Recreational Therapy in Addiction Treatment

recreational therapy in addiction treatment

Addiction treatment programs use a variety of therapies to provide clients with a whole-person approach to recovery. While most people imagine spending their time in rehab sitting group therapy sessions, there are other approaches used, as well. Recreational therapy, for instance, has become increasingly popular in addiction treatment centers across the nation. Recreational therapy involves using games and other activities to aid the healing process. This approach not only helps clients overcome their struggles with addiction but also reminds them that life can be fun without drugs and alcohol.

What is Recreational Therapy?

Recreational therapy, also known as therapeutic recreation, is a type of therapy that uses leisure activities to help individuals heal from a variety of physical, mental, and emotional health conditions. There are many types of activities used in therapeutic recreation, ranging from high-impact and complex activities to simple, low-impact ones. The diversity in options makes this therapy a very accessible one to all individuals.

The first recorded use of recreational therapy dates back to the early 1900s. However, this approach didn’t begin gaining popularity until the early 1990s. This is because the American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA) was formed in 1984 and established the standards for this type of therapy. ATRA’s guiding principles are:[1]

  • Therapy should be provided in diverse settings
  • The foundation of recreational therapy, known as APIED for short, consists of the following 
    • Assessment
    • Planning
    • Intervention
    • Evaluation
    • Documentation
  • Therapy should be provided with evidence-based practice in mind, professional credentialing, and accreditation
  • Building powerful relationships is vital for healing
  • Believing in mentoring and developing professionals

Shortly after these principles were outlined, more and more treatment providers began using therapeutic recreation in mental and behavioral healthcare settings.

Recreational therapy can help individuals improve their communication skills, self-esteem, and independence. When combined with behavioral therapy, counseling, medications, and peer support, recreational therapy can be used during substance abuse treatment to help individuals in their recovery journey.

Types of Therapeutic Recreation Used in Addiction Treatment

There are many different types of recreational therapy that are used during addiction treatment. Some of the most popular include:

  • Arts and crafts
  • Animal-assisted therapy or interaction (equine therapy, petting dogs or cats, or volunteering at an animal shelter)
  • Board games
  • Community outings or team-building exercises
  • Cooking classes
  • Dance
  • Drama
  • Gardening
  • Meditation
  • Music
  • Playing sports
  • Storytelling
  • Video games
  • Writing/journaling

While not every therapy is suitable for every individual, the wide variety of options allows for highly customized experiences that can be custom-tailored to meet the diverse needs of each client. And, because the activities are generally enjoyable, clients often don’t realize they are in therapy. Instead, clients feel as though they are simply engaging in fun, light-hearted activities. This can provide individuals with a well-earned break from structured behavioral therapy sessions.

Benefits of Recreational Therapy in Addiction Treatment

With so many options to choose from, clients are able to participate in the activities they enjoy the most. The science behind how this approach helps treat mental and physical health conditions is simple: doing activities that are enjoyable releases feel-good endorphins in the brain. Therapeutic recreation can also help restore natural reward circuits in the brain by giving clients pleasure from games and activities rather than drugs or alcohol. 

There are many ways clients can benefit from engaging in therapeutic recreation during rehab. A few benefits include:

  • Improved motor skills and hand-eye coordination
  • Improved cognition and decision-making capabilities
  • Reduced feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness
  • The ability to heal through creative self-expression
  • Improved mood, self-esteem, and confidence
  • Strengthened social skills, communication skills, and active listening
  • Development of leadership qualities, team-building skills, and support systems
  • Gives clients the opportunity to try new things and learn new skills

When combined with a comprehensive addiction treatment program, recreational therapy can also help prevent relapse. This is because it not only improves clients’ abilities to cope with various challenges but also gives them an outlet to cope with stress, relax, and have fun. 

A study published in 2012 confirms that therapeutic recreation can reduce drug and alcohol relapse rates. Researchers found that people who finished treatment and were moved to sober housing that offered recreational activities were more likely to stay sober than those who did not participate in recreation.[2]

Find Help for Drug and Alcohol Addiction Today

Behavioral therapy and counseling teach clients that they must find healthy ways to cope with difficult emotions like stress, anxiety, depression, and anger. Recreational activities can be effective and enjoyable coping mechanisms in recovery. By offering recreational therapy in addiction treatment, clients are introduced to a range of activities that they may enjoy both during rehab and after it.

At Moving Mountains Recovery Center, our comprehensive program offers a full continuum of care that utilizes many different types of therapeutic recreation. If you or someone you love struggles with addiction, our program can be the solution. Call now to speak with an admissions coordinator to see if our program is right for you.


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