Recreation therapists plan and direct leisure activities for individuals with disabilities or illness. These leisure activities can be a myriad of things, including arts, music, sports, movement, dance, games, wellness, and exercise.
While it might seem like these activities are ones someone could do for themselves, oftentimes people either don’t make time for leisure, engage in unhealthy leisure (such as drug use), or need some education about leisure and how to implement it in their daily lives.
Recreation therapy, also called therapeutic recreation, addresses the physical, cognitive, social, and emotional needs of an individual. It is very similar to other therapies, such as physical or occupational therapy, because it has those same goals. Through activity and coaching sessions, recreation therapists can help guide a client through leisure activities that they can apply to real-life situations to achieve an overall healthy, balanced life.
The need for leisure for parents and children with special needs is great. They need the respite and skills as they age. As children with special needs grow into adulthood, they need to have good leisure skills in place to prevent boredom or depression when their school services run out. Recreation therapy skills are essential for independent living. Research suggests the people who live active lives are happier and healthier. Recreation therapy improves quality of life and productivity for individuals with special needs.
So what is recreation therapy like? As with other therapies, recreation therapy might involve a weekly or multiple times a week sessions. A recreation therapist will do an initial evaluation to see what a person’s interests are and develop a plan based on those areas. The recreation therapist will then engage the client in those activities throughout the week. For example, someone who loves the water might enjoy a swim lesson or a kayak trip. These sessions are likely followed up with a period to discuss the activity and how it might benefit the client on a daily basis. Recreation therapy also includes coaching sessions, in which the therapist and client might fill out worksheets or talk about their leisure activities, what worked or didn’t work, and how a person can change those leisure activities for something that is healthier.
Goals in the physical realm might include improving overall physical strength (a recreation therapist might use personal training or specialized exercises to achieve this goal) or to improve fine and gross motor skills. For children working on fine and gross motor skills, recreation therapy is more motivating and fun oftentimes than other therapies. Group activities enhance social skills, and the overall wellness a client feels from the recreation therapy sessions often improves mood and balances emotions. The cognitive approach helps clients apply leisure skills to their daily lives and really examine the activity and determine if it is healthy or if there is a better option.
For more information about therapeutic recreation or how to find a recreation therapist, visit the American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA).