During my recent travels to the Czech Republic, I had the opportunity to learn about two populations that I knew little or nothing about: the children of Lidice and the children of Chanov. Our hosts, Jiri & Marketa Kralovec of the Klicek Foundation, arranged a day long outing to honor one group and to serve the other.
A few days prior, Marketa had given me a book
that told the story of the massacre of an entire village during World War II. It is a chilling and heartbreaking narrative of the fates of 82 children between the ages of 1 to 16. In response to the assassination of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, the Nazis sought retribution by shooting all the men of Lidice (aged 15 and up), transporting the women to concentration camps, and murdering the children en mass by gassing them in a truck. Not even the dead were spared, their graves looted along with everyone’s homes and businesses, before the Nazis burned everything to the ground.
We arrived at the historical site of Lidice, the midday sun unrelenting in the early Spring heatwave. We made our way over rolling green lawns to the memorial (Pamatnik Lidice) that overlooks the expanse of land where the village once lay. No book could have prepared me for the impact of the life-sized collection of sculptures embodying the 82 murdered children. I stood before them and wept for these children and all those murdered during the Holocaust. I wept at the cruelty of human beings. I wept for the legacy that lives on in the DNA of my life partner, his parents having survived Auschwitz at the tender ages of 12 and 15. They could have been these children. In some ways, they were.
The artist Marie Uchytilová created the memorial in the 1990’s, but died before she was able to complete the sculptures. Jiri described paying a visit to their friend, Marie, during her selfless work. The haunting presence of the children’s likenesses in the fading light cast shadows as they drank tea and chatted late into the night. “She informed us that she often spoke to the children as she crafted their images,” Jiri said. “And she tried to find out everything she could about each one, so that she could truly fashion their souls.”
We left the children and walked in silence back to the van. We traveled on, stopping for a tour of the pediatric ward of a hospital before moving on to the last leg of our journey. We had little idea of what awaited us as we drove north west to Most in Bohemia and the Chanov housing estate. Of course Marketa had told us about our upcoming visit. Borivoj, (all names of patients and children have been changed to protect their privacy) a brain cancer survivor, had attended the Klicek summer camp as an ill teen. Marketa and Jiri stayed in touch with Borivoj and his family, visiting them occasionally over the years. On one such visit, Marketa took notice of the many children of the neighborhood, hanging out with seemingly little to do. She was moved by their plight, and vowed to return to set up an afternoon of play on a monthly basis.
“No one goes there,” she said as she prepared food for our day’s journey. “It is the poorest and most dangerous part of the Czech Republic. If people do go there, it is to make themselves feel better, handing out candy and toys, and getting back in their cars, not really just being with the children or connecting with them.” As Marketa described the situation, I thought of the untouchables in India.
According to Wikipedia, “[t]he Chánov housing is these days perceived by many Czechs as among the worst examples of ghettoization of the Czech Romany population and has been described as “the housing estate of horror”, “a hygienic time bomb”, “a black stain” and the “Czech Bronx”. The Roma tenants of Chanov fare dreadfully in today’s Czech Republic, relegated to institutionalized country-wide discrimination, racism, marginalization and poverty. The Roma are largely unemployed. 94% of the people have only a primary education, if that. 38% of the population are children under the age of 15.
Word of our coming had spread, and over 60 of these children and their parents greeted us as our van pulled up in front of the Chanov school, skirted by an astroturf football field. The children gathered eagerly and Marketa divided them into two groups, challenging them to a contest.
“All right!” she coached them. “Let’s see who has better English, the boys or the girls!” I was the designated judge, and the girls surrounded me eagerly. “My name is Anuska,” piped up one girl sporting polka dot shorts and a bright pink t-shirt emblazoned with the head of a blue giraffe. “What is your name?” “What color are your eyes?” “One, two three…” Other girls chimed in, counting up to fifteen with pride. “How old are you?” asked another. Then, they all started to sing, “Head and shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes!”
The boys jockeyed for attention, keen to tease and one up one another in the process. “My name is…” began one, and several interrupted to shout him down with their own introductions. They jabbed and pushed one another, joking and laughing and even yanking down one boy’s shorts as they showed off their skills. Definitely a different energy than the girls!
Capitalizing on the bit if English they knew (way more than my Czech, I might add!) I asked the children to show me some of their games, awkwardly pantomiming patty cake. After humoring me by joining in, the girls broke into a much more intricate version, clapping their hands in a fast paced rhythm that left me in the dust. Then the kids introduced me to the game Baba (If I am spelling that right). Figuring out the rules was easy, as they ran up to me, tapped me none to gently on the back, yelled “Baba!” with great enthusiasm, and ran away from me. Oh, the Czech version of tag – I get it! In fact, there are many games that translate across cultures.
The children eventually broke off into smaller groups, some to draw on the parking lot with colored chalk that Marketa had brought, and some to start up a game of soccer. The play specialist volunteers set up a makeshift hair salon, brushing the girls’ hair and styling both boys and girls alike using many mini rubber bands.
Several children showed us their dancing skills, and my colleague, Marifer Busqueta from Mexico City, engaged them in a few Latina moves.
One group of boys made their way to a large sand pit at the edge of the football field. They dragged over two box springs, the rusty inner workings of mattresses, piling them up to act as a springboard for their acrobatics. And so the real show of the day began. The boys, singly and in pairs, ran pell mell at the springs and leapt upon them, catapulting themselves into the air in arching flips and tumbles. They showed no fear, but my heart beat fast and hard in my chest as they flew past me, landing triumphantly in the sand. I couldn’t help but think of the framed photograph hanging in my bedroom back home of children in a 1980’s South Bronx performing similar feats of daring.
Towards the end of the day, Jiri Jr. corralled the kids into the cement bleachers to pose for a group photo. There was homemade gingerbread for all, and one child split her treat in half to share with Marifer, before enjoying the sliver left over for her. We spent 4 hours altogether with the kids, before collapsing exhausted into the van and heading home to the comforts of Malejovice. Hot running water and electricity would greet us, although no such luxury awaited the children of Chanov. The joy of a day of cross-cultural play with wonderful kids lay juxtaposed in my mind with thoughts of children in historical and current contexts. When hate and racism allow us marginalize, ghettoize, and incarcerate a segment of any population, keeping them from sharing in the most basic of human rights (employment, access to medical care, decent living conditions and education), how far are we from enacting the fate of the children of Lidice upon our own children?
My recent visit to the Czech Republic, sponsored by the Klicek Foundation, included a return to the Mendelova Nursing School in Novy Jicin. This time, Maria Fernanda Busqueta Mendoza joined us from Mexico, and 50 students participated in our seminar, making it a great opportunity for global learning and a multicultural exchange of ideas. As you can see from the first photograph, the students were a lively bunch, and they eagerly participated in the highly interactive time we spent together. Jiri Kralovec served as our interpreter and his son, Jiri, touted by Foto Video Magazine as this year’s hottest photographer on Instagram, documented our learning. Most of the photos below are his work.
Jiri and his wife, Marketa, started us off by sharing information about the importance of play for hospitalized children and the history of their efforts to bring hospital play to the Czech Republic. It has been a slow, uphill battle to change the hierarchal and disempowering bureaucracy of their medical system. I followed with an introduction to the field of Child Life, the role of child life specialists in hospitals, and the possibilities for collaboration with nurses. I spoke about the role of play and community in the healing process, before moving on to some illustrative activities.
Sharing our own memories of play is one way to deepen our appreciation for the role of play in our lives and in the lives of children. I asked the class to think about their own childhood memories, using their five senses — what do they remember about their play environment? Did play occur inside or outdoors, or both? Were they playing alone, or with others? Did they play with toys, loose parts, or their imaginations? Are there sounds, smells, tastes or textures associated with their memories? What feelings are evoked in sharing them? The students paired up and took turns both sharing and listening to one another.
(photo by Jiri Kralovec)
Armed wth a deeper awareness of the value of play, the students were now ready to learn a bit about how to make procedures less frightening for children. I have always wanted to use role play as a way to demonstrate all the things that can go wrong during a procedure, and how minor changes can make things easier for medical staff, children, and caregivers. I took this opportunity and asked for volunteers. One young man played the patient. We instructed him to lie down and asked three others to pin him down to the table, much like medical personnel are likely to do when a child receives an IV. We demonstrated how the very act of being forced into a prone position increases one’s sense of vulnerability and loss of control.
(photo by Jiri Kralovec)
Add to that several adults talking at once, loudly over any protests you might make, telling you to stay still, not to cry, to be a big boy, not to look…. and you get the picture. Chaos, stress and shame accumulate to make for a disastrous experience for all.
(photo by Jiri Kralovec)
But there are some simple things that nurses can do, either alone or in partnership with play specialists, to change the outcomes of such procedures. It doesn’t mean that the child won’t cry, but it is more likely that the child won’t suffer emotional trauma, will return to baseline quicker, and the nurses can feel more successful and less like they are causing the child undue suffering.
With these tips in mind, the students enacted a better case scenario, where the parent has a supportive role in positioning the child for comfort. The child is upright and held in a calming hug, rather than being restrained on the table. The child is given some choices, such as which hand to try first for the IV (the non dominant hand is preferable), and whether to watch the procedure or use a toy or book for distraction.
- Electing one person to be the voice in the room,
- encouraging the child to breathe deeply and slowly,
- narrating each step of what the child will feel,
- explaining how a tiny plastic catheter, not the IV needle, remains in the child’s hand to deliver medicine,
- staying away from comparative or shaming statements,
- and showing empathy
are all ways to provide psychosocial support, making the experience less traumatizing and painful for the child. Accumulated painful and traumatic medical experiences can make children phobic and avoidant of medical care.
(photo by Jiri Kralovec)
(photo by Jiri Kralovec)
We also spoke about non-pharmacological pain prevention and reduction. The interactive component of our lecture surely made our important information memorable. The action and laughter surely made more of an impression than a power point! We all reflected together about how even adult patients can benefit from choices, information and empathy.
Back to the topic of play, we explored ways for the nurses to instill playful interactions into their communication with pediatric patients. Rapport building and distraction through the use of hand games is one way that they can put a child at ease. I demonstrated several hand games, and asked them to show me some of theirs as well.
(photo by Jiri Kralovec)
Our time with these wonderful students ended all too soon. We posed outside of the school for a photo with some of the Klicek Foundation hospital play specialists before heading to the historic square down the street. Around every corner of this country is a beautiful scene, no matter where you are!
(photo by Jiri Kralovec)
(photo by Jiri Kralovec)
We all need time to restore our energy and feed our spirits. It is not an easy task during the workaday world of most of our lives. For anyone in the service professions, self care is a necessity, not an option. As a professor teaching Child Life graduate students, my calendar revolves around the academic year, and by the time the end of May rolls around, I am usually quite exhausted and spent. An invitation to teach in the Czech Republic came at a very good moment for me – after graduation and at a beautiful time of year.
Knowing what to expect
The recipe for filling my well was a simple one, but I could not have done it without the friendship and nurturing of the Kralovec family. Marketa graciously and painstakingly created a hand written and illustrated book telling the tale of all we would be doing together in the next two weeks. The guide was especially helpful in letting me know what to expect, as we traversed the country and visited Poland and Austria.
A Warm Welcome
But the whirlwind began with a gentle, warm welcome back to Malejovice, the home of the Kralovec family and the Klicek Foundation Hospice. My third excursion from New York City to the Czech Republic felt like returning to the home of my soul. Marketka, their daughter and a highly skilled artist, documented my arrival by depicting the short emotional distance between our two homes. What’s an ocean anyway when like minds and hearts connect?
Bright and cozy bed linens and wild flowers from their garden greeted me in the guest room. The sounds of the birds sifted in with a gentle breeze through the open window.
Wonderful Home Cooked Meals
Each meal was prepared from local ingredients and cooked with love. The eggs from their chickens (rescued from terrible conditions in a chicken mill), fresh herbs from their garden, homemade soup, duck with dumplings and sauerkraut, fresh bread and danishes, black tea and local beer…….. my palate fairly exploded from the goodness of it all. The family would not allow me to wash a plate or rise for a napkin. The nurturing wasn’t just about the food, but the care with which they served it.
Four Legged and Winged Friends
Animals are therapy, and a wide variety of animals inhabit the pastures surrounding the 100 year old schoolhouse. Each morning began with a chorus of birds at about 4 AM, followed by the harsh and comical braying of Donkey (his name is Donkey) at 7 AM. The sheep served as the snooze alarm, sounding off a few moments after Donkey. Mollie the dog was the night time alarm system, and the chickens cooed and clucked whenever we approached them. The cats draped themselves over windowsills and plant boxes and moseyed up and down the driveway throughout the day.
Nature is what grounds us and reminds us of the cycle of life, our smallness, and the beauty of creation. The surrounding forests of Malejovice, the wild flowers and rolling hills and pastures, the lush ponds and hidden villages of the country……… all served to quiet my gerbil wheel mind.
I get plenty of time alone teaching online from my apartment, but there is something different about being alone with nature in wide open space. Nothing to distract me from the sun, breeze, scents and light.
Solitude is always best when you return from your walk to a household filled with joy, love, laughter, and music. The time spent with these people, and all the people we met on our travels, energized me and acted as a balm to my tired soul. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you – and these words will never be enough to convey my gratitude.
Repeat whenever able.
Previously published as “How Making Dancing Videos Helped Me Cope With Chemo and Radiation” on The Mighty on April 28th, 2017
The email arrived on my 52nd birthday in the wake of a bilateral lumpectomy for breast cancer. While healing from the surgery and post-op infection, I did my best to adjust to my diagnosis and tried not to dwell too much on the upcoming chemo. I wasn’t feeling particularly celebratory as I opened my laptop and signed in to check my email that day. I was pleasantly surprised to find a string of emails, each one with a, “Happy Birthday, Deb!” subject heading.
The emails heralded from a cohort of recently graduated Child Life students, all of whom had taken my course on therapeutic play while pursuing their Masters in Child Life. Child Life specialists use play to support children through their hospitalization. They are the ones who focus on a child’s emotional and developmental needs, seeking to make the hospital a less scary and more manageable experience for child and family. And now, in these emails, they were putting their skills to the test, reaching out to show me, their professor, support in my time of need.
Each email contained a video, and although they all differed slightly, there was definitely an emerging theme. Every video held some rendition of Katy Perry’s pop tune “Firework” — either a straight cut from Youtube, or a homemade video with the song playing and the students lip-synching and dancing for the camera. I sniffled noisily and swiped the tears from my cheeks with the back of my hand as I felt their good cheer washing over me. Each video moved me, but it was the final one that had a lasting impact.
I re-positioned myself to find a comfortable spot against the soft cushions of my couch and clicked on the link to the video from my former grad student. The accompanying email read, “Deb you have inspired me to get up and dance. Happy Birthday from me, Tiff and George Bailey! I love you!!!” I pressed play and the video buffered and then revealed my student center-stage, holding her dog (George Bailey!) and dancing to Katy Perry blasting in the background. To the right is her sister, Tiffany, also dancing, albeit with a bit more restraint. Two weeks earlier, at the age of 30 and six months after her wedding, Tiffany was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. And here she was, teaming up with her sister to support me in my own battle. My breath hitched in my chest as I watched through a haze of tears.
When I reached out to my student to thank her, she informed me her sister had been struggling with a dark mood since her diagnosis and this video was the first time Tiffany had really moved her body and raised her arms since surgery. I took all this to heart, and vowed to myself I would not take this gift lightly. Inspired deeply by Tiffany’s actions, I decided I would make my own videos, to cheer myself (and maybe her) through the process. Each and every week before my eight chemotherapy sessions and six weeks of radiation, I chose a kickass song and danced and sang to it — capturing my ungainly efforts on video. Playing everything from Springsteen’s Badlands to Katy Perry’s Roar, I roped in family and friends, child life grads, my dog, my husband, anyone who had less shame than me. Towards the end, I even wrote my own lyrics to a Christmas carol and sang acapella. As my hair thinned and my energy faltered, these videos kept me focused on the road ahead and also helped me show the world I was more than my diagnosis. Baby, I was a firework!
These are some of the videos:
AND last but not least, Shani Thornton, aka @ChildLifeMommy, lent me constant support with ongoing videos of her own. Without these, I never could have kept my sense of humor or optimism. Thank you, Shani!!
Source: Coping with Loss on Mother’s Day
Ever since I first stepped off a plane in New Zealand over three years ago, I have become fascinated by what my profession looks like in other countries. Whether you call it Child Life, Hospital Play or Pediatric Psychosocial Healthcare, I have learned that there are many ways to ease the stress of medical treatment for children across the globe. I was in conversation recently with a mover and shaker in the Child Life world, Courtney Moreland, founder of Child Life United. Courtney has been busy creating practicums in partnership with child life programs on the international front, in addition to coordinating child life volunteer positions in her mission work.
Courtney noticed an increasing level of competition for a sparse number of practicums in the United States. Tapping into a growing interest within our field in international work, she came up with the idea of partnering with child life professionals abroad to create more practicum opportunities for budding child life specialists.
First stop — the Middle East! Courtney teamed up with Bank Street College alum, Rachel Werner, a child life specialist pioneer working for Save a Child’s Heart in Israel. Courtney supplied supervision for practicum students, while the students shadowed Rachel in her day to day work. This way, students benefited from Rachel’s modeling, and Courtney shouldered the responsibilities of supervision and training. Courtney provides a curriculum and leads the students in reflective practice. This unique set up means that the students get 100% of Courtney’s attention, energy and expertise, while Rachel can concentrate on her clinical duties. Anyone who has ever supervised or precepted a student knows that this is a win win for everyone. The pilot rolled out this Spring with three students as a one month, full time practicum. They were from America, Canada, and an expat now living in Israel.
Rachel reflects: “I loved the novel idea from the beginning and Courtney’s initiative to bring child life specialists around the world to learn, even to places like Israel where Child Life is not a known field. Although Save a Child’s Heart is an alternative setting, we agreed that it could be a one-of-a-kind learning experience for students seeking an international practicum. In the end I know a lot was learned, and the children will remember the three wonderful women (four including Courtney) when they think back of their time in Israel.”
All Child Life United Practicums will follow the Recommended Standards as set forth by the Association of Child Life Professionals – ACLP (formally the Child Life Council)
Child Life Practicum
The child life practicum is designed as an introductory experience for individuals interested in pursuing a career in child life. Through experiential learning and observation of Certified Child Life Specialists, child life practicum students begin to increase their knowledge of basic child life skills related to play, developmental assessment, and integration of child life theory into interventions with infants, children, youth and families. Child life practicum students will increase their comfort level by interacting with infants, children, youth, and families in stressful situations, health care settings and/or in programs designed for special needs populations. Through these experiences, child life practicum students will enhance their knowledge of the child life profession and investigate the process of applying child life and developmental theory to practice.
The next practicum will be held in Sydney, Australia this summer. You can find details in the Student Information Packet – Australia Practicum. Courtney seeks applicants who have completed 100 hours of volunteer work in a child life department. It is a plus if you have at least one child life course under your belt, but it is not required.
Applications are DUE June 1st, 2017
The application is also located on the Child Life United website www.childlifeunited.org
This summer Courtney is also happy to announce the exciting opportunity to serve as a Child Life Specialist on a medical mission trip. Missions are typically a week long.
In August, she will be supervising Child Life students on a mission to Mexico as Child Life United brings Child Life services to Florence Nightingale Global Health Missions .
This trip requires a fundraising effort to collect the teaching supplies and toys needed to meet the needs of the kids and their families. All trips provide medical care in grossly under served areas of the world. Please consider supporting this effort. Every sticker, ball and mask masks a difference.
She has created a Wish List on Amazon of supplies needed.
If you are looking for a child life adventure abroad that will further your learning and expand your horizons, all in the service of easing the healthcare experiences of children, please contact Courtney at Child Life United to apply.
We can’t wait to hear where she will be partnering next!
Thank you ChildLifeMommy for this great resource! Play is a vital necessity for optimal childhood development!
Guest Blogger, Jennifer Cantis
Studies have shown how vital playfulness is to creativity, relaxation, and peace of mind.
Play is critical for a stable, more productive life experience.
Don’t believe me? Take some time to watch the following six TED Talks. Each will inspire you in different ways to get in touch with your inner-child spirit in order to tackle your adult problems. Whether its playful thinking or playful activities, the next time you’re stuck on a problem, try working through it by use of play!
Tim Brown: Tales of Creativity and Play
In Tim’s speech, he opens with an exercise where he has the audience draw a person in a seat next to them. The catch is that you only have thirty seconds to complete the drawings. As you can imagine, the exercise gets quite a few laughs from the audience. However, something else happens, too: Many people…
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My thanks to Marifer Busqueta for connecting me to this wonderful bilingual children’s book for children and families facing cancer:
The information below is copied directly from the book’s website benito books. Marifer herself has written a children’s book in Spanish to address children’s questions about loss and death, “I want to know what is death?”. It is wonderful to have access to books for Spanish speaking and bilingual children facing illness and loss.
Benito, You Can Do It! Volume 1 is the first in a series of bilingual picture books for children diagnosed with cancer. This 80-page (40 in English and 40 in Spanish) picture book depicts a Latino family facing childhood cancer and uses a soccer analogy to explain the roles of the medical team.
Written and illustrated by Alan Quinonez, this book helps parents find strength and hope when one of their little ones has been diagnosed with cancer.
The picture book series Benito, You Can Do It! has been inspired by the testimonials from the families in the Latinas Contra Cancer Parent Support Group as well as the expert knowledge and input of the medical team at Stanford’s Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital.
Our goals in developing this first-of-its-kind book series reflecting the Latino experience are:
- To the affected families to share the resources, advice, and best practices learned from the cancer journey with their child.
- To show the cancer survivors that this is an opportunity for them to step into the limelight and reach out to those who might lose faith.
The book series
Our first volume The News, helps children and their families cope with a recent diagnosis by providing a better understanding of the disease, and the medical team that will be helping them.
Upcoming volumes in the series are:
- Vol.2 The Awareness (working title) Will explain how the immediate family of a child with cancer faces twice the risk of developing the disease, and what steps the family can take to reduce the risk.
- Vol. 3 The Treatment will explain the different types of treatment and life at the hospital.
- Vol. 4 The Siblings will help brothers and sisters process their own feelings of being set aside and neglected.
- Vol. 5 The Return to School will explore the anxiety that children face when they go back to school before their hair has regrown.
Our fundraising on Kickstarer
From Sep 6th to Oct 6th 2013, we ran a kickstarter fundraising campaign.
Thanks to the generous donations from 171 backers, we were able to raise over $12,000, which allowed us to cover the costs of print, as well as set aside 110 books and make them available for free to families in need!
At our campaign page you can:
Alan Quiñonez is a writer and illustrator working on his dream of telling stories that cross language barriers and foster a message of hope and strength in children and families around the world. He lives with his partner in North Hollywood. His personal website is alanrq.com
About Latinas Contra Cancer
Latinas Contra Cancer is a decade old nonprofit based in San Jose, California. Founded by Ysabel Duron, a cancer survivor, this agency, one of the few of its kind in the country, works to improve outcomes for Latino families affected by cancer by increasing awareness and knowledge, access to care, and psychosocial support.
Learn more at latinascontracancer.org
I was honored and so excited to be interviewed by Photographer & Guest Writer, Marj Kleinman for her article at TocaBoca.com. She and I have much in common, including a deep passion for child life and play in hospitals, and the fact that we are both alums from Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, NY. She is a talented artist and used her creativity to write a photo journal of child life and play at Maimonides Hospital. I will publish that here next week. The Toca Boca article is reprinted here in full below.
Child life specialists support kids and families in a hospital environment, reducing stress and increasing joy.
- Marj Kleinman, Toca Magazine Guest Writer
When I tell someone that I volunteer in pediatric hospitals, I usually spot a sad face across from me. That response is understandable, given that hospitals can be scary and sometimes painful and upsetting. But in fact, there’s no greater place to see joy and resilience on display, all through kids’ natural passion for play.
Whether at their doctor’s office or in the ER, kids find a way to play, particularly with encouragement. Most children’s hospitals today come equipped with a playroom and a bevy of materials and activities, so kids can be kids while hospitalized. Once they see a playroom full of toys, messy finger paints and a silly guy blowing bubbles, they know this place is made for them and they will probably feel safe there. There’s even a team of people whose job is to play with your child: the child life specialists. They become parents’ partners in health and healing.
Meet the child life team: Your play partners
Many parents are surprised to learn that there’s a person solely focused on your child’s emotional health during a hospital stay — and they do it mainly through play. Child life specialists (CLSs) help kids and families adapt to the hospital environment and support them in understanding what’s taking place, thereby reducing the stress of a hospitalization. CLSs are trained in child development and play theory, as well anatomy, research methodology, sociocultural issues, ethics, family systems and bereavement, among other things. They also act as a bridge and advocate with your medical team. Child life departments often include art and music therapists, and are visited by yoga and mindfulness teachers, clowns and other practitioners.
Language of play
Play is the universal language of childhood — in fact, when CLSs assess their patients, they’re watching how kids communicate via play. I spoke to Deborah B. Vilas, a CLS and social worker who teaches child life graduate students at Bank Street College of Education. Vilas says, “Young children won’t sit down and say, ‘I felt sad today and I think I’m anxious about the medical treatment I’m getting.’ When children are playing, they act out scenarios and show us what they’re feeling; they show us what they understand, what they’re capable of and what their coping mechanisms are.” This may seem obvious, but in some hospitals, there’s a misconception that play is frivolous or low on the priority totem pole.
Young children won’t sit down and say, ‘I felt sad today and I think I’m anxious about the medical treatment I’m getting.’
Vilas reminds us, “It’s been proven that when children have play opportunities that they need less medicine, less anesthesia, are more compliant and get better faster. The benefits of play reach beyond the child to assist medical personnel and influence the hospital’s bottom line.”
Benefits of play
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.” Why would all that stop at the hospital? The AAP goes on to state that hospital play is a necessity that helps kids cope with treatment and stay on track, developmentally. The uses and benefits of play in medical settings are varied and significant.
At its essence, play provides a safe space for kids to experiment with unfamiliar and often scary experiences. Through open-ended play, kids can take in new information at their own pace, re-create situations and play out fears until they are familiar enough to gain a sense of mastery over the situation. When supported by an empathetic parent or CLS, this process is deepened and they can better process and release feelings.
At its essence, play provides a safe space for kids to experiment with unfamiliar and often scary experiences.
Open-ended and child-centered play, in particular, are highly beneficial, as they provide opportunities for kids to immerse themselves more deeply in play and lead from a sense of agency. Unfortunately, free play has been on the decline due to our hurried and jam-packed, overscheduled and tech-filled lifestyles, yet it is necessary for skill development, self-regulation, independent thinking and creative problem solving. In the hospital, where kids lack choices, it’s even more crucial to let kids be in charge.
One of the roles of the CLS is to normalize the hospital experience through play. They might do familiarization activities, for example, building a robot using a bedpan, tongue depressors and IV tubing, all taped together with bandages. Suddenly medical supplies aren’t scary, cold, weird objects that only doctors and nurses use, and kids can “hack” the hospital.
Going a step further, medical play with a toy doctor’s kit and/or real medical supplies can 1.) educate children about an upcoming procedure, 2.) let them process their experience, before, during or after a procedure, and 3.) put the child back in the driver’s seat.
Meghan Amorosa, CLS, engages Jan, age 4, in medical play at Brooklyn Hospital Center, Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo by Marj Kleinman.
Children experience a strong sense of helplessness, vulnerability and anxiety when faced with uncertainty and misconceptions (let’s face it, so do grownups). Procedural support helps educate, greatly reducing feelings of unpredictability, and increases a level of mastery.
Meghan Amorosa, child life specialist at Brooklyn Hospital Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., says, “A really big part of medical play is about giving patients choice and control over their own hospital experience. Instead of being the patient, they become the doctor and play on their own little patient.” She observed that Jan (pictured above) gave the doll a lot of shots, which is typical in patients who’ve been poked a lot. In fact, “If a kid gives a doll a million shots, they’re showing you how painful that was for him,” says Vilas.
A really big part of medical play is about giving patients choice and control over their own hospital experience.
Movement also plays a key role in healing, which is why doctors want patients up and walking almost right after surgery. If kids can get out of bed and step on bubble wrap or a floor piano, ride a hospital wagon around the unit, or skate down the hallway on their IV pole, they get the blood circulating, feel more energized and also empowered at the same time.
Play is powerful and can be tailored towards your child’s individual age, temperament and tastes. Read on to find out 10 ways to support kids going to the hospital, as patients or visitors.
Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology.