It's much more than playtime
Step inside the doors of Children's Hospital, and you're likely to see staff, or perhaps volunteers, in different departments playing with patients. They are all enjoying themselves immensely, as they paint, color, play games, have story time or play with toy medical kits.
On the surface, it appears to just be a lot of fun. But it goes much deeper than that. The Child Life Department at Children's Hospital is responsible for coordinating these play opportunities for patients as a way of helping children cope with their hospitalization. The staff of the department is focused on doing what is most "therapeutically appropriate" for the child. In other words, it may be play, but it has a very important purpose. Play is a natural part of childhood; it is a child's way to work and to learn, and it is vital to normal development. Consequently, it is something that needs to continue even during a child's hospitalization.
The play and interaction between a patient and a Child Life staff member may be intended as a diversion from the challenges of a hospitalization. It may be for distraction when a child is having a procedure, such as the placement of an IV line. Play may be used to educate the patient, helping to prepare him or her for the upcoming placement of the IV line, how and why it will be done, and what to expect. Play also helps the Child Life staff learn and understand what fears the child has so they can focus on those issues and try to reassure the child. The tools used during these interactions appear to be everyday toys -- bubbles, paper and crayons and oil and water toys, for example. By assessing the child through play, the Child Life specialist can gain insight into ways to help the child cope with the hospital experience.
"The goal of Child Life is to protect the emotional development of sick or injured children and make sure their developmental and emotional needs are being met while they are here at Children's Hospital," said Mary Pegler, Director of Child Life. "We try to help them understand what they are experiencing, we offer them support during procedures, and we provide them with opportunities to play for normalization while in the hospital setting."
All communication with a patient is at that child's developmental level. In other words, Child Life staff members speak with 3-year-olds in words understandable to a 3-year-old and use a great deal of play in the process. They use less play but have more in-depth conversations with and give more thorough explanations to older children and teens.
One of Children's Hospital's goals is to treat the "total child," and as part of that, the Child Life staff works to make the experience of hospitalization as positive as possible, allowing -- even encouraging -- each child to pursue his or her interests and continue to just "be a kid" during the hospitalization.
The staff members of the Child Life Department hold degrees in education, child development or therapeutic recreation. Many of the staff members also have earned the designation of C.C.L.S., or Certified Child Life Specialist, by passing a national professional certification exam through the Child Life Certifying Committee/Child Life Council. To be eligible to take the exam, Child Life professionals must hold a bachelor's degree in a related field (or be in the final semester before graduation), must have taken at least 10 child development or other relevant college courses and must have completed at least 480 hours of clinical experience (through internships, fellowships, practicum or paid work experience).
Child Life staff members work one-on-one with patients throughout the hospital every day to ensure each child's individual needs are met. Because of the large number of patients, Child Life also has a group of trained volunteers to assist in this effort.
Child Life staff and volunteers are assigned to various areas of the hospital: the Second and Third floors inpatient medical units, the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, the Outpatient Clinics and the Emergency Department. They are available at almost any time during a patient's waking hours, with staff in as early as 8 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m. seven days a week -- and even on holidays.
Besides distraction and play efforts, the Child Life staff also coordinates other activities for patients. Among the projects of the Child Life Department are the following:
The Child Life staff works with Human Animal Bond In Tennessee to provide pet therapy opportunities to patients in the hospital's general medical units and the outpatient clinics. Pet owners who are part of HABIT bring their dogs to the hospital to interact with the patients. Pet therapy gives the patients something to focus on and helps them to briefly forget about their treatment. The dogs often help relax the patients and bring a smile to their faces.
"Hello Hospital" is a program developed for presentation in kindergarten classes in Knox County's schools. Child Life staff and volunteers present a video about what it is like to be a patient in the hospital and then show medical equipment to the students. They play "dress-up" by wearing hospital gowns and stethoscopes, and they also can have a "finger cast" -- a real cast placed on a finger. The easily removable cast is small and dries quickly to the typical hardness of a plaster cast. Sometimes one of the kindergartners chooses not to have the finger cast made because he or she is afraid it will hurt. The other children then have an opportunity to assure their classmate that the cast is painless.
Partners In Education
Children's Hospital participates in the Partners in Education program with the Knox County Schools. Working with other hospital employees, Child Life staff members actively take part in the various components of the Partners in Education program. Children's has "adopted" Karns Primary School, Cedar Bluff Intermediate School and Fort Sanders Educational Development Center. Each year, Children's conducts such programs as providing lunches or ice cream sundaes for teachers in the schools; hosting visits to the hospital by school students; conducting health fairs, Easter egg hunts or teddy bear clinics at the various schools; and providing Band-Aids and pencils for some of the classes. In exchange, the students in the schools periodically are invited to create artwork to be displayed at Children's and its affiliate sites. They also sometimes do other projects for the hospital. For example, students at Cedar Bluff Intermediate donated new games for use in the hospital's playrooms, and teachers and staff at Fort Sanders donated new children's sweatsuits for the hospital's clothing closet, which meets emergency clothing needs of patient families. Also, Cedar Bluff students created much of the artwork found throughout this website.
Children ages 3-11 who are scheduled for elective surgery are welcome to attend the tour, which is offered weekly at the hospital. The purpose of the tour is to ease children's fears and anxieties about the unfamiliar experience of surgery.
Child Life staff and volunteers take the children and their parents (and often siblings, too) on a tour of the hospital after showing them a video about having surgery and showing them some medical equipment. They are also available to answer questions posed by the children about the surgery experience. The tour is effective in easing the children's fears about the unknown -- their upcoming surgery. This allows them to feel more in control and more prepared for surgery. Often, their apprehensive parents are even more reassured by the tour. Josh the Dog, a golden retriever who is the star of a series of books written by his owner, Knoxville veterinarian Dr. Randy Lange, visits once a month during the tour, as well.
The tours are given on Mondays and Thursdays at 7 p.m. To register, call (865) 541-8904. Be sure to leave your name, your child's name, the number from your family who will be attending, which night you wish to attend and a phone number where Child Life can reach you.
The staff of Child Life helps patients and families to celebrate meaningful holidays, birthdays and other special family events that occur during the child's hospitalization. Generous community donations enable the staff to provide children with gifts on their birthdays and at other times, such as Christmas.
Support for the Profession
To provide support for the profession of Child Life, the department also offers an internship program for college students majoring in education or child development. This allows college students to have a hands-on opportunity to learn more about the profession.