The Practicality of a Practicum

Practicums aren’t necessarily “required” however they do offer lots of advantages to most students who complete one prior to obtaining an internship.  A practicum is a designated amount of unpaid hours (typically anywhere from 100-200 hours) for one to observe Certified Child Life Specialists in typically a hospital setting on assigned unit(s) (pediatrics, surgery, emergency department, etc).


When applying for practicums, it’s important to identify if it will be a “play-focused” or “procedure-based” practicum. Both have their strengths, however, in order to prepare you for most internships, a “procedure-based” practicum is preferred. This helps set you apart from other applicants during the interview process for an internship when asked questions about different procedures such as an IV, surgery preparation, or even a situational question regarding medical play. During a procedure-based practicum, you’ll do lots of observing and hopefully have good conversations with your supervisor regarding how YOU would go about working through those situations/procedures yourself. A practicum is usually slower paced compared to an internship allowing you the opportunity to ask those questions in order to prepare yourself for when you’re in the driver’s seat during your internship.  You don’t necessarily want a practicum that won’t allow you to grow any further past what you accomplished during your volunteer efforts. Be mindful of the practicums you apply to and ask those questions during an interview so you can best identify whether this will be a “play-focused” or “procedure-based” practicum.

If you have already completed a practicum and find that a lot of your time and effort was spent manning the playroom or going room-to-room to play with patients, consider possibly applying for another practicum, preferably procedure-based, to give you that necessary experience in order to help you succeed during your internship. Obviously, you need not know everything when entering into an internship, but at least being familiar with most things such as how you would go about preparing a child for an IV start, the difference between an MRI and a CT scan, and how to handle bereavement would be beneficial.

Some practicums may have you come several days during the week over the span of 12 weeks and some may have you come every day for only 5 weeks. Regardless, your supervisors will (hopefully) try their hardest to give you the most experience as possible at a procedure-based practicum. There are some things though that we can’t plan. While we’d like to help walk you through how to handle a bereavement, it’s not always possible during your few weeks or days during the week that you’re there. That means that you may have to fill in the gaps of what you’re not exposed to by doing your own research. A better option would be to pick the brains of your supervisors to see how each of the child life specialists handle these situations differently and how you can incorporate that into your own practice in the future.

Regardless of if you find yourself at a “play-focused” or “procedure-based” practicum, soak up every experience that you have with patients, families and staff. Write down in a journal memorable patient experiences, procedures and scenarios that you can relate to theories and theorists. This will ultimately help you keep these experiences at quick reach during interviews in the future.

Trust your gut – if you feel like your practicum experience wasn’t enough or you don’t feel well prepared, there’s nothing wrong with applying for another one. The more experience the better!

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