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A recreational therapy assistant is a skilled professional working to support or assist the efforts of a recreational therapist in providing treatment to patients. People in this position work to improve the physical, mental, and emotional well being of others in a variety of settings that may include hospitals, assisted living homes, mental institutions, and juvenile detention centers. They do so by implementing activities aimed at developing the person’s interest and abilities in things such as board games, sports, music, hobbies, crafts, dance, or other activities based on the individual capabilities and desires. This sort of therapy is generally designed to help rehabilitate people either mentally, physically, or both. Assistants are usually working in a support capacity; depending on the setting, they may help come up with plans, help to organize supplies, or coordinate larger group endeavors. In most places they can’t actually provide the therapy directly, though experience as an assistant is often helpful when looking to become a full-fledged therapist down the line.
Most health and wellness experts agree that recreation is important to a balanced life, and the discipline of therapeutic recreation seizes on this idea in order to use various forms of leisure activity, hobbies, and sports to help facilitate healing. The field can be a broad one, and therapists are often focused on specific niches. Some work with children who have suffered intense traumas, for instance, while others work with juvenile offenders or adult convicts who are estranged from normal society for some time; still more work with the elderly or infirm.
In general, an assistant is a person who helps a licensed therapist carry out the therapy itself. He or she isn’t usually able to implement the therapy directly since this usually requires a license, but there’s often a lot to be done when it comes to planning and background research. The assistant might speak with the patient and his or her family or support network, for instance, and may spend time figuring out the patient’s particular interests. From there the assistant can help design an agenda and propose potential therapeutic activities. The assistant may also monitor the success of the chosen activity, and can help the patient and the lead therapist set reasonable and obtainable goals.
A lot can also depend on the setting. A recreational therapy assistant employed by an assisted living home might help residents to cook breakfast, lead a field trip to a nearby shopping center, or provide transportation to religious services. He or she might also lead general group activities or organize trivia games. His or her main goal is usually to facilitate activities and events that help patients and clients maintain physical and mental activity and alertness that will allow them greater enjoyment of life.
In the United States and Canada, a high school diploma is required to become a recreational therapy assistant. Most states also require secondary training such as an associate's or bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university, as well as state mandated professional testing. In Canada, post-secondary training at public universities can lead to a therapy assistant diploma. In Europe and Asia, similar post-secondary training programs prepare candidates to work in this job.
There are also a couple of core skills that are often advantageous. Basic knowledge of the human body and its associated mechanics of movement, as well as knowledge of human growth and development, are often really useful if not outright required. Other necessary skills include the ability to observe and report patient behavior as it relates to the participation in prescribed care, and the ability to foster positive relationships with patients and their families.
Many recreational therapists begin their careers working as assistants first, and there’s often a lot of potential job advancement in the field. Most of the time, people need to complete specific recreational therapy courses and sometimes even pass licensure exams in order to become certified therapeutic providers. This tends to depend on jurisdiction. Experience as an assistant won’t usually negate this sort of requirement, but it does often make the needed coursework easier, and it’s often a lot easier to find a job with prioer work as an assistant on a resume, too.