What does child life offer in a hospital setting?


Child Life Department | Texas Children's Hospital
Getty Images

What's your guiding philosophy when it comes to offering children more than just medical support, but also outside stimulation? 

Play is the universal language of children and an important aspect in their healing process. By providing therapeutic and normalization play, the Child Life Department at Texas Children’s Hospital can provide children an opportunity to understand their medical treatment, give voice to their thoughts, build control and mastery, and help the entire family feel normal. The medical environment can appear overwhelming and scary to a child. By taking that extra time to allow a child to play with medical equipment and understand the process, we can dramatically change the whole experience for that child. Through the act of play, we can better understand a child’s thought process, fears and coping abilities. With this understanding, we can create an environment where children are able to build resiliency and become active participants in their own health care. The hospital (and its medical team) no longer becomes a place to fear, but a place of healing.

Why do hospitals employ child life specialists? Shouldn't parents take care of these things?

At Texas Children’s, we believe in family-centered care. This means we support the entire family through the hospitalization and medical treatment. Parenting is not easy and we want to support the caregivers as they navigate these experiences. Child life specialists work with parents to determine the best way to support their child. Sometimes, it is better for a parent to be the person to communicate these difficult conversations. In these situations, we can be a resource and support for them. Other times, it may help to have someone who is familiar with the process, and who can talk at the child’s level, in order to help that child understand the experience and find ways to help them feel empowered. At Texas Children's, we don’t want to just treat the patient, we want to support the entire family, including siblings as well. It is just as important for brother or sister to feel a part of this process and understand what is happening as it is for our patient. 

In your experience, do you think parents make decisions regarding care (beyond medical expertise) based on extra services provided to their children?

Parents always want the best for their children and will advocate for their child’s needs. We have many families who come to Texas Children's to seek medical treatment because they know we have medical teams who will support their entire family and a child life specialist who can walk through these experiences with their child. We often talk to families prior to their child’s upcoming procedure, surgery or hospitalization to help guide parents through how they can support their child a week out, a day before and just prior to coming to the hospital. We will put a plan together with the parent on how we can support the child. We can do this for all children, no matter their age or developmental level. 

What's one of the more challenging aspects of integrating the outside world into a safe hospital setting? 

If it is important to a child, we will find a way to make any important experience for a child happen. No task is too complicated, including pulling large canoes up several flights of stairs! At Texas Children's, we work hard to ensure children and their families have the same experience in the hospital they would enjoy at home. Whether it is enjoying the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, going on an Easter egg hunt, scaring staff at our reverse haunted house, dressing up and attending a prom, going to our in-house summer camp, or getting and wrapping presents for their family members during holidays, we are here to ensure these important events are celebrated and enjoyed.  

How long has Texas Children's employed its Child Life Department?

The Child Life Department was started at Texas Children's in 1975. We have grown to include child life specialists, activity coordinators, animal-assisted therapy coordinators, music therapists, media production, library coordinators and school coordinators.   

What's the most successful endeavor you've seen?

It is hard to pinpoint our most successful endeavor as we have had so many exciting events. Ultimately, for me, I see our biggest successes in two ways. First, I know we have been successful when you see a child walk into our doors unsure and afraid, and leave feeling a sense of pride and joy, and ultimately more resilient. We want each experience to feel individualized and supportive. Second, I love when we are able to provide special moments for families where they can bond and create memories that will last a lifetime. No matter what the situation is, we want each family to have special moments they can cherish forever.   

Do you provide any nature-related services to your patients? 

There is nothing like enjoying fresh air and cherishing nature. At Texas Children's, we have a rooftop garden and an outdoor playground. Both areas provide opportunity for outdoor respite and opportunities for play.  

How do you work with children who aren't interested in electronics, music or crafts?

All of our interventions are individualized to each child to directly support their interests, abilities and coping needs. Our interventions are focused on patient engagement and building mastery. For example, if a child is struggling to get up and ambulate after surgery, we can set up a scavenger hunt, have them walk one of our facility dogs, create a path on the floor, have an activity in the playroom or various other modalities to encourage movement.

Do you offer support to siblings of patients? If so, how?

Siblings are an important part of a family system and are a part of our care at Texas Children's. Our child life specialists often meet with siblings to support their understanding and coping of their brother or sister’s medical condition. We will prepare them before visiting their sibling in our intensive care units. We welcome siblings into our playrooms and activities so they feel a part of this journey. We work with our families to individualize our support for each sibling based on the various dynamics that are occurring.   

If you're interested in learning more about the Child Life Department at Texas Children's Hospital or would like to access our most frequently asked questions, click here