California State University, Long Beach
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Recreation Can Make Therapy Fun

Published: July 1, 2015

Leisure…can you ever have too much?

Yes, according to CSULB’s Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies’ chair Terry Robertson.

“People don’t think about leisure being an important thing in their life until they have a change in the amount or quality of it and then and then they can get overwhelmed because they don’t know what to do with it,” he said.

“Or they put it off until they are not physically able to enjoy it,” added Keith Fulthorp, an assistant professor in the department. “We shouldn’t wait to do things until our bodies are old and not capable. We should do these things along the way.”

Anything non-work related could be considered leisure time, noted Robertson, and individuals who are aging or have disabilities may not be working so they, theoretically, have more of it. But the question is, are they in a place (socially, emotionally, physically, economically, etc.) where they can enjoy it?

One of the ways they can get and stay healthy to enjoy such things as riding a bike or hiking in a park is done through what is referred to as recreation therapy. It’s similar to physical therapy, but uses recreational activities as a form of therapy. It also has another slight difference.

“It’s more fun,” said Robertson. “People typically go to a physical therapist who works on structural, functional problems and gives you exercises to do, but people often don’t normally continue doing the exercises past the time they have to go to physical therapy.”

That’s where a recreation therapist comes in and creates opportunities or experiences for individuals to continue their recuperation or maintain health.

“They take the same type of exercises a physical therapist would have them do,” said Robertson, “but turn them into fun activities you want to do instead of something you have to do.”

From a scientific perspective, noted Robertson, when individuals do things they enjoy doing there’s different brain chemistry, so researchers can track how an individual’s chemistry changes based on the experience.

“Because they are doing things they like to do the chemistry typically builds better memory and more consistency with those experiences,” said Robertson. “If you are doing something you like to do and it benefits your health you’re going to continue to do it.”

At CSULB, 291 students are in Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies’ programs and nearly half of those (140) are recreation therapy majors or post-graduates working towards a credential.

Recreation therapy is considered one of the fastest growing fields of employment with specialists in clinical and community settings using recreation and recreational facilities such as parks as tools to assist individuals.

Some of the possible career venues available are community-based and include residential facilities, community mental health centers, substance abuse centers, hospice care, correctional facilities, retirement communities, adventure-based programs and adaptive outdoor education and sports programs.

In addition to recreation therapy, other options within CSULB’s Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies include community recreation, parks and outdoor recreation resource management, campus recreation and student services, and tourism management. There is also a master of arts in recreation administration. But, it’s the recreation therapy degree that garners the most interest.

“Most of our students are in recreation therapy and many of them go to work in hospitals—about 60 percent,” said Fulthorp, noting that CSULB students get exposure to experts and leaders in the field. Some do recreation therapy in hospitals as part of a treatment team and they use recreation as a treatment modality. The next largest group work in community-based programs in either municipal parks and recreation or not-for-profit ability first programs.

“At a parks and recreation context,” he added, “the recreation therapists are the experts at adapting activities to make sure they are inclusive of all members of the community instead of just those who are physically and mentally able.”

And while the overall availability of recreation therapy programs has dwindled, CSULB’s is going strong and offers approximately 120-150 internships a year, primarily in Southern California.

“Our numbers are growing and our program has gotten stronger,” said Robertson. “That is contrary to what’s happening in others places in California. We’re the only recreation therapy program really still alive in Southern California. So all those agencies, all those hospitals from Fresno down come to us for our students.”

Prior to coming to CSULB in August, Robertson worked at the University of Las Vegas, University of Utah and most recently Northwest Missouri State University. But, no matter where he went, the reputation of CSULB’s recreation department was present.

“This was a place I had heard about for a long time,” he said. “This program has a real long tradition. Our alums were the ones filling those jobs in recreation therapy so I knew the quality of this program and we hope to continue that. I think the sky’s the limit here.”