What Is Recreational Therapy?

If you have been injured or ill or have a chronic disability, you may be having difficulty performing everyday activities. You may benefit from the skilled services of a rehabilitation team to help you recover fully. One important member of that rehab team is your recreational therapist. A recreational therapist is a healthcare professional who helps you maximize your physical and emotional health through recreational activities.

Recreational therapy, also known as therapeutic recreation, is not a game. Your recreational therapist will use activities to help you move better and feel better. A physical or occupational therapist may use exercises to improve functional mobility, while a recreational therapist uses recreational activities to help you regain your mobility and improve well-being. Activities may include doing puzzles and playing games, cooking, or outdoor activities like horseback riding or hiking.

This article will take a close look at recreational therapy and the many benefits it can offer. It may help you determine if recreational therapy is a good rehab modality for you or a loved one.

A young woman in a wheelchair plays pickleball with her friend.

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Definition of Recreational Therapy

Recreational therapy is a healthcare specialty that uses activity-based interventions to help you move better and feel better after injury or illness or if you have a chronic disability. The interventions are typically based on recreational activities that you like to do and are designed to help you recover physical, functional, and emotional health.

Recreational therapists are trained to evaluate your condition and intervene in ways that help you maximize your social, mental, and physical health. The main goal of recreational therapy is to reduce depression and anxiety and to help you socialize comfortably in your community.

Therapeutic Recreation Activities Examples

Therapeutic recreation is not all about playing games. It involves using specific activities to help you regain your independence in your community.

Examples of activities that a recreational therapist may perform may include:

  • Art, such as painting or drawing
  • Cooking
  • Community outings
  • Participation in sports
  • Group exercise classes
  • Dancing

Accommodating Wants and Needs

The key to a positive recreational therapy experience is that the activity planned should be specific to your emotional and physical needs and capabilities. It also should be something you would want to do as an activity.

Recreational Therapy vs. Other Types of Therapy

You may be familiar with other types of therapists, like physical therapists and occupational therapists. These professionals help people regain pain-free functional mobility after injury or illness. If you cannot move your upper extremity after falling, your physical therapist can measure your shoulder range of motion and strength and devise a treatment strategy to help you improve the use of your arm.

A recreational therapist is similar to other types of therapists. They will meet with you at regular intervals to help you recover from your injury or to help you socially interact with your community in positive ways. During the initial meeting with a recreational therapist, they will evaluate your condition and learn about how your emotional and physical needs are preventing you from achieving your maximal potential as a person.

During therapeutic recreation, you and your therapist will engage in activities that can help you move better and feel better. During that activity, your therapist may give you specific cues or ideas that improve your movement and improve your ability to interact with your environment.

Who Can Benefit From Recreational Therapy

The America Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA) states that individuals of all ages and abilities may benefit from working with a recreational therapist. Children, teenagers, adults, and older persons who have a disability—either permanent or temporary—may engage in recreational therapy and enjoy the benefits offered.

People with physical and psychological conditions may equally benefit from the skilled services of a recreational therapist. So if you're not moving well or not feeling well emotionally, working with a therapist can help you as part of your rehabilitation and recovery process.

Always consult your healthcare provider before beginning new treatment methods.

Does Recreational Therapy Work?

Whenever you engage in any healthcare activity or treatment, you should ask if that treatment can help your specific condition. This is no different for recreational therapy.

A 2018 review of the use of recreational dance in children ages 5 to 21 found that there is evidence to suggest a host of benefits of the therapy. These included:

  • Decreased obesity
  • Improved bone health
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness
  • Improve self-image
  • Decreased anxiety

Another 2018 study examined health improvements in injured military service persons after a week-long recreational therapy wellness retreat. One hundred twenty-seven service members participated in the study, and the results showed significant improvement in outcomes measures for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stress, anxiety, and depression after the retreat.

The health improvements remained at three and six-month time points after the completion of the recreational therapy retreat. This shows that therapeutic recreation may offer long-term significant emotional and psychological benefits to injured military service members.

Recreational therapy appears to be an effective treatment to improve well-being in injured or disabled people with limited negative side effects.

Recreational Therapist Professional Background

So what does it take to become a professional recreational therapist? Most therapists have a bachelor's level degree in recreational therapy or leisure studies. The focus of the workload during school will be on art, psychology, and music classes. Upon graduation, students can then sit for a national examination and become a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS).

While it is not necessary to become a CTRS to work, many employers seek out recreational therapists who hold the certification. If you are certified, you are required to take continuing education classes at regular intervals and go through a recertification process every five years.

Interested in Becoming A CTRS?

If you are interested in becoming a recreational therapist, you can visit the ATRA to find a program of study near you.

Enrolling in Recreational Therapy

How does one get started receiving recreational therapy services? The best way to start working with a recreational therapist is to visit your healthcare professional and ask for a referral. They can ensure you are appropriate for services and may be able to help you find a therapist.

If you are in an inpatient hospital, a recreational therapist will likely spend time with you as some point. Just like working with a physical or occupational therapist can help you move better in the hospital, working with a recreation therapist while in the rehab hospital may be an everyday occurrence to help you reintegrate into your community after discharge.

Insurance Coverage

One question that people have regarding recreational therapy is, "Will my insurance cover the services of a recreational therapist?" The short answer: It depends.

If you have Medicare insurance, recreational therapy is a covered service for people with certain diagnoses and in certain settings. If you are in an inpatient rehabilitation facility, therapeutic recreation is a covered rehabilitation service. If you receive outpatient recreational therapy, you should make sure you have a prescription and letter of medical necessity from a physician in order to qualify for Medicare reimbursement.

If you have private insurance, it is a good idea to call your insurance provider and inquire about coverage for recreational therapy. If you do not have insurance, you can expect to pay $100-$150 per session for recreational therapy. Each session should last about one to two hours.


Recreational therapy, also known as professional therapeutic recreation, is an allied health profession that helps you improve functional mobility and emotional stability. In doing so, you can interact socially in your community. This is especially important if you are having mobility issues due to an injury, illness or chronic disability.

If you are interested in working with a recreational therapist, ask your healthcare professional for a referral. Keep in mind that costs vary depending on your insurance coverage.

A Word From Verywell

Living with a chronic disability or a functional limitation due to an illness or injury can have a significant impact on your quality of life. Working with a team of rehab professionals can help you improve your mobility and ability to comfortably complete everyday tasks. One professional who may be able to help you regain your emotional and functional well-being is a recreational therapist.

Working in therapeutic recreation may help you decrease anxiety and depression, improve your sense of well-being, and improve your function in day-to-day tasks.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you do recreational therapy on your own?

    While you may engage in recreational activities that help you feel less anxious or depressed, recreational therapy is its own healthcare specialty. Working with a recreational therapist may be an important step in ensuring you are functioning optimally in your community.

  • How much does recreational therapy cost?

    You can expect to pay between $80 and $100 per hour-long session with a recreational therapist.

  • Do recreational therapists suggest activities based on individual interest?

    Some activities you do with your recreational therapist may be based on your personal interest. Other times, you may be asked to spend time doing a new activity in order to achieve your goals in recreational therapy.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Therapeutic Recreation Association. ATRA: about recreation therapy.

  2. American Therapeutic Recreation Association. ATRA: who we are.

  3. Burkhardt J, Brennan C. The effects of recreational dance interventions on the health and well-being of children and young people: a systematic reviewArts & Health. 2012;4(2):148-161. doi:10.1080/17533015.2012.665810

  4. Townsend J, Hawkins BL, Bennett JL, et al. Preliminary long-term health outcomes associated with recreation-based health and wellness programs for injured service members. Cogent Psychology. 2018;5(1):1444330. doi:10.1080/23311908.2018.1444330

  5. Hoss MAK. Recreational therapy workforce: an updateAm J of Rec Therapy. 2019;18(3):9-15. doi:10.5055/ajrt.2019.0191

  6. De Vries D. Regulatory requirements for recreational therapy in nursing homesAm J of Rec Therapy. 2017;13(1):25. doi:10.5055/ajrt.2014.0063

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.