Organized Recreation Therapy

Recreational therapy, which is sometimes called therapeutic recreation and occasionally categorized under experiential therapies, is defined by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC) as a system developed to use recreational activities and activity-based interventions to address specific individual needs for physical, behavioral, emotional, and psychological health. The overall goal of recreational therapy is to improve each individual’s cognitive, social, emotional, physical, and social functioning through enjoyable activities.

What Is Recreational Therapy?

Although recreational therapy may not seem that impactful at first glance, it can be a very important complementary treatment in many circumstances. For example, people who have struggled with addiction and substance abuse for a long time may not know how to engage in social activities or hobbies without consuming an intoxicating substance. Recreational therapy can help them change behaviors around fun activities and understand that it is possible to relax without the presence of drugs or alcohol.

A person attending recreational therapy may meet with their therapist once every two weeks or up to several times per week, depending on their needs. Types of recreational therapy include:

  • Arts and crafts
  • Sports
  • Dance
  • Yoga, tai chi, and other gentle movement
  • Animal therapy
  • Community outings

Many of the kinds of therapy applied to recreational therapy can be found in art therapies and expressive therapy, but the overall group of recreational therapy may also include outdoor activities and generally includes more group-oriented activities. These forms of therapy seek to reduce stress, which can trigger mood disorders like depression and anxiety. By reducing an individual’s stress, recreational therapy moderates neurotransmitter production in the brain, which can reduce the person’s risk of relapsing into substance abuse if they are going through addiction treatment.

While many therapists and counselors narrow down their fields to a specific specialty, recreational therapists focus on the individual as a whole, with unique physical, emotional, cognitive, social, spiritual, and environmental needs. Therapeutic recreation is often considered a holistic therapy and is applied alongside other kinds of behavioral therapy.

Goals for recreational therapy session may include:

  • Improved mood
  • Increased motor skills and physical strength
  • Social skills
  • Independence
  • Sense of well-being
  • Better quality of life
  • Better time management and work-life balance

The History and Use of Recreational Therapy

Although the concept of therapeutic recreation has existed for a long time, the concept as a medical practice solidified during World War II with the formation of the Hospital Recreation Section of the American Red Cross. There were over 1,800 Red Cross workers hired to work in this department, which eventually became a large part of the Office of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals.

Recreational therapy also became population in mental hospitals and medical facilities across the country as solders returned home from war. The National Association of Recreational Therapists (NART) formed in 1952; other professional organizations and certifying bodies formed in the years following.

Today, the VA still employs the most recreational therapists in the nation, with 850 therapists and 115,000 unique patients receiving therapeutic recreational treatment. As members of the government healthcare agency for veterans, recreational therapists are part of the overall team to treat members of the military dealing with traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse and drug addiction. Recreational therapy has proven to help this group not only improve physical functioning, but also reduce stress, anxiety, and maladaptive behaviors, such as impulse control problems associated with addiction.

Both in the VA system and outside of it, about 37 percent of behavioral therapists work in behavioral health settings, including addiction treatment programs.

Applying Recreational Therapy to Addiction Treatment

Therapy is a vital part of addiction treatment. People who struggle with substance abuse problems have a chronic disease that changes their brain’s reward system pathways. Working with a trained counselor or mental health professional to understand behaviors as a reaction to emotional experiences or mental states can help to create new pathways for healthier behaviors.

Some of the most effective forms of therapy used in rehabilitation programs include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Contingency Management
  • Motivational Enhancement Therapy
  • Peer support or 12-Step facilitation
  • Family therapy
  • Complementary and alternative treatments

While no one form of treatment will work for every person, a general path through detox and a rehabilitation program works best for the most people. The specifics types of therapy included in the rehabilitation program, however, can change. As each person’s unique needs are better addressed through more programs, recreational therapy is coming to the forefront as a resource for addiction treatment.

The Effectiveness of Therapeutic Recreation

Since therapeutic recreation is predominantly a group of complementary therapies that can enhance more intensive group, individual, and family therapy, there is little information on the concept as a whole in addiction treatment. Recreational therapy is being applied to numerous specific needs, including those with mental and physical disabilities, dementia patients, and veterans.

For people undergoing addiction treatment, recreational therapy is being included in a larger treatment plan more often because the positive reinforcement of this kind of therapy can make continued abstinence from drugs and alcohol more appealing and reduce the risk of relapse. For example, a study published in 2012 found that those moving from a rehabilitation program to housing that required abstinence from drugs and alcohol (called abstinence-contingent housing) were more successful at maintaining sobriety when there were supported activities, like skills-building courses and recreational activities, available to residents. About 50 percent of those undergoing Contingency Management and additional therapeutic activities were able to maintain abstinence compared with 37 percent who received only Contingency Management and 13 percent who received traditional treatment.

Additionally, a very successful method of prevention involves increasing the availability of recreational activities to a community that do not involve drugs and alcohol. Access to recreational activities at the community level increases everyone’s ability to modulate their mood and physical health. Using some of the concepts underlying therapeutic recreation for preventative measures can reduce rates of substance abuse within communities. Overall, adding this type of therapy to a bigger, long-term addiction recovery plan will benefit people overcoming addiction and substance abuse.