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Healing Through Play
“Thank you.” Two very small words, often unsaid. As child life specialists, these are words we hear often from patients and families. It may be because we helped a child laugh in a moment of uncertainty or smile following a flood of tears. We hear these words after teaching a child to swallow pills for the first time, alleviating an entire family's fears with a pre-surgical tour, or providing a backpack full of clothes and essentials following a traumatic event.
Child life specialists have a unique role in that we educate patients and families, while also ensuring that kids are able to learn the best way they know how – through play. Being in a playroom or bedside with a patient, you could find a child life specialist blowing bubbles, playing cards, or painting a project; what looks like “just play” to some is much more. In those moments, we are decreasing anxiety, assessing development, learning if a patient has misconceptions regarding health care, allowing a family member to take a moment to breathe, distracting from pain, and providing a positive experience.
While this role is generally considered a standard in pediatric facilities, it is not uncommon for families, and staff, to be surprised about our role and education.
Certified child life specialists (CCLS) have bachelor’s and often master’s degrees. After completing coursework in child development, thanatology, psychology, program development, and medical terminology, we complete an internship and must pass a national certification exam. Ongoing professional development is required to maintain certification.
On any given day, child life specialists can be found teaching a patient and family about an upcoming MRI, or using an iPad to distract a patient during sutures, allergy testing, or a burn dressing change. You might notice us touring a special visitor, preparing for a holiday event, walking a child through the garden area to introduce them to nature for the first time, explaining the use of an anesthesia mask, teaching coping skills, or collaborating with staff and caregivers to make handprints as a family prepares to say goodbye.
Beyond hospital walls, our team collaborates with social work to help patients transition back to school, hosts an annual teddy bear clinic at the Providence Children’s Museum, and facilitates various support groups. Our child life team coordinates and manages two week-long day camps on the hospital campus – Camp Dotty and Camp Grace.
Many members of our team hold additional certifications in recreational therapy, infant massage, and car seat installation. Our internship program at Hasbro Children’s Hospital is recognized nationally by more than 30 universities as a premier site for students entering the field.
Laughter, games, and bubbles are not usually the first things that come to mind when one thinks about a hospital. But for child life specialists, these are just a few of the many tools that are used to help children and families adjust to hospitalization. With child life, when health care feels full of twists and turns, sometimes healing can happen through fun and games.
For more information on our child life services, visit our website.
Kerri Baker, CCLS
Kerri Baker, CCLS, is a certified child life specialist at Hasbro Children’s Hospital. She has been working as a child life specialist for 10 years, and currently works with children and families in Surgical Services.