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, dance, and general arts and crafts to get their clients engaged, having fun, and making 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 wellbeing. Many recreational counselors meet weekly or more often over periods of time with people who are managing chronic illnesses, recovering from a 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 reports that recreational therapy is a growing field. The job outlook for recreational therapists from 2019 to 2029 is projected to grow 8 percent nationally, a rate that is much faster than average job growth in the same timeframe (4 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, for example, offers a pre-recreational therapy / adaptive recreation program with courses on leisure and recreation, abnormal psychology, medical terminology, and liability and law, among others. This program requires the completion of a 12-credit internship. FIU also offers a combined bachelor of science and master of science degree in recreational therapy. This path prepares students to be eligible for certification as a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, which can greatly enhance job prospects.

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 experience in addition to passing the NCTRC Certification Exam. If students know that they wish to become a recreational counselor 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 32 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 five areas: behavioral health, community inclusion services, developmental disabilities, geriatrics, and physical medicine and rehabilitation. Many programs and organizations also offer recreational counselor certification programs.

According to the American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA), there are only five states that currently have laws regulating the licensure of Recreational Therapy and Therapeutic Recreation. Those states are New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah. 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 there are only five states that 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 a general sense, 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 2020)—the latest data available as of April 2021:

  • Number employed in the U.S.: 20,080
  • Average annual salary: $51,260
  • 10th percentile: $31,450
  • 25th percentile: $37,570
  • 50th percentile (median): $47,710
  • 75th percentile: $62,440
  • 90th percentile: $79,250

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
  • 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 Council on Rehabilitation Education (NCRE)
  • National Rehabilitation Association (NRA)
  • National Rehabilitation Counseling Association (NRCA)
  • Rehabilitation Counselors and Education Association (RCEA)
  • National Therapeutic Recreation Society
  • Commision on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs
  • National Association of Multicultural Rehabilitation Concerns
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.