Recreation Worker Career

Recreation workers help groups and individuals enjoy and use their leisure time constructively. They organize and administer physical, social, and cultural programs. They also operate recreational facilities and study recreation needs. There are approximately 310,000 recreation workers employed in the United States.

Recreation Worker Career History

Recreation Worker CareerAmericans enjoy more leisure time today than at any other period in history. The introduction of new technology, along with changing labor laws, has shrunk the workday and workweek. Workers receive increased vacation time, often setting their own flexible hours and, in many cases, retiring at an earlier age. The use of laborsaving devices and convenience foods in the home adds more free hours to a family’s time, while increased income provides extra money for recreational activities.

During the last generation, leisure has become a time for planned activity. New services and revolutionized old ones have been developed to help Americans find beneficial ways in which to use their spare time.

Organized recreation has been of great value to those in nursing homes and other extendedcare facilities. The occupations in recreation work grew out of the awareness that people were happier when they had an activity to participate in or look forward to. Today’s recreation professionals are specialists in motivating people. They are trained, responsible leaders who understand and are sensitive to human needs and who are dedicated to helping people help themselves through recreation.

The Job of Recreation Workers

Recreation workers plan, organize, and direct recreation activities for people of all ages, social and economic levels, and degrees of physical and emotional health. The exact nature of their work varies and depends on their individual level of responsibility.

Recreation workers employed by local governments and voluntary agencies include recreation supervisors who coordinate recreation center directors, who in turn supervise recreation leaders and aides. With the help of volunteer workers, they plan and carry out programs at community centers, neighborhood playgrounds, recreational and rehabilitation centers, prisons, hospitals, and homes for children and the elderly, often working in cooperation with social workers and sponsors of the various centers.

Recreation supervisors plan programs to meet the needs of the people they serve. Well-rounded programs may include arts and crafts, dramatics, music, dancing, swimming, games, camping, nature study, and other pastimes. Special events may include festivals, contests, pet and hobby shows, and various outings. Recreation supervisors also create programs for people with special needs, such as the elderly or people in hospitals. Supervisors have overall responsibility for coordinating the work of the recreation workers who carry out the programs and supervise several recreation centers or an entire region.

Recreation center directors run the programs at their respective recreation buildings, indoor centers, playgrounds, or day camps. In addition to directing the staff of the facility, they oversee the safety of the buildings and equipment, handle financial matters, and prepare reports.

Recreation or activity leaders, with the help of recreation aides, work directly with assigned groups and are responsible for the daily operations of a recreation program. They organize and lead activities such as drama, dancing, sports and games, camping trips, and other recreations. They give instruction in crafts, games, and sports, and they work with other staff on special projects and events. Leaders help train and direct volunteers and perform other tasks as required by the director.

In industry, recreation leaders plan social and athletic programs for employees and their families. Bowling leagues, softball teams, picnics, and dances are examples of company-sponsored activities. In addition, an increasing number of companies are providing exercise and fitness programs for their employees.

Camp counselors lead and instruct children and adults in nature-oriented forms of recreation at camps or resorts. Activities usually include swimming, hiking, horseback riding, and other outdoor sports and games, as well as instruction in nature and folklore. Camp counselors teach skills such as wood crafting, leather work ing, and basket weaving. Some camps offer specialized instruction in subjects such as music, drama, gymnastics, and computers. In carrying out the programs, camp counselors are concerned with the safety, health, and comfort of the campers. Counselors are supervised by a camp director.

Another type of recreation worker is the social director, who plans and organizes recreational activities for guests in hotels and resorts or for passengers aboard a ship. Social directors usually greet new arrivals and introduce them to other guests, explain the recreational facilities, and encourage guests to participate in planned activities. These activities may include card parties, games, contests, dances, musicals, or field trips and may require setting up equipment, arranging for transportation, or planning decorations, refreshments, or entertainment. In general, social directors try to create a friendly atmosphere, paying particular attention to lonely guests and trying to ensure that everyone has a good time.

Recreation Worker Career Requirements

For some recreation positions, a high school diploma or an associate’s degree in parks and recreation, social work, or other human service discipline is sufficient preparation. However, most full-time career positions require a bachelor’s degree, and a graduate degree is often a necessity for high-level administrative posts.

High School

High school students interested in recreation work should get a broad liberal arts and cultural education and acquire at least a working knowledge of arts and crafts, music, dance, drama, athletics, and nature study.

Postsecondary Training

Acceptable college majors include parks and recreation management, leisure studies, fitness management, and related disciplines. A degree in any liberal arts field may be sufficient if the person’s education includes courses relevant to recreation work.

In industrial recreation, employers usually prefer applicants with a bachelor’s degree in recreation and a strong background in business administration. Some jobs require specialized training in a particular field, such as art, music, drama, or athletics. Others need special certifications, such as a lifesaving certificate to teach swimming.

There are about 100 parks and recreation curriculums at the bachelor’s degree level accredited by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA). Students may also pursue a master’s degree or doctorate (Ph.D.) in the field.

Certification or Licensing

Many recreation professionals apply for certification as evidence of their professional competence. The NRPA, the American Camp Association, and the Employee Services Management Association award certificates to individuals who meet their standards. More than 40 states have adopted NRPA standards for park/recreation professionals.

The federal government employs many recreation leaders in national parks, the armed forces, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and correctional institutions. It may be necessary to pass a civil service examination to qualify for these positions.

Other Requirements

Personal qualifications for recreation work include a desire to work with people, an outgoing personality, an even temperament, and the ability to lead and influence others. Recreation workers should have good health and stamina and should be able to stay calm and think clearly and quickly in emergencies.

Exploring Recreation Worker Career

Young people interested in this field should obtain related work experience as part-time or summer workers or volunteers in recreation departments, neighborhood centers, camps, and other organizations.


There are about 310,000 recreation workers, not counting summer workers or volunteers, employed in the United States. About 35 percent work for local government agencies, and about 11 percent are employed by civic, social, fraternal, or religious membership organizations such as the Boy Scouts, YWCA, or Red Cross. Others work in social service organizations, such as centers for seniors and adult day care, and residential-care facilities, such as halfway houses, nursing homes, institutions for delinquent youths, and group homes or commercial recreation establishments and private industry.

Starting Out

College placement offices are useful in helping graduates find employment. Most college graduates begin as either recreation leaders or specialists and, after several years of experience, they may become recreation directors. A few enter trainee programs leading directly to recreation administration within a year or so. Those with graduate training may start as recreation directors.


Recreation leaders without graduate training will find advancement limited, but it is possible to obtain better paying positions through a combination of education and experience. With experience it is possible to become a recreation director. With further experience, directors may become supervisors and eventually head of all recreation departments or divisions in a city. Some recreation professionals become consultants.


Full-time recreation workers earned a median salary of $19,320 a year, as of 2004. Wages ranged from less than $13,260 a year to more than $34,280 a year. Some toplevel managers can make considerably more.

Recreational therapists had median earnings of $32,900 in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Work Environment

Physical conditions vary greatly from outdoor parks to nursing homes for the elderly. A recreation worker can choose the conditions under which he or she would like to work. Recreation workers with an interest in the outdoors may become camp counselors. Those who have an interest in travel may seek a job as a social director on a cruise ship. There are opportunities for people who want to help the elderly or mentally handicapped, as well as for people with an interest in drama or music.

Generally, recreation workers must work while others engage in leisure activities. Most recreation workers work 44-hour weeks. But they should expect, especially those just entering the field, some night and weekend work. A compensating factor is the pleasure of helping people enjoy themselves.

Many of the positions are part-time or seasonal, and many full-time recreation workers spend more time performing management duties than in leading hands-on activities.

Recreation Worker Career Outlook

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment opportunities for recreation workers will increase about as fast as the average through 2014. The expected expansion in the recreation field will result from increased leisure time and income for the population as a whole, along with a continuing interest in fitness and health and a growing elderly population in nursing homes, senior centers, and retirement communities. There also is a demand for recreation workers to conduct activity programs for special needs groups.

Two areas promising the most favorable opportunities for recreation workers are the commercial recreation and social service industries. Commercial recreation establishments include amusement parks, sports and entertainment centers, wilderness and survival enterprises, tourist attractions, vacation excursions, hotels and other resorts, camps, health spas, athletic clubs, and apartment complexes. New employment opportunities will arise in social service agencies such as senior centers, halfway houses, children’s homes, and day-care programs for the mentally or developmentally disabled.

Recreation programs that depend on government funding are most likely to be affected in times of economic downturns when budgets are reduced. During such times, competition will increase significantly for jobs in the private sector. Due to such predicted budget reductions, employment for recreation workers in local government is predicted to grow more slowly than the average for all other occupations.

In any case, competition is expected to be keen because the field is open to college graduates regardless of major; as a result, there are more applicants than there are job openings. Opportunities will be best for individuals who have formal training in recreation and for those with previous experience.

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