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How to Become an Activity Director: Recreational Therapy at the Retirement Home and Beyond

Activity directors (often called “recreational therapists”) have a big job. They are charged with designing and leading recreational programs for people with illnesses or disabilities. Those activities may include any number of different things: arts and crafts, dance, drama, field trips, games, music, and sports, to name just a few. All of those activities have one thing in common: they are carefully chosen to help maintain or improve physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being. Activity directors may work in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, special education departments, assisted-living facilities, substance abuse centers or parks and recreation departments. If that sounds like the right career path for you, then read on to learn more about how to become an activity director.

Activity Director Education Degree Requirements

The minimum education requirement to become an activity director is generally a bachelor’s degree. Many colleges now offer degrees in therapeutic recreation, though that major is not necessarily required. Regardless of major, relevant coursework for students interested in becoming activity directors may include classes in assessment methods, assistive devices, common illnesses and disabilities, human anatomy, and medical and psychiatric terminology. Most programs also include some sort of supervised internship experience.

A handful of states now require activity directors to be licensed. In all states, however, employers generally prefer to hire certified applicants, and certification is often required for activity directors who work in hospitals and other clinical settings. Certification is available through the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification (NCTRC); the credentialing process requires applicants to pass a written examination and complete at least 480 hours of a supervised internship.

The NCTRC also offers certification in five specialty areas: behavioral health, community inclusion services, developmental disabilities, geriatrics, and physical medicine/rehabilitation. Certification in the appropriate area normally leads to more favorable job prospects. For example, a candidate with a certification in geriatrics would be a much more attractive applicant for a position as activity director at a retirement home or assisted-living facility than a candidate lacking that credential.

Becoming an Activity Director: Career Outlook

After completing their formal education, activity directors may receive further training on the job. Such training is particularly common in specialized care settings. In medical settings, activity directors confer regularly with doctors, nurses, and other medical providers as well as patients’ family members to ensure that patients remain active, engaged, healthy, and happy. No matter the setting, those candidates with more education typically require less training.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for recreational therapists is expected to proceed about as fast as average, with 17% more jobs anticipated between 2010 and 2020. In 2011, median wages for recreational therapists checked in at a little over $41,060 per year, which works out to about $19 per hour.

By far the largest employer of activity directors is assisted-living facilities. Demand for activity directors is expected to increase with the continued aging of the baby-boom generation and the increased use of preventive and rehabilitative services to cut healthcare costs. Are you interested in becoming an activity director? Then search for degree programs near you.

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