It’s a Beautiful Day in the Child Life Neighborhood

Child life has been around for years, but so frequently when I go into patient rooms for the first time and introduce myself, “Hello, I’m Jessica and I’m the child life specialist here today,” so many of them quickly ask, “And what is that?” before I have the opportunity to finish my sentence!

Child life specialists help to normalize the hospital experience for children. We provide the fun stuff such as crafts, toys, movies, and games to keep them busy and provide a little bit of normalcy to their day, but we also provide preparation, distraction, and support for patients before, during, and after procedures.

A child’s job is to play. Mr. Rogers says it best,

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

So when children are sick, it’s as if they’re having to stay home from their job (which depending on what job you have, may not be the worst thing for you). If you hate your job, imagine if you LOVED your job and someone told you that you couldn’t do your job for awhile. Now imagine being told you couldn’t do something you loved at the age of 4…or 8…or even 12 years old. Talk about a meltdown… child life provides that normalcy even in the midst of chaos.

When child life specialists prepare children for different sorts of procedures, we walk them through exactly what they will see, feel, and encounter. Sometimes we show them the real thing (e.g., an IV catheter, a mask for anesthesia, etc.) or sometimes we show them pictures on the iPad (pictures of the MRI machine, CT machine, the room they’ll be going to for surgery, etc.)

For example, if a child is to have an MRI, we would show the child a replica of an MRI machine that he/she can place a Barbie Doll or GI Joe on the bed and slide the doll in and out of the machine. This way, the child can see that nothing will touch or hurt them. If you’ve ever had an MRI you may remember that they make a lot of loud noises. We have these sounds saved on our iPad so that children can know ahead of time what to expect. Knowledge is power for children. To quote Mr. Rogers again (seriously, what a great guy),

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” 

Medical play is a way to for children to work out their feelings or anxieties about a procedure and also practice what they’re learning, just as Mr. Rogers said. For instance, if a girl is playing with the MRI machine replica and starts to place Barbie on top of the machine, or starts having her shake inside the machine, this provides a great opportunity for the child life specialist to engage the child in conversation about her play. “Why is barbie shaking?” Perhaps the child thinks that because the sounds the machine makes are so loud, it will shake the machine and the child will be thrown about inside. This is something that through play, a child life specialist can clarify misconceptions and work through with the patient.

This is just a glimpse of some aspects of the child life profession. A child life specialist provides nothing medical to the patient but rather helps them better interact with medical situations through play (medical and therapeutic), preparation, distraction and support.

I hope that through this blog, child life will be better understood and sought after when your child or a child you know has to visit the hospital for whatever reason.

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