Tips for Leading Recreation Therapy Groups

Leading successful Recreation Therapy groups often means being prepared and thinking on your feet. Recreation Therapists and Activity Professionals have the opportunity to use several engaging interventions to help their participants learn and grow. Through leisure education, social skills training, crafts, team building, and participation in leisure activities, we provide a unique perspective where participants can embrace their strengths and address their needs through recreation.

Running Recreation Therapy groups is an art and a science. Over the years, I’ve had my fair share of successes and moments that left me scratching my head wishing I approached the group differently. What works for one group may be a failure during another. Experience plays a great role in how to handle different group dynamics, but some of us don’t have that luxury. Here are some tips I found helpful for running effective Recreation Therapy groups.

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Tips for Leading Recreation Therapy Groups

Prepare for Success

The first step is knowing your participants. Their unique strengths and needs should be the focus on how you plan your groups. Be aware of the necessary adaptations to give your participants a chance to experience the challenge of an activity or group without it becoming too overwhelming. This is often referred to as Flow Theory.

Set Clear Expectations

For groups to be successful, the participants need to know the expectations. Reviewing expectations at the beginning of each group is a great way to ingrain them in the minds of your participants. In addition, at the end of a group, review what expectations were met and what need more practice.

Expectations vary depending on your population. While working with teens, I often start the group with very clear behavior expectations. This includes expectations for participation, social interactions, and respectful behavior. In addition to setting behavior expectations, I like to give a brief overview of what is going to happen in group and what can be learned from the experience. For instance, if we are doing a team building activity, I like to have a short talk about the characteristics of a good team. Then we discuss applying these skills during the activity. At the end of group, we will talk about those team building characteristics and how the group used them.

Be aware that not everyone absorbs information the same way. Participants that are not auditory learners may have difficulty paying attention to or following verbal instructions. Consider having visual reminders of the expectations nearby. For those that learn by doing, consider doing quick role plays of group expectations to get everyone on the same page.

Engage Everyone Based on Their Strengths

Since we often work with individuals having a variety of strengths and challenges, engaging everyone is not always easy. It’s important for everyone to participate in a group activity to the best of their abilities. Be mindful of their communication issues, personal demeanor, and challenges. Using adaptive equipment, modifying the activity, or providing extra assistance goes a long way in making everyone feel like an important part of the group.

Assign Roles for Group Dominators

Handling different group dynamics requires creative interventions. If you have a couple overzealous participants feeling the need to dominate the group, assign them tasks to channel their energies. This could include writing others’ thoughts on a dry erase board, handing out supplies or materials, or giving them therapeutic questions to ask the group.

Allow the Group to Progress Organically and Therapeutically

You may have clear visions how your Recreation Therapy groups will go. Your participants, however, may want to take things in a different direction. Depending on the expected outcomes of the group, subject matter, and your ability to keep control of the group’s discussions and actions, let the group progress in a different direction. As long that direction is therapeutic, loosen the reins a little. This may be difficult for the Type-A group leaders. It could prove very beneficial for the participants, since they are reacting from the heart or addressing topics important to them.

Remember: Keep it therapeutic. For example, when a group talking about social interactions suddenly veers towards gossiping about another participant’s behaviors, it certainly would not be therapeutic. Even that group could be steered in the right direction. Politely stop the group. Ask each participant to name one behavior they would like to change about themselves. Instead of pointing fingers, the participants take a therapeutic look inward for changes they feel are important. From there you could talk about steps for making those changes or whatever else inspires you.  

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Stop and Check-In When Necessary

When challenging participants with an activity or group experience, constantly observe their interactions. Frustrations can run high and the finger pointing game starts. Take a time out. Check-in with everyone. The best crises are averted ones. If you notice you group is sliding into negativity or frustration, make it a teaching moment.

Do a “check in” following these steps:

  • Assertively stop all movement and talk in the group.
  • Allow the group members to take a couple deep breaths and refocus.
  • Discuss whatever is challenging the group.
  • Have the participants come up with alternatives to the behaviors or interactions that stopped the group.
  • Allow the participants to return to the group activity.

Finish Strong and End on a High Note

Ending the group with a strong debriefing session gives your participants the opportunity to apply the skills they learned in real-life settings. Don’t skimp on this step. Even if the activity left you and the group exhausted, it is crucial to make teaching moments out of the experience. After all, that’s our job. Check out this article for some ideas on debriefing.

Evaluate Your Recreation Therapy Groups

Take some time to make mental notes about your group. If possible, take notes. Just like your participants, every group you are a part of has the potential for teaching moments. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Was there something in the activity that worked really well?
  • Where could there be improvements?
  • Did I engage everyone in group?
  • Was I able to achieve the group’s objectives?
  • Can I think of any modifications or adaptations that would be helpful?
  • How do I feel about my leadership role in the group?

If you are new to the profession, running Recreation Therapy groups may seem a little overwhelming. Don’t worry! Time and experience will take the anxiety out of group leadership and give you an opportunity to really reach your participants.


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