Making Play a Part of the Treatment Plan for Pediatric Patients

child in hospital bed

When I first moved to Lompoc, I had a new experience at Lompoc Valley Medical Center. I had already spent years working as a Certified Child Life Specialist in a children’s hospital, but moving here with my family and then 2-year-old son, I had my first experience in the hospital as the mom of a child having minor surgery.

I packed up all of my “tools” – his favorite plush toy, bubbles to blow, Legos to build and an iPad to refocus his energy, complete with The Wiggles’ songs already saved to Favorites. What I found while at the hospital for my son’s minor procedure though was that I brought everything I needed to provide child life supports for my son -- but other children who were receiving medical care at the same time didn’t have the same advantage as a mom with a background in Child Life education.

While this non-children’s hospital was incredible at meeting the medical needs of my child, there was something missing that would have given him the chance to not be scared and to experience “normal” play in a very “not normal” environment – and all of this would make his recovery easier and less traumatic for him.

Through this medical experience, and coupled with my educational background, I found a way to have an impact in my new community.  I was able to introduce the opportunity to play for both pediatric patients and children visiting adult patients at Lompoc Valley Medical Center.

I’m honored to introduce you to what I know is just the start of what we can do together to impact pediatric experiences in the hospital to ensure patient focus is play. 

This is not a new concept by any means. Since the early 1920s, the need became evident to hospitals that for those with illness or injury, having an environment for children focusing on emotional stability and healthy development was a critical way to help alleviate the fear and pain associated with being in the hospital.

The earliest programs focused on play, but as the field continued to grow, programs evolved as the staff at hospitals began to learn about the developmental needs of children and the potential negative effects associated with hospitalization and separation from family. 

With that understanding, in 1967 the Association for the Well Being of Hospitalized Children and Their Families was established, and in 1979, it was renamed the Association for the Care of Children’s Health (ACCH).  

In 1982, the Child Life Council was created – and the field has truly blossomed. With committees in place on just about every aspect to maintain currency within the medical field and to support the continued growth of the field in terms of both research and program quality, the organization was renamed Association of Child Life Professionals. It provides the structure many rely on to continue supporting the growth of this essential practice within the field of medicine.

As with any field revolving around children, a play is naturally a huge part of the field – quite simply because a play is a child’s “work.” That, of course, includes children in a medical setting. Creating an environment that incorporates play, which is “normal” for a child, allows a child to focus on being a child, even when they’re in the hospital.

Allowing children to have that “normal” play gives them positives to focus on – which also means they’ll focus less of their attention on the physical space of the hospital; the physical demands of illness/injury; medical treatments; “loss” of normal; incorporation of “strangers” as part of their medical team and all of the other common issues associated with being hospitalized.

When children are focusing on play, it typically means a more medically compliant patient who is more likely to discharge sooner because fear and anger aren’t a part of their medical stay.

Child Life specialists and nursing staff can help utilize play to support a child’s adaptation, accommodation, and assimilation of new information (diagnosis, treatment, procedures, or even just being in a new environment). How well is a child adapting to being away from their parents or siblings, or other “normal” support systems for that child?  Is the child fearful of having an IV line accessed? How can we best incorporate the “language” that children speak the best – PLAY – to accommodate for “new” and assimilated information and experiences so that fear isn’t an issue in the hospital? 

The more we recognize the needs and benefits of play in a medical setting, the more necessary play becomes a part of the treatment plan for pediatric patients. 

Play should be valued in terms of what it can offer a child in terms of coping, in terms of educating, in terms of understanding – and in terms of healing.

From this experience almost 12 years ago, Child Life Connection was created, ensuring hospitals in the tri-county had child-friendly experiences available to them during their hospital stays. Through the incredible donations of local communities, as well as some selfless non-profit agencies, LVMC has had access to toys, games, crafts and even two donated Mobile Playrooms. These mobile playrooms are colorful carts filled with toys; one is in the Emergency Department and one is located in the Perioperative suite for children having same-day surgeries. Grant funding also made possible the creation of original murals – in an Emergency Department treatment room and other pediatric spaces at LVMC.

Child Life Connection focuses on bringing play, diversion and education into pediatric settings, all in an effort to make being in the hospital less scary for children.  The impact I have been able to witness at LVMC has motivated me to push the limits and continue doing more, so that pediatric medical experiences can focus on play rather than pain or fear. 

LVMC routinely accepts donations of new pediatric items for hospitalized children or those undergoing medical procedures. Among the most popular items accepted include small toy cars; coloring books and non-toxic crayons or color pencils; small Lego kits; small action figures; plastic dinosaurs; card games (such as UNO); small plush toys or teddy bears and fidget spinners. All items must be new. LVMC also benefits from the generosity of several non-profit agencies who work year-round to enhance our Child Life program here.

They include:

About the Author

Author: Belinda Hammond, Child Life Connection Founder

Belinda is a Child-Life specialist who helped establish a pediatric toy program and created a pediatric ER mural at LVMC. She is a Make-A-Wish volunteer.

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