Recreational Counselor – Arts, Music, Creativity

A recreational counselor uses recreational activities, which can vary quite a bit in scope, as a tool for helping their clients reach a therapeutic goal. In addition to, or instead of, traditional talk therapy, recreational counselors utilize activities such as playing a musical instrument, singing, group games, dancing, and general arts and crafts to get their clients engaged, have fun, and make progress in whatever their goals are.

Recreational counselors, who may also be called recreational therapists, utilize the joys and pleasures of general creativity to help their clients maintain emotional stability and a generally positive physical, social, and emotional state of well-being. Many recreational counselors meet weekly or more often over periods of time with people who are managing chronic illnesses, recovering from trauma, or who have ongoing disabilities. Recreational counselors also find steady employment working with the older population in senior living situations.

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics (2023) reports that recreational therapy is a growing field. The job outlook for recreational therapists from 2022 to 2032 is projected to grow 4 percent nationally, a rate that is about as fast as the average job growth in the same timeframe (3 percent).

A compassionate individual who enjoys close interaction with others, who enjoys leading activities, is willing to listen and be patient, and who can make the most of the materials and activities they have at hand can find a rewarding career as a recreational counselor employing arts, music, and creativity to help people.

How to Become a Recreational Counselor

Recreational counselors typically need a bachelor’s degree at a minimum. It’s helpful if the individual’s early education is in a field complementary to counseling, such as psychology, along with some experience in arts, music, and creativity.

A recreational counselor who utilizes painting or music, for instance, would ideally be proficient in these skills themselves so that they can share them with others. That’s not to say that the recreational counselor needs to be a master in all forms of creativity, but they should at least have some familiarity with it, enough to share the basics of how to do it with others.

Many schools offer bachelor’s or higher degrees in recreational counseling, recreational therapy, art therapy, music therapy, adaptive recreation, or therapeutic recreation.

Florida International University

Florida International University, for example, offers a bachelor of science program in rehabilitation and recreational therapy preparing graduates for careers that involve helping others stay healthy and get better by engaging in the activities they love to do. This program is ideal for those who wish to pursue careers in recreational therapy, or for those who wish to pursue graduate-level education in allied health care programs such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, nursing, audiology and speech-language pathology, athletic training, rehabilitation counseling, music therapy, child life, or art therapy. Students in this program may take the recreational or rehabilitation therapy tracks. Both these tracks can also be completed in an online format.

The curriculum includes courses such as diagnoses and conditions in recreational therapy; introduction to recreational therapy; inclusive recreation services; medical terminology; leisure and recreation in America; psychopathology; assessment and documentation in recreational therapy; evaluation and evidence-based practice in recreational therapy; and recreational therapy modalities & techniques.

The recreational therapy track prepares graduates for certification as certified therapeutic recreation specialists (CTRS) via NCTRC’s (National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification) academic path, to work as recreational therapists right after graduation. This track’s curriculum emphasizes the recreational therapy role through education, treatment, recreation, and leisure-based interventions. This track has 39 credits of required courses, 18 credits of internship, and three credits of electives.

  • Location: Miami, FL
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: On-campus (Florida resident: $3,084 per semester; non-Florida resident: $9,283 per semester); online (in-state: $153.28 per credit; out-of-state: $566.58 per credit)

University of Toledo

The University of Toledo offers a bachelor of science program in recreation therapy that can be completed entirely online. This program meets professional standards the American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA) and the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC) set. Students in this program must complete one or more of the following tracks: therapeutic arts; pre-occupational therapy; pediatric; geriatric; communication; and general.

Graduates of this program will be prepared for employment in the areas of pediatric services, physical rehabilitation, community recreation, psychiatric rehabilitation, community camps for individuals with disabilities, and centers for developmental disabilities.

This 120-credit program includes courses such as introduction to recreational therapy programming; introduction to therapeutic recreation; inclusion and recreational therapy services; leisure, recreation, and aging in recreational therapy practice; physical and neurological diagnosis and conditions in recreational therapy practice; assessment and documentation in therapeutic recreation; recreational therapy interventions; group dynamics in recreational therapy; and administration in recreational therapy. Notably, students will be required to complete a 560-clock-hour internship in the summer of their senior year.

  • Location: Toledo, OH
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC); Council on Accreditation of Parks, Recreation, Tourism, and Related Professions (COAPRT)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: $428.53 per credit

Arizona State University

Arizona State University’s School of Community Resources and Development offers a COAPRT-accredited bachelor of science program in recreational therapy preparing graduates to become entry-level recreational therapists with the required skills and knowledge needed for using recreation-based interventions to improve health outcomes. They are prepared to become qualified experiential therapists, utilizing the holistic benefits of expressive and creative arts, aquatic therapy, adapted exercise and sport, horticulture therapy, therapeutic riding, leisure education, structured play, and community integration. Extensive hands-on learning is an important aspect of this program that involves utilizing fieldwork opportunities through labs, community-engaged activities, practicum, and an internship as a program capstone.

Made up of 120 credits, the program includes courses such as recreational therapy; recreation and sport planning and facilities; foundations of recreation therapy; assessment and evaluation of community services; program design and administration in recreational therapy; therapeutic recreation and community health; intervention techniques in recreational therapy; therapeutic recreation and community health; and assessment and documentation in recreational therapy.

ASU’s School of Community Resources and Development also offers a COAPRT-accredited BS in Parks, Recreation, and Sport Management that provides students with a transdisciplinary education in the management of protected areas, parks, community-based recreation services, and sports and special event management.

  • Location: Phoenix, AZ
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC); Council on Accreditation of Parks, Recreation, Tourism, and Related Professions (COAPRT)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: Arizona Resident ($12,281 per year); non-resident ($32,573 per year)

Longwood University

Longwood University’s College of Education, Health, and Human Services offers a bachelor of science program in therapeutic recreation where students learn how recreational therapists use community-based techniques and interventions and therapeutic activity for promoting health and wellness. Through fieldwork experiences and academic coursework, graduates will learn about implementing evidence-based practices that utilize therapeutic recreation intervention to achieve positive outcomes.

Longwood’s therapeutic recreation program graduates had a 100% passing rate in 2021, among first-time test takers of the NCTRC Exam, the national exam to be certified to practice therapeutic recreation. This rate surpasses the national passing rate of 84.5%.

This 123-credit program includes courses such as introduction to the therapeutic recreation profession; foundational skills of the therapeutic recreation profession; recreation leadership and activity; core concepts in therapeutic recreation; game-changers in leisure for lifelong well-being; leisure education and therapeutic recreation; therapeutic recreation in mental health; psychopathology; and issues, trends, and research in therapeutic recreation. Successful completion of this program concludes with the senior internship experience.

Graduates of this program will be able to take up positions in a variety of settings. These include long-term residential care, community park and recreation departments, hospitals & clinics, correctional facilities, mental health and substance use programs, inpatient rehabilitation facilities, and respite and hospice centers. Graduates can also go on to take graduate degrees in occupational therapy, counseling, music therapy, therapeutic recreation administration, gerontology, health administration, and public health.

  • Location: Farmville, VA
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC); Council on Accreditation of Parks, Recreation, Tourism, and Related Professions (COAPRT)
  • Expected Time to Completion: Four years
  • Estimated Tuition: In-state ($14,398.78 per semester); out-of-state ($20,503.78 per semester)

Education & Certification of a Recreational Counselor

Most employers will seek to hire a candidate who is certified as a recreational counselor by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC). This group offers the Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) credential, which candidates may qualify for through one of three pathways: academic, equivalent, or professional experience.

The first option requires a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, completion of a supervised internship of at least 560 hours, and passing the NCTRC Certification Exam. The other options allow for students to have bachelor’s degrees in unrelated fields, but demonstrate their qualifications through various work and education experiences in addition to passing the NCTRC Certification Exam. If students know that they wish to become recreational counselors but have a degree in an unrelated field, volunteer work can make a big difference here.

Following the NCTRC’s academic path requires completing a minimum of 90 credits through a qualified degree program. It also requires a minimum 560-hour, 14-consecutive week internship. The first equivalency path requires an education consisting of a minimum of 24 credits of recreational therapy coursework along with 24 credits of supportive coursework in a related field such as social sciences and humanities, along with a minimum of five years of full-time paid work in the recreational therapy field. The professional eligibility path requires similar academic requirements as given above along with a minimum of 5,000 hours of paid work experience or a minimum of 1,500 hours of paid work experience under the supervision of a CTRS.

Students who pursue credentialing by the NCTRC can become certified in seven areas: behavioral health; community inclusion services; developmental disabilities; geriatrics; physical medicine and rehabilitation; pediatrics; and adaptive sports and recreation. Many programs and organizations also offer recreational counselor certification programs.

According to the American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA), only five states currently have laws regulating the licensure of Recreational Therapy and Therapeutic Recreation. New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah are those states. Other states are in the process of creating licensure.

For more information on recreational therapy licensure, consult with the state’s medical board in the state where the student plans to practice.

Supervised Hour Requirements for a Recreational Counselor

Among those states that do require licensing, the educational requirements are similar—they require completion of an academic program with a bachelor’s degree or higher from an accredited college or university with a major in therapeutic recreation or a major in recreation or leisure with an option in therapeutic recreation.

Field experience as defined by the NCTRC is required, under the supervision of a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS) approved by the educational institution where the applicant has met his or her academic requirements, along with successful completion of the NCTRC exam.

The NCTRC provides a professional experience pathway for those who have some educational experience that is not specifically RT/TR-degree related. The professional eligibility path requires either a minimum of 5,000 hours of paid work experience or a minimum of 1,500 hours of paid work experience under the supervision of a CTRS, with direct supervision of at least one hour per every ten hours worked each week.

Licensure of a Recreational Counselor

Although only five states currently have laws regulating the licensure of recreational therapy and therapeutic recreation, there is a national certification standard in place by the NCTRC. Certification is not mandatory for some recreational therapy jobs, but the best job prospects will be found by those who voluntarily undergo the national certification by the NCTRC. This credential is awarded to those who have completed recreational therapists who have passed a written exam and completed a supervised internship of at least 480 hours.

Recreational Counselor Licensure Renewal Requirements

In New Hampshire—one of the five states that currently have laws regulating the licensure of recreational therapy and therapeutic recreation—recreational counselor licensure renewal requirements are that the licensee complete 30 hours within each two-year period to qualify for renewal. The other states that require licensure have similar requirements.

It is highly recommended that each candidate for licensure check with their state’s mental health licensing board for requirements that have been updated or changed. Many states are in the process of implementing licensure for recreational therapy.

What Do Recreational Counselors Do?

In general, recreational counselors combine creativity with therapeutic methods to help their patients reduce stress and maintain a positive emotional state. Recreational counselors use music, sports, games, dance and movement, acting, general arts and crafts, and even animals to enable people to spend time with meaningful creative pursuits.

Actual responsibilities will vary depending on the environment in which they are employed—for instance, the responsibilities will be different for someone employed in a senior citizen facility as compared to someone who works with younger people who are physically disabled. But in general, the recreational counselor will be in charge of planning activities that meet up with the individual’s or group’s treatment plan, acquiring and distributing any needed materials, and implementing and leading the activities.

Whether or not they work in a group setting or with individual private clients, the recreational counselor will need to observe their patients to assess their needs, help patients develop social skills, provide coping skills, and assess the effectiveness of the given activity plan.

Recreational counselors work in a variety of settings, with work responsibilities tailored to each situation. For instance, someone working in a rehabilitation facility with people who are paralyzed might develop a plan of sports activities, exercises, and relaxation activities that someone with limited use of their physical body can still do. When treating young people with a chronic illness, the treatment may focus on relaxation, coping skills, and developing friendships. When working with a group of senior citizens in a retirement home, there is typically a recreation supervisor who plans activities primarily for enjoyment. The recreational therapist will provide outlets for using arts, music, and creativity that give residents a therapeutic outlet.

Recreational counselors may work in any number of settings, including:

  • Hospitals
  • Veterans facilities
  • Psychiatric and substance abuse facilities
  • Nursing care facilities
  • Mental health facilities
  • Prisons
  • Rehabilitation facilities
  • Retirement communities
  • Assisted living facilities
  • Schools
  • Community organizations that serve adults or children with disabilities
  • Domestic abuse shelters

How Much Do Recreational Counselors Make?

The following information on employment numbers and salary is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2022)—the latest data available as of October 2023:

United States
Number employed in the U.S.15,920
Average Annual Salary$56,310
10th percentile$33,930
25th percentile$41,600
50th percentile (median)$51,330
75th percentile$66,530
90th percentile$84,410

Recreational Counselor Professional Associations & Resources

  • American Counseling Association (ACA)
  • Professionals Networking for Excellence in Service Delivery with Individuals who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing (ADARA)
  • American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA)
  • Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)
  • American Rehabilitation Counseling Association (ARCA)
  • Association of VA Vocational Rehabilitation Professionals (AVAVRP)
  • Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP)
  • Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR)
  • International Association of Rehabilitation Professionals (IARP)
  • National Association of Multicultural Rehabilitation Concerns (NAMRC)
  • National Rehabilitation Association (NRA)
  • National Rehabilitation Counseling Association (NRCA)
  • National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Society (NCTRC)
  • Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • National Association of Multicultural Rehabilitation Concerns (NAMRC)
Vanessa Salvia

Vanessa Salvia


Vanessa Salvia is an Oregon-based freelance writer and editor with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. As fun as rigorous studies in math and science were, Vanessa took an independent path and developed a prolific career covering lifestyle and healthcare topics for magazines and newspapers, important industries such as concrete construction and building waterproofing, and even hard science. You can get in touch at Sage Media and Marketing.