If you’re like me, you’re probably always keen to hear about new ways to engage and help clients in their therapy process, especially if they’ve been on a fairly long road. I also like to find ways to engage clients in therapeutic activities outside of the therapy room. This helps them to keep doing the work between sessions and it provides them with more agency. In other words, they have easy tools they can use to up- or down-regulate and build the skills they need to address their issues in a non-threatening and easily accessible way, outside of therapy. Recreational therapy is one such approach, and I love it because it is a great opportunity to bring mindfulness into the mix.

I was recently asked to write an article called Recreational Therapy Explained: 6 Degrees & Programs for PositivePsychology.com, which gave me an opportunity to do some research regarding the topic. It was really great to find research and books related to an approach that I had been using in my own practice for years – to find evidence that supported my own experience. In this article, I will build on the PositivePsychology.com article, and provide you with a brief overview of recreational therapy and how mindfulness affects the therapeutic process of recreational therapy.


What is Recreational Therapy?


So, what is this new thing? It actually isn’t a new thing at all. Recreational therapy has been used for decades, centuries, even, but we’re seeing a formalisation in the form of research, formal training and certification. This is bringing more awareness to the benefits of recreational therapy, which is the use of recreational activities to address therapeutic needs. We can think of it as play with purpose, or mindful play. Hobbies or recreational activities such as gardening, arts and crafts, writing, animal and equine activities, sports, etc., can all be used to help clients with various conditions like depression and anxiety, ADHD, grief and bereavement, and more.

I find that by working with clients to identify things they enjoy doing and discussing the ways in which that activity can help them helps clients to engage with the activity more mindfully, with more awareness and presence, and this only helps to increase their engagement in the activity and the therapeutic benefits. For example, I worked with a client who liked to play music, and we talked through some of the reported benefits of playing and listening to music. This shifted the way she engaged with her hobby and that deepened the way she experienced it. Now music is an integral part of her wellness routine and she readily turns to her instrument or turns on some music when she starts to feel anxious or overwhelmed.


Why Mindfulness Matters in Recreational Therapy


Okay, so hobbies are good for us. We know this. Our grandmothers knew it and so did theirs. And they probably also knew that the quality of attention or presence we bring to the hobby affects how good it makes us feel. So why does mindfulness matter? It matters because mindfulness is all about quality of attention, and we want to maximise our experiences – if we’re going to do the work, or the play in this case, we want to get the most out of it. Everyday we’re learning more and more about how mindfulness affects our experiences. All over social media, and every other kind of media, and even in the academic and research arena, we’re hearing that when we engage in any activity with mindful presence it changes the quality of our experience.

What does this mean? It means that when we pay attention to what we’re doing in an embodied and compassionate way, we have a more dynamic, rich and fulfilling experience. We achieve a flow state, a state of absolute absorption, which helps to reduce or even eliminate rumination and worry, improve performance, create positive emotion, and a sense of achievement and fulfilment.


How to be More Mindful in Recreation Therapy


From a therapists’ perspective, I think it is important to be mindful in therapy sessions and help clients to do the same. This can take different forms from active mindfulness activities during sessions, teaching them how to practice mindfulness outside of therapy as part of their daily lives and cultivating an embodied presence between you and the client within the session. I have also found it helpful to explain how and why therapeutic activities work – the mechanisms of action.

So, if I were working with a client who talked about enjoying gardening, I would discuss the reported therapeutic benefits, and explain how those benefits are achieved – the psychological and physiological action that the activity has. I would also help them identify ways in which they might do the activity more mindfully. This might include bringing awareness to their physical and emotional experience of the activity, their surroundings; the smells, textures and colours around them, etc., and how they feel before, during, and after engaging in the activity. In my experience, this helps clients to be more aware of the benefits, and therefore experience those benefits more quickly. It also helps them sustain their engagement when they start to get bored or frustrated as they know and understand how the activity is helping them.


Take Away


Recreational therapy is the use of recreation activities or hobbies to address therapeutic needs. Any hobby such as gardening, music, arts and crafts, yoga, horse riding, quilting, or crochet can be used therapeutically. They can be used to relieve the suffering associated with various conditions such anxiety and depression, ADHD, grief and bereavement, etc. The main benefits come from the quality of our engagement and mindfulness can help us to get the most of the activity. Performing our recreational activities with embodied and compassionate presence allows us to be in flow. Flow allows us to feel connected, happy, and fulfilled.


Learn More


If you’d like to learn more about the ins and outs of recreational therapy and how and where to get training, please have a look at the PositivePsychology.com article I mentioned before. In it, I’ve covered:

  • An in-depth description of Recreational Therapy?
  • 6 Recreational Therapy Activities
  • How Does It Work? The Psychology Behind Recreational Therapy
  • Benefits of Recreational Therapy According to Research
  • 6 Best Training Programs
  • 3 Great Recreational Therapy Books for Therapists

Before you go…I would love to hear your thoughts about how you might engage in recreation therapeutically, and mindfully. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts on mindfulness in recreational therapy. I hope you found them helpful. If you would like more information, or would like to work with me or book a mindfulness-based support session, please contact me.

Photo Credit: Obie Fernandez

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