Essential Skills of a Recreation Therapist and Tips for Improving Them

Recreation Therapists play a crucial role in healing, transformation, and general well-being. Though our profession may not get the same respect as other disciplines, those of us working in Recreation Therapy know the powerful impact we have on others’ lives.

This month begins my 19th year as a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS). My career started as an Activity Director working with adults with developmental disabilities in an intermediate care residential facility. After eleven years at that rewarding job, I started working in an inpatient drug rehab/mental health setting for adolescent males mostly in the criminal justice system. Needless to say, my experience gave me the opportunity to see and learn a great deal about the Recreation Therapy profession.

Being in the field this long, I was lucky enough to interact with many caregivers that were true inspirations. Their habits and work ethics taught me essential skills to be the best Recreation Therapist I could.

As I prepared for this article, I thought about my role models and the lessons I’ve learned along the way. Trust me, I’ve had many opportunities to learn from my mistakes. This list of skills is not exhaustive by any means. None of these are standalone skills. Consider this a recipe for Recreation Therapists where every ingredient blends together to form a great soup, stew, or chili–whatever food metaphor you prefer. Many of these skills transfer well to anyone in caregiving professions.

I included a few simple tips to help improve each skill by reflection, interaction, and challenging perspectives. Recreation Therapists serve an essential role to the healing community, let’s work to be the best representatives of our profession.

Title image Skills of Recreation Therapists

Essential Skills for Recreation Therapists

Passion for Recreation

Without a doubt, the best Recreation Therapists know the power recreation has to heal and change lives. Those entering the field certainly possesses an innate sense of the transforming powers of recreation. Why else would they choose the field? A Recreation Therapist that doesn’t have a great respect for recreation is like a dentist that doesn’t like teeth. Even during the most challenging days, great Recreation Therapists realize the impact their programming has on the lives of their participants.

Ways to Improve:

  • Journal about your favorite leisure activities and the benefits you get from them.
  • Try a new recreation activity for yourself. Note how it impacts your life.
  • Keep up to date on current Recreation Therapy trends through blogs, internet groups, and networking.

An Eye for Potential

Great Recreation Therapists see things others may not. They have the unique perspective of using recreation to improve lives. When Recreation Therapists develop therapeutic relationships with clients, they find new ways to use recreation for their participants’ best interests. Getting participants out of their comfort zones is a great way to address need areas. Quality recreation programming reaches participants in ways other disciplines may not realize.

Ways to Improve:

  • Brainstorm ways to get participants out of their comfort zones.
  • Network with other Recreation Therapists to see what they are doing in similar programs.
  • As a professional, get out of your comfort zone. It’s easy to carbon copy activity ideas you used in the past. Break the mold of your recreation programming.

Creativity and Adaptability

Because things don’t always go as planned, being creative and adaptable could turn a disastrous moment into a success. From groups, events, outings, and individual therapy, great Recreation Therapists think on their feet. They handle challenges and changes in stride and use their best judgement to ensure their programming meets the needs of their clients.

Ways to Improve:

  • Plan ahead. At a time of the day when you feel most connected with your creativity, brainstorm potential adaptations to your programs and activities in a notebook and keep it handy.
  • Flex those creative muscles. Think of an activity you could never picture your participants doing. Come up with ways the activity (or a version of it) could reach your participants.
  • You are probably more creative than you think. Take some time to reflect on times you adapted activities and situations within a moment’s notice. Journal about it then keep the entry accessible for the days you feel your creativity struggling.

Ready to Lead

Most Recreation Therapists have leadership roles. Facilitating groups, educating coworkers, and directing volunteers all require the touch of a strong leader to be successful. Leadership has many dimensions and finding the best leadership techniques depends on your situation. The best leaders make those around them better. Clear, respectful communication as well as modeling desirable behaviors are key skills for successful leadership. Great leaders don’t dwell on the negativity of situations. They make the best of their resources. Whatever your experiences with leading others, strive to make everyone around you better.

Ways to Improve:

  • Think of someone you admire for their leadership skills. List the qualities they possess. Then write how you could use the qualities to become a better leader.
  • Study Leadership. There are plenty books, blogs, courses, and articles about leadership within easy reach. Never stop learning about this skill.
  • During your shift, be mindful of your behavior. During your interactions with others, ask yourself if you are modeling good leadership.

teamwork picture

Be Motivated and a Motivator

Use your passion for recreation for motivation. This ties into great leadership skills. If others see how motivated you are to use recreation for transformation and healing, eventually–maybe stubbornly–they will see the light. This includes coworkers, supervisors, volunteers, and, of course, your participants. Find new ways to get others excited about Recreation Therapy.

Ways to Improve:

  • Always promote what you are doing. Write articles for newsletters, share success stories, create bulletin boards promoting recreation for everyone in your facility to see.
  • Never doubt the worth of our profession. Even on the bad days, see the impact you are making.
  • Network with other Recreation Therapists–especially passionate ones. Their advice and ideas will recharge waning motivation.

Quality Care Begins with Self-Care

Working in caregiving professions is challenging. Whatever setting you work in, there will be challenges that sometimes seem overwhelming. High turnover, participants’ significant challenges, coworkers not understanding your vision, and feeling spread too thin could easily lead to burnout or compassion fatigue. You are responsible for your self-care. As Recreation Therapists, we know the benefits of spending our free time wisely. If we don’t practice what we preach, how effective will we be in our programming and work output?

Ways to Improve:

  • Set clear boundaries. Do the best you could on your shift, but realize taking your work with you will do more harm than good. Sometimes it is cathartic to vent about your job to coworkers and family members, but don’t make it a regular practice. Use your leisure time to do what you love. Don’t feel guilty about it. You will be a better Recreation Therapist for it.
  • Consider meditation. As a Recreation Therapist working in a particularly challenging setting, I have found regular meditation practice has helped me be less reactive, more focused, and mindful of my actions and behaviors.
  • Do what you love. Find passions outside of your career. Pursue them. Enjoy them.

Spend Time Each Day with Gratitude

Too often we get caught up in the the daily grind of our jobs and focus on what isn’t working. Take a few minutes each day to step back and be thankful for the important work we do. Sure, on the surface, some days are challenging enough that the only thing we are thankful for is the sound of the time clock beeping as we punch out. Even on those bad days, though, there is something to positive to pull from your shifts.

Ways to Improve:

  • Change your mindset. Everyday write five positive things you experienced during your shift. This will encourage you to notice all the positive around you.
  • Do your best to surround yourself with positive influences. Coworkers, inspirational books, or even songs that make you feel better will help clear any clouds of negativity.
  • During your leisure time, do the things that give you a greater sense of happiness and well-being. Before you sleep, take a couple moments to think about them.

Everything has beauty, but not everyone could see.


The Real Recreation Therapist LogoIt is my sincere hope aspiring and veteran Recreation Therapists can take something from this article. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas about the essential skills necessary to be the best at our profession. There have been many great comments in the various Facebook TR groups about these articles, but by commenting below all the article’s readers could see what you have to say. Join the discussion–someone will benefit from your wisdom.

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