interview with The Herald, the presenter of GardenersWorld.com reflects on how gardening helped him cope with both his mental health issues and his recovery after a stroke.
2. Animal-assisted therapy
Animal-assisted therapy involves trained animals, such as dogs or horses, to assist therapists in promoting physical, emotional, and social wellbeing in individuals (Fine, 2010).
The presence of animals can reduce stress, build trust, enhance communication, and improve overall mental wellbeing (Nimer & Lundahl, 2007).
These activities help individuals explore and communicate their emotions, reduce stress, and promote personal growth (Huotilainen et al., 2018).
4. Sport and movement therapy
Sport and movement therapies such as yoga therapy combine physical exercise with therapeutic principles to promote mental and physical wellbeing.
These activities can enhance mindfulness, reduce stress, improve strength, balance, and flexibility, and improve overall health (Cabral et al., 2011).
5. Outdoor activities therapy
Therapeutically implemented outdoor activities involve purposeful engagement in nature to enhance physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
Nature therapy activities like hiking, camping, and team sports are tailored to individuals’ needs, promoting social skills, confidence, and overall quality of life (Weng & Chiang, 2014).
6. Music therapy
Activities like singing, listening, and playing instruments to enhance communication, alleviate stress, and promote overall wellbeing can be used by therapists during music therapy to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs (Chapman, 2023).
How Does It Work? The Psychology Behind Recreational Therapy
From a psychological perspective, the benefits are achieved and enhanced through purposeful and mindful engagement in everyday leisure activities (Hood & Carruthers, 2012).
Further value is gained from the fact that clients are more likely to continue with activities they enjoy. This means that clients will stay engaged with therapy and therefore experience more sustainable, longer-term benefits.
To understand how a therapy modality works, we need to look at the mechanisms of action. Although there appears to be little or no research regarding this, there is evidence to suggest that like many other approaches, it acts through the following (Carter & Andel, 2019):
Building a therapeutic relationship
By building quality therapeutic relationships with your clients, you will create a supportive and trusting environment, which helps them feel understood and motivated and contributes to the effectiveness of the process.
Positive behavioral activation
Behavioral activation involves engaging in positive activities and behaviors to improve mood and wellbeing. This is achieved by encouraging clients to engage actively in enjoyable pastimes.
Interventions can be designed to activate cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and problem-solving. These types of activities contribute to cognitive rehabilitation and the maintenance of cognitive abilities.
Recreational therapy acts through positive psychology principles in that it often involves activities that promote positive experiences, enhance mood, and increase overall life satisfaction.
It can further act by encouraging complete absorption and focus, resulting in a flow state, which is linked to deep satisfaction and joy. In addition, by negotiating activities that hold personal meaning and relevance for clients, it can contribute to a sense of purpose and fulfillment through meaningful engagement.
Engaging in enjoyable activities can help clients cope with stress, anxiety, and other emotional challenges by providing a healthy distraction and promoting relaxation.
In addition, it may incorporate biofeedback and relaxation techniques to help individuals gain awareness and control over their emotional and physiological responses to stress. These techniques help your clients develop more effective emotional regulation and stress management.
Many interventions involve participating in group and social activities, which is essential for mental health and can contribute to a sense of belonging, support, and connection with others.
Overall, the psychological mechanisms of action appear to be achieved through principles that highlight and use the interaction between recreational activities and physical, emotional, cognitive, and social dynamics. Further research regarding the actual mechanisms of action is, however, required.
Benefits of Recreational Therapy According to Research
When we do leisure activities or hobbies that we enjoy, we feel better, and the research tells us that these activities have clinical benefits for clients, such as (Soubam et al., 2020):
Physical strength, mobility, and coordination can improve through engaging in activities such as sports, aquatics, yoga, and dance.
Positive outlets for expression and stress reduction through activities like art therapy, music therapy, and outdoor recreation can promote emotional wellbeing.
Enhanced social and cognitive skills of individuals with developmental disabilities, traumatic brain injury, and dementia are achieved through adapted recreational activities tailored to meet the unique needs of each person.
Quality of life and overall wellbeing can improve.
6 Best Training Programs
If you are interested in becoming a recreational therapist, you will need to acquire the required credentials in the form of training and certification. In researching this article, we found that most of the information regarding training and certification specific to recreational therapy is US-based.
We have focused on this readily available information, and if you’d like to learn more about local programs elsewhere, you can contact local universities and associations, including:
You can also contact your local universities and professional development associations to find out more about local training. As with most health-related qualifications, different countries and states may have varying certification requirements. Check your country’s or state’s requirements first if you would like to make this your career.
Universities.com has a list of their 10 best picks in America, and Edvoy has listed the best international programs, which may be a place to start.
We’ve done some further groundwork to help get you started.
3 Formal recreational therapy degree programs
Getting a degree in recreational therapy requires studying to a master’s level. This means that you would earn a suitable undergraduate degree and then a field-specific master’s degree.
These are a few of our favorite master’s degrees:
1. Master of Science in recreational therapy – Temple University, Pennsylvania
Temple University offers an evidence-based online master’s degree that will provide you with expertise in:
Assessment of participants’ needs
Development, planning, and implementation of evidence-based interventions
Documentation of participants’ progress
An evaluation of evidence-based treatment outcomes
The Temple University program also allows you to choose a specialty, which can be good if you’re looking to build a more niche practice. Have a look at this video highlighting the fieldwork opportunities provided through this program.
Recreational therapy fieldwork at Temple University
2. Master of Science in recreational therapy – College of Health, University of Utah, Utah
The University of Utah master’s degree promises an individualized, innovative, and progressive environment that will enable you to develop your personal and professional knowledge and skill set.
Their program also focuses on developing leadership skills in the profession. So, this would be a good fit if you’re looking to go into management.
3. Master of Science in recreation – Indiana University, online
You will have the opportunity to participate in projects, internships, and field experiences. You will acquire program development and consultation skills and learn advanced techniques. Both on-campus and online students have opportunities to participate in faculty research teams. This is a great option for international students who are considering clinical and research practice career options.
3 Training programs for practicing therapists
If you’re a therapist in practice and would like to add recreational therapy as a part of your existing service offering, you may want to look at some of these training programs.
This course will provide you with theory and practice in the various areas of core recreation programming, taking into account your role as a therapist.
2. Therapeutic recreation basics (online) – Training Express, UK
This online therapeutic recreation course is a comprehensive, self-paced, instructor-guided course designed to provide a detailed understanding of the topic and your key practitioner roles within it.
3. PD online series – Australian Recreational Therapy Association, Australia
This PD online series offers five free training modules focused on programs for older people. It provides insight on applications for clients with dementia.
3 Great Recreational Therapy Books for Therapists
If you’re just curious and would like to learn more before you do any actual training, the following books may be of interest.
1. Perspectives on Recreational Therapy – David Austin and Brian McCormick
Perspectives on Recreational Therapy provides a detailed introduction and perspectives on issues and concerns in recreational therapy. This book offers up-to-date theoretical perspectives that support recreational therapy practice.
It provides perspectives related to the profession, with topics such as the historical development of recreational therapy, health care regulations and recreational therapy, and research in recreational therapy.
It also provides guidance on being a professional, exploring topics such as continuing education and ethics. In general, this book serves as a great foundation for new or aspiring recreational practitioners.
2. Recreational Therapy for Specific Diagnoses and Conditions – Heather Porter
This book offers in-depth descriptions of 39 diagnoses and conditions that recreational therapists treat.
Each chapter describes the diagnosis or condition, followed by the causes of the condition; social, emotional, and bodily systems affected; secondary problems that may be found; and information about the patient’s prognosis.
The chapters then go on to provide detailed guidance regarding the assessment process. Recreational Therapy for Specific Diagnoses and Conditions will help you accurately assess your clients and plan your treatment program.
3. Recreational Therapy: Evidence-Based Interventions for Enhancing Mental Health and Incorporating Recreational Therapy into Holistic Treatment Plans for Health and Well-being – Daphne Killian
Killian’s book explores evidence-based interventions that enhance mental health and will help you discover how recreational therapy seamlessly integrates into holistic treatment plans for overall wellbeing.
Illuminating the full potential of recreational therapy, this inclusive guide presents a diverse range of interventions aimed at enhancing mental health and overall wellbeing. It will help you embrace the therapeutic power of recreation to nurture a balanced and fulfilling life.
Our site has several resources that may be helpful to you as a practicing therapist or even if you’re starting your career and looking for guidance. The following articles make for informative related reading:
On Becoming a Therapist will be particularly helpful if you’re starting your career journey and need guidance. This 96-page manual provides insight into how you can build your career and explore the settings in which you might work, as well as a wealth of information about the education, certifications, and standard practices involved in becoming a therapist.
Recreational therapy is an effective and versatile way to address clinical problems and improve wellbeing. It can be performed in multiple settings to address various conditions. This approach can be particularly helpful to address symptoms related to depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions and improve mental wellbeing.
Closely linked to positive psychology principles, recreational therapy focuses on improving or enhancing clients’ emotional wellbeing. Further links to positive psychology can be noted in that both approaches encourage focus and engagement, leading to flow state. In addition, both acknowledge that a treatment plan that is meaningful to the client leads to a sense of purpose and satisfaction.
Working as a recreational therapist can be a very satisfying occupation due to its creative and versatile nature. Qualification in recreational therapy requires training, internship, and certification in some countries. Training options seem fairly limited, but there are several good options in the United States and online, and your local association may offer workshops and short courses.
Austin, D. R., Crawford, M. E., McCormick, B. P., & Van Puymbroeck, M. (2020). Recreational therapy: An introduction. Sagamore Venture.
Cabral, P., Meyer, H. B., & Ames, D. (2011). Effectiveness of yoga therapy as a complementary treatment for major psychiatric disorders: A meta-analysis. The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders, 13(4).
Carter, M. J., & Van Andel, G. E. (2019). Therapeutic recreation: A practical approach. Waveland Press.
Chapman, A. (2023). Music therapy: Hitting all the right notes?A systematic review of, and efficacy in, the use of music for recreation therapy [Conference presentation abstract]. University Presentation Showcase at Eastern Kentucky University. https://encompass.eku.edu/swps/2023/graduate/3/
Fine, A. H. (Ed.) (2010). Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice. Academic Press.
Hood, C. D., & Carruthers, C. P. (2012). Facilitating change through leisure: The leisure and well-being model of therapeutic recreation practice. In T. Freire (Ed.), Positive leisure science: From subjective experience to social contexts (pp. 121–140). Springer.
Huotilainen, M., Rankanen, M., Groth, C., Seitamaa-Hakkarainen, P., & Mäkelä, M. (2018). Why our brains love arts and crafts: Implications of creative practices on psychophysical well-being. FormAkademisk, 11(2).
Nimer, J., & Lundahl, B. (2007). Animal-assisted therapy: A meta-analysis. Anthrozoös, 20(3), 225–238.
Soga, M., Gaston, K. J., & Yamaura, Y. (2017). Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Preventive Medicine Reports, 5, 92–99.
Soubam, L., Parul, M., Sharma, M., & Sarin, J. (2020). Evaluate the effectiveness of recreational therapy on level of wellbeing and hope among psychiatric inpatients. Indian Journal of Forensic Medicine & Toxicology, 14(4).
Weng, P. Y., & Chiang, Y. C. (2014). Psychological restoration through indoor and outdoor leisure activities. Journal of Leisure Research, 46(2), 203–217.
About the author
Susan McGarvie, Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and therapist in private practice. With more than twenty years' experience working in the health and NPO sectors, her research, writing, and work have focused on supporting practitioners to better manage stress and create a balanced sense of wellbeing.