What is a Recreation Therapist, and what are they doing in a Psychiatric Unit? by Beth Giesen

When someone asks you what you do for a living, they generally understand what your job entails. A doctor. A teacher. A secretary. But when you say “Recreation Therapist”, you get a blank stare. “What does that mean? You just play all day? What do you even do? Did you even have to go to school for that?”

In the simplest terms, yes, I play all day. What isn’t always stated, is the lessons that are learned through play: working with others, taking turns, sharing, sportsmanship, listening, confidence, self-esteem, calming strategies, coping skills, handling stress, the list goes on.

It can look like I’m just watching a movie with kids. You could peek into a group room and see the group of us coloring pictures. You may walk past us playing catch. Groups can consist of us playing with action figures. We could be having a spontaneous dance party. On any given day, you will hear incredible laughter from the group room- we can’t be working on anything serious or meaningful, can we?

What you don’t easily see is the discussion regarding the main characters of the movies and how they handle struggles. We’re not just coloring pictures. We are learning to relax and relieve stress while talking about the day and about what worries the kids have. We’re playing catch, but also building a relationship of trust that the ball will come back, comfort of being around someone you didn’t even know last week, and learning to laugh at yourself when you miss the catch. The action figures help the patients talk about appropriate social skills by having the characters act them out. That dance party? Those girls just had a very emotional therapy process group and needed to lighten their moods. The laughter? It comes from us getting down on the kids’ level- acting unbelievably silly and joking with them. They don’t realize they are learning how to feel comfortable with making themselves look silly in front of others, while they get to see us in a different light.

Sure, we could sit kids down and give lectures about how to react in certain situations. We could give them worksheets in order to practice these skills. We could even test them on what they’ve learned. As Ben Franklin is quoted as saying, “Tell me and I forget, Teach me and I remember, Involve me and I learn. “

Our patients are constantly learning lessons without even realizing it. Lessons to help with mental health? Definitely. But what’s more? I’m teaching these kids how to be kids.

Never forget to play!

To learn more about our Therapeutic Recreation program, come to the open house at our new location in Brooklyn Park!

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