What is therapeutic recreation? The answer extends far past the gym

What do leisure activities have to do with our mental health? As it turns out, everything. Whether it’s volleyball, floor hockey, journaling, or art, there is a well-established link between recreation and mental health. 

“What we do in our free time has a huge impact on our well-being,” says Steve Clarke, who has worked as a recreation therapist at The Royal for the past 23 years.

What is recreation therapy? 

Recreation therapy is about using recreation to achieve a good quality of life.

“Most people think ‘sports and exercise’ but there’s much more to it than that,” says Clarke. 

When Clarke, who works primarily with youth, explains it to clients, he breaks it down into five domains: physical, social, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual. 

Recreational activities play an important role in each of these areas. They build self-confidence, self-esteem, social skills, motivation, and focus. Part of it, as well, is the good feeling that comes with being connected to something bigger than ourselves. 

For some clients at The Royal, therapeutic recreation might mean playing a team sport. For others, it might mean exploring their creative side though words or photography. Whatever they choose to do, the focus for the recreation therapist is clients’ strengths, not their deficits – and using those strengths to support recovery.

 “It’s a very individualized process,” says Clarke. “That’s one of the benefits of recreation therapy –we get to deal with that uniqueness.” 

Keeping the recovery going 

While there are many different recreational and leisure groups that take place at The Royal, recreation therapists are keen to make sure individuals have the opportunity to build on their momentum after they are discharged. 

“As people become well enough to participate in community-based stuff and they’re ready to make the jump, there has to be a place for them to go. If all our groups here are an end point then we’re not doing a service to them.”

Innovative partnerships and programs in the community help clients continue to build their skills, make social connections, and stay active (or creative!).

Over the years, these programs have included various fitness, sewing, and even drumming groups. Feel Well Sports is one example of a program that’s had staying power. This peer-led group gets together to play volleyball and floor hockey every Friday afternoon at the Hintonburg Community Centre. It’s been running for over 20 years.  

Partnerships extend into the community in many other special ways. A unique collaboration with the Ottawa Art Gallery provides a safe space to explore and make art for outpatients from The Royal. A partnership with the Ottawa 67s means that discounted tickets to a game are available to clients if they request them. 

“It’s a normal everyday activity and some of us might take it for granted, but it means so much to some of our clients because many don’t have opportunities like that.” 

Careers in recreation therapy

Recreation therapists play many roles. They’re mental health professionals but also coaches, advocates, educators, and facilitators. Sometimes they don’t even know what role they’ll be playing at any given moment. 

“Sometimes you’re wearing one hat and in the middle of a group you’ve got to switch,” reflects Clarke. “RTs are generally dynamic people. Their focus is on the individual and what they need to do to make it happen for them.” 

“As people become well enough to participate in community-based stuff and they’re ready to make the jump, there’s a place for them to go. If all our groups here are an end point then we’re not doing a service to them.”

Recreation therapy looks very different in other areas of The Royal. Clarke describes time spent with seniors doing memory games, chair exercises, and “armchair travel” that involved documentary films (and snacks) from exotic locations. 

As Clarke sees it, this is client-centred care at its best. 

“We get to focus on wellness, not the illness,” he says. “We have the benefit of working with people through the process to see them at their best – which is very rewarding – to see people function well.”