How To Use Leisure as a Therapeutic Tool

Nicole Bezan
Nicole Bezan
April 14, 2022
Reading Time: 5 min
Leisure, Occupational Therapy, Occupations, Therapy, Community Resources, Guest Spotlight

We think of leisure as free time that’s purely for enjoyment. There are no goals involved. But for an Occupational Therapist (OT) like myself, leisure activities have tremendous therapeutic potential. Let me tell you why.

Leisure Is An Occupation

First, let’s orient ourselves. When you hear the word “occupation” – what comes to mind? For many, it’s synonymous with a job, profession or work. For OTs and our clients, occupations are the activities and tasks that we do every day. 

There are three main categories. Self care occupations, such as bathing, dressing, eating, and preparing meals. Productive occupations, like working, volunteering and going to school. And leisure occupations: drawing, playing an instrument, playing sports, collecting stamps, photography, the list goes on.

No one type of occupation is more important than the other. The goal is to strive for balance: a healthy amount of occupations and healthy variation between them. 

The Right Leisure Activities Can Motivate Your Clients

Over the years, I’ve learned the value of using leisure occupations to help clients progress in therapy. 

Firstly, using an activity that is meaningful to that person can really help with initiation—our ability to get started and follow through on a task. It also helps with motivation and purpose—the reason why we are doing something. 

Secondly, we can use leisure to work on all aspects of our health: physical, social, emotional and cognitive. 

Playing billiard pool as an occupational therapy leisure activity
A game of pool can be a form of leisure activity to help strengthen physical, social, emotional, and cognitive competencies.

Let’s take the example of a client who loves to play pool. At first glance this may not seem like an activity with therapeutic potential. On the contrary, it involves work on a number of physical skills like standing tolerance, reaching, bending, and hand-eye coordination. A game of pool can also nurture social and emotional goals; like getting out of the house and into the community, or playing with a friend. It can even promote cognitive goals related to planning, attention, and memory. 

A highly anticipated leisure activity can also have a positive knock-on effect. If you’re excited about something planned for your day, you will naturally be more motivated to do the things you need to do in order to leave the house: getting out of bed, getting dressed, grooming, eating, etc.

Five Tips for Using Leisure Activities as a Therapeutic Tool

We’ve established that using leisure as a therapeutic tool can help clients progress in their recovery. Here’s how we get started with the following five tips.

Spark checklist document

1. Zero in on Your Client’s Favourite Leisure Activities

I begin by completing a leisure interest survey or checklist with my clients. This helps me understand what activities they’ve previously enjoyed doing, and whether they are still interested in these same activities. It also provides insight into any new activities they may be interested in. I review this checklist with them, and we work together to create a list of two to three preferred activities. 

Download the leisure occupational worksheet to further explore ways in which leisure activity can be used for therapeutic occupation.

Arrows changing direction

2. Be Ready to Pivot

This seems easy enough but it’s not always straightforward. Sometimes we have to get creative based on someone’s injuries or limitations. They may not be able to go back to a previous activity, so we may have to look at how we can take this interest and engage it in a different way. 

For example, I once had a client who used to race cars. Unfortunately he was unable to do this after his accident. After talking it through together, he came up with the idea of racing remote control cars instead. He met with friends and set up courses to race their cars together. By using the controller, he was able to improve fine motor and hand movements and explore physical tolerances, while still being connected to his passion of racing cars.

Leader paper planes

3. Let Your Client Lead

During the leisure exploration process it is important that the client be an equal partner. These are their leisure interests, so you cannot choose for them. They have to decide on the activities. You are there to support and offer ideas, new perspectives and creative approaches.

Setting goals with a bullseye target

4. Set Goals That Are Specific

At this point we are ready to set a goal centered around participation in this particular activity. Let’s consider the difference between these two goals:

  1. I will take pictures this week.
  2. I will go to Andrew Haydon Park on Wednesday afternoon at 1:30pm to take pictures for 30 minutes. 

You can see how the second goal is easier to commit to and thus more likely to happen. Setting specific and detailed goals helps to add structure and promote follow through. I also encourage clients to write down their goals by inputting them into their calendar or agenda, which adds another layer of accountability.

Hourglass patience

5. Remind Your Client to Be Patient

Regular and successful participation (even in activities we enjoy or are motivated to participate in) won’t always be easy.  Learning something new can be challenging and not always go the way you expect. Re-learning or modifying an activity can be frustrating. This is part of the process. Remind your clients to be patient and kind with themselves as they work toward their goals.

The Bottom Line: Leisure Can Be a Therapeutic Occupation

By focusing on activities or occupations that are meaningful to people, you can nurture goals that, on their own, might seem boring. The right activity greatly influences a client’s motivation, initiation and engagement in therapy. Using leisure as a therapeutic approach makes therapy (learning) functional, meaningful and client centered.


Learn More about Occupational Therapy

Learn about Occupational Therapy (OT) and discover how OT has empowered people to live more fulfilled lives with creative and practical solutions.

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