Parks and Recreation Certification and Degree Program Overviews

Oct 22, 2019

Individuals interested in managing organized recreational activities consider an undergraduate or graduate degree in recreational leadership management, recreation, and leisure studies or simply recreation. See program details, courses and job outlook.

Essential Information

Students with appropriate work experience and a desire to verify their professional credentials consider certification from the National Recreation and Parks Association, among other organizations in the field. Students in associate's, bachelor's, and master's degree programs gain experience in the field, along with classroom instruction. These programs focus on topics in leadership, first aid, the environment, tourism, and nutrition.

A high school diploma is needed for enrollment in a 2-year recreational studies program. An associate's degree, preferably in recreation studies, is acceptable to transfer into this 4-year-program. Master's degree applicants must have earned a bachelor's degree in recreation or a related field. Some schools require a grade point average of at least 3.0. Work experience in the field is a plus, and students are asked to submit an essay as part of the application process. Some schools require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or the Miller Analogy Test (MAT). Master's students must complete a thesis or applied research project prior to graduation, as well as internships and/or assistant work.

Associate's Degree in Recreational Studies

This degree program combines indoor studies with outdoor trips to produce leaders who are grounded in environmental practices and local history. At some schools, the recreation and leisure program leads to an Associate of Applied Science; at others, it leads to an Associate of Arts. Students choose to incorporate elements of therapeutic recreation in their coursework. Business practices and facility management are also common parts of the degree program.

Programs take advantage of the geography near their location; those near water include boating courses, while programs near mountains incorporate climbing into the curriculum. Students go on expeditions and field trips to gain practical experience. Classroom courses include:

  • Wilderness medicine
  • Mountaineering
  • Environmentalism
  • Outdoor living skills

Bachelor's Degree in Recreational Management

Individuals pursuing a bachelor's degree in recreational management are taught not only how to lead various recreational activities, but also about the business aspects of such operations, including accounting, human resource management, planning, and budgeting. Students are exposed to management-level functions and learn the best practices used in financing, marketing, and managing a recreational-based operation.

Courses are organized by specialty or concentration. These sections include outdoor education and wellness, as well as tourism and sports management. These courses, which include classroom studies and practical experience, include topics such as:

  • Wilderness first aid
  • Facility, risk, and conflict management
  • Outdoor sustenance skills
  • Corporate fitness and nutrition
  • Psychology
  • Essential communication

Master's Degree in Recreation and Leisure Studies

At the master's degree level, students learn the importance of recreation, and how it can be used to improve the quality of life for the public. Students begin to work with a certain population, like children or the elderly. Combining different skills, such as research and management, prepares the student for all aspects of the field. Some schools allow graduate students to choose a specialization within recreation, such as sports management. This program leads to a Master of Science.

Students also study course topics like:

  • Therapeutic recreation
  • Foundations of leisure
  • Leisure trends
  • Management
  • Tourism
  • Leisure services marketing

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

Recreation workers were expected to see faster than average job growth of 8% from 2018 through 2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics ( A growing demand along with an increasing elderly population propels the need for recreation and leisure leaders. Senior facilities will also account for new jobs. In 2018, the bureau reported that the average annual salary for recreation workers was $28,310.

Popular Career Options

An associate's degree in the recreation and leisure field prepares the student for careers in industries such as the local or federal government, non-profit sector or private tourism. Some of the most popular job titles include:

  • Cruise director
  • Park ranger
  • Tour guide
  • Facility manager
  • Resort worker
  • Ecotourism guide

Many schools help with job placement, and the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) has a job board available online. Graduates with this master's degree may work in a variety of settings, including:

  • Public recreation facilities
  • Military bases
  • Schools
  • Parks
  • Nursing homes
  • Rehabilitation facilities

Continuing Education Information

Students may go on to complete a Ph.D., which will equip them for careers in research for private companies, public agencies and higher education. Graduates may also earn additional certifications from such groups as the Red Cross, which offers CPR, lifeguarding and aquatic safety credentials. The NRPA offers continuing education classes for recreation professionals.

Organizations like the NRPA and the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation offer certification options for professionals in the parks and recreation industry. Eligibility requirements for these certifications vary depending on a candidate's education and experience; for example, applicants may need to graduate from an accredited degree program or accumulate five years of work experience to sit for the exams. The NRPA offers different certification paths for certified park and recreation professionals (CPRPs), certified playground safety inspectors (CPSIs) and aquatic facility operators (AFOs).

Students interested in studying recreation can pursue an associate's, bachelor's or master's degree to develop a strong foundation in the field. Graduates can expect positive job growth in a variety of jobs as recreation workers, but may also choose to pursue further education or certification options.

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