Recreation Therapy – What’s that?

By Missy Hyatt, Chief of Programs

Recreation therapy? You majored in what? What is recreation therapy? As a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist (CTRS), I have become a pro at explaining what I do to people when they ask. 

In a simple sentence, recreation therapy is therapy used to assist persons to develop skills, knowledge and behaviors for daily living and community involvement.

But when have you ever been able to fully understand something with a short sentence? As with anything that changes lives, it’s hard to explain. 

It takes heartfelt stories and examples, but mostly it takes experience. Someone can use words to describe the majesty of a sunset over the Rocky Mountains and it would be beautiful. Even better, you could see a picture and it would move you. But to fully appreciate it, you need to stand at 14,000 feet above sea level and experience it with your own eyes.

Let’s use basketball as another example. A coach will teach you how to dribble, run specific plays, and explain the individual positions and how they work together. You need all those skills to play a game. But a CTRS will teach teamwork, emotion management, communication, variations of the game to play in a casual setting, and community resources.

Recreation therapy can be used all the time. It’s the simple act of using recreation to heal and grow.

At Project Sanctuary, we use seemingly simple activities like art, bowling, and visiting recreation centers to show that recreation is inexpensive and very accessible.

You don’t need horseback riding and snowmobiling to have a recreational experience or for it to be therapeutic and have lasting effects. But we do use high adventure activities such as rafting to help families discover ways to communicate, and we use horseback riding to show individuals how to handle a possibly stressful situation and manage their emotions because horses don’t always do want you want them to do.

One of my favorite experiences with an individual at a Project Sanctuary retreat was with horses. We had a veteran who was wound up so tight. He was very polite and kind, but I knew with a little push he could fully open up and absorb what was going to happen during the week of the retreat.

One day we took all the kids to the stables. At the end of the hour, the parents started showing up to pick up their kids. This dad was going from horse to horse but keeping his distance. Finally there were two horses that must have made a connection with him, because he stood between them and they nuzzled him. I was able to sneak by and snap a picture.

This picture shows the extreme impact horses can have on a person. I smile every time I see it and remember this beautiful moment – and why recreation therapy is so important to what we do at Project Sanctuary and to the positive transformations we make possible for our military families.

two large black horses nuzzle a veteran standing between them with a huge smile on his face