Feature Article - March 2004
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Play With a Purpose

Understanding therapeutic recreation and how it can work for you

By Elisa Kronish

Therapeutic recreation often follows the more clinically based therapy, and each treatment can play an important role in a person's well-being.

"It could be appropriate for a patient to see a physical therapist first for an acute injury," explains Ann D. Huston, executive director of ATRA. "But TR would follow closely."

A friend of Huston's, now an ATRA lobbyist, became a double amputee at the age of 10 after a traumatic car accident. He spent plenty of time in the clinical rehab setting but eventually got outside for a little TR.

"He became a downhill skier as a result of a recreational therapist forcing him to get active," Huston says. Though she regards therapeutic recreation as complementary to other therapies, Huston also stresses a key advantage to TR.

"We work with the individual for life," she says. TR also takes people out of the medical setting and allows them to—and shows them it's possible to—participate in enjoyable activities with their families and friends.

Even the simple scheduling of TR sessions seems to win points over other therapies.

"Therapeutic recreation is available evenings and weekends, whereas the other kinds of therapies might not be," notes Gerald Hitzhusen, associate professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia and coordinator of the International and Midwest Symposiums on Therapeutic Recreation.

Austin adds humorously: "Occupational therapists and physical therapists seem to do things that people hate," while people actually have fun with TR.


Although therapeutic recreation has varying definitions, each with varying nuances, two of the clearest and most concise come from the two national organizations devoted to the field. For good measure, we've also included a textbook definition, literally.

American Therapeutic Recreation Association:

"The provision of treatment services and the provision of recreation services to persons with illnesses or disabling conditions. The primary purposes of treatment services, which are often referred to as recreational therapy, are to restore, remediate or rehabilitate in order to improve functioning and independence as well as reduce or eliminate the effects of illness or disability. The primary purposes of recreational services are to provide recreational resources and opportunities in order to improve health and well being. Therapeutic recreation is provided by professionals who are trained and certified, registered and/or licensed to provide therapeutic recreation."

National Therapeutic Recreation Society:

"Therapeutic recreation uses treatment, education and recreation services to help people with illnesses, disabilities and other conditions to develop and use their leisure in ways that enhance their health, functional abilities, independence and quality of life."

Therapeutic Recreation, an Introduction by David R. Austin, Michael E. Crawford (Prentice Hall 1991):

"The purposeful use of recreation/leisure activities and experiences as a means of producing positive benefits for recipients of TR services," and, "the clinical application of recreation and leisure"