Therapeutic Wrecks: Recreation Therapy Stories

Let’s face it, as Recreation Therapists, sometimes even our best-planned activities have some surprises. How we handle these unexpected moments means the difference between rewarding experiences or therapeutic wrecks.

Let me explain.

Years ago, one of my colleagues talked about writing a book entitled Therapeutic Wrecks. The book would be a series of stories when Therapeutic Recreation interventions didn’t quite go as planned. After more than a decade, the idea still lingers in the back of my mind.

Here’s why:

You could find great Recreation Therapy research and activities ideas all over the web. But where can you find practical stories about how RTs and other Activity Professionals creatively turn potential therapeutic wrecks into success stories? Schooling only takes you so far. My intention for this segment is helping new and seasoned RTs learn from the experiences of others.

I had a potential therapeutic wreck a couple weekends ago. As I got home that day, I thought about my colleague’s idea. Sharing my experience may help others prevent therapeutic wrecks.


I work with adolescent boys in a substance abuse/mental health residential facility. Many of them are inner city youth from Chicago tied in with the criminal justice system. As part of our programming, we participate in a DCFS-funded program called the Illinois Inter-Agency Athletic Association (IIAA). The IIAA provides opportunities for youth in residential facilities across Illinois to compete in different sporting events throughout the year.

If you run a residential recreation program for at-risk youth in Illinois, it is well worth checking out. It’s a great program full of positive recreation opportunities. Even better? It’s free.

home plate pictureRecently, the softball season was set to commence with a state tournament in Decatur, Illinois. After a couple months playing against regional facilities, all the teams were invited to the state tournament for a day of competition, and, more importantly, practicing sportsmanship skills.

That Saturday morning my youth piled into one of our vans ready to use what they learned during the season to have a great, positive day. They probably weren’t the best softball team around, but they worked on their softball and interpersonal skills to become a team. Since many of my youth never had an opportunity like this, I knew it was a great way to create lasting memories and learning experiences.

You Can’t Control Everything

It rained pretty hard as we left the facility. I assured my youth the forecast, at least according to my phone’s weather app, was more favorable at our destination almost three hours south. As we drove, the rain came and went. The clearing sky in the west provided encouragement.picture of stormy road

Then came the phone call. Just as the first set of games were about to start, a monsoon-like rain fell upon the tournament washing out the softball fields. We were about thirty minutes away when I learned the tournament was postponed.

After mentally shouting a stream of choice words, I knew I had to find an alternative–something memorable and uplifting to ease their disappointment. Of course, my sparse budget and limited knowledge about the area didn’t help much..

Averting a Therapeutic Wreck

As we turned around, I discussed options with my participants and the staff. I knew there was a zoo nearby, but after a quick Google search we discovered it wasn’t in the budget.

One of the boys suggested a trampoline park. It may be a great idea if there was one nearby not needing release of liability forms signed by guardians. Not to mention within my budget.

As we drove, one of the boys saw a billboard for a shooting range. He said we should go there. Um…no.

The staff with me mentioned a popular state park. This immediately caught my interest. Free, engaging, and completely doable. It wasn’t nearby, but since we were about three hours away from our facility, it might be worth investigating.

Sometimes smartphones can actually offer smart solutions. We checked out the state park, saw it was just about halfway back to the facility. Since it didn’t cost anything, we still had plenty of money to for a good meal after a long hike.

With the help of GPS we rerouted our activity.

Once we got to Starved Rock State Park, the boys had a great time navigating the different paths, seeing cliffs and waterfalls, and enjoying a new experience.

Sweaty, tired, and full of stories, we enjoyed a nice lunch and headed back to the facility. Some of the guys even helped a large tortoise get across a busy road leading out of the park.

image of ideas for therapeutic wrecksThe Takeaways: Learning from Therapeutic Wrecks

Always Be Flexible

Even if you are the best planner, you can’t control everything. Especially if your participants play outdoor sports. Driving to the tournament, my years of experience doing these types of events assured me just about all the details were covered. Keywords: just about.

We could have turned around, tried to provide the boys with some type of condolence that weather is out of our control, and return to the facility. But how would they feel after a solid six hours in the van with nothing to show for it?

Remain flexible, see therapeutic wrecks as opportunities.

Stay Calm

Anxiety breeds anxiety. If you’re freaking out, your participants will too. When everything you planned takes a quick turn for the worse, take a deep breath and assess the situation. Keeping your cool during high pressure situations is the mark of a great Recreation Therapist.

Use Your Resources

This potential therapeutic wreck became a meaningful experience by using whatever resources were available. The suggestion of my coworker and our ability to use technology gave my adolescents an experience they still talk about over two weeks later.

Put Everything in Perspective

Sure my participants were eager to use the softball skills they learned over the last couple of months. The fact the tournament was cancelled (or at least postponed) was a big disappointment for the morning.

By debriefing the situation and finding alternatives, we were able to explore how to deal with changes in a proactive, positive way.

Therapeutic wrecks happen. Even years of experience or type-A personalities can’t prevent them. And that’s okay. Great Recreation Therapists–or anyone in the caring professions– think on their feet making meaningful opportunities out of therapeutic wrecks.

Of course, not every bad experience ends on a happy note. This doesn’t mean complete failure.  We all make mistakes. Things are going to happen we can’t control. Use the experience to learn and grow as a professional.

real recreation therapist logoTell the Real Recreation Therapist Community

What are some of your Recreation Therapy Horror Stories? How did you handle them?

Do you have a therapeutic wreck success story to share? Your story can help other professionals better serve their participants. If you want to share a story, please contact me. I will help turn your therapeutic wreck into an engaging learning experience for those in the profession.


Did you love this new segment? Want to read more therapeutic wrecks? Comment below and share on your favorite social media platforms. By creating a community of Recreation Therapy problem solvers, we are better able to progress the profession.

Don’t forget to be a part of the Real Recreation Facebook page and New Facebook Group.

PS: Thank you Marie. Hopefully your idea will inspire countless other Recreation Therapists.

(Visited 416 times, 1 visits today)

Join the TRRT discussion!