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What does a Child Life Specialist do?

Author: Bri Swope
24 July 2017

This article by Bri Swope, Faculty Director at the University of Iowa, describes Medical Play and the important role played by Child Life Specialists to help normalise a child's medical experiences.

Certified Child Life Specialists® provide evidence-based, developmentally appropriate interventions including therapeutic play, preparation and education that reduce fear, anxiety, and pain for infants, children, and youth. Certified Child Life Specialists are educated and trained in the developmental impact of illness and injury. (www.childlife.org) Child Life Specialists are experts in developmental theories and stages to provide assessment and interventions of social and cognitive milestones in addition to patient and family stressors and coping mechanisms.

Utilizing play as a modality of treatment, child life specialists work to develop effective coping strategies to help normalise a patient’s medical experience. Medical play is a form of play that allows a child to understand an upcoming procedure by means of playing with a blank doll and medical equipment that the child may see during a procedure. Expressive play is an opportunity to express emotions in an appropriate manner. For example, patients can pound playdough to release anger or can create graffiti art to share how they are feeling about their medical experience. 

Familiarization play allows a patient to play with medical equipment in a non-threatening manner to become more familiar with the equipment they may see during a procedure. For example, using syringes to squirt paint onto canvases or using plasters and kokies  (sharpies) create a picture. In addition to providing support prior to and after a procedure, child life specialists also provide procedural support or distraction during a procedure by for example blowing bubbles for the patient to pop or playing I-Spy.

Using the language of play, which is familiar to a child, medical information can be conveyed to a child and family in a developmentally appropriate and minimally threatening manner.

Child Life Specialists provide bereavement care as well as memory making activities for the patient and family, diagnosis education, advocate for parental involvement, staff education in addition to debriefing traumatic and/or stressful experiences.

In conclusion, Child Life Specialists work with siblings and families to develop coping strategies and developmentally appropriate regarding stressful or traumatic experiences. Child Life Specialists work within a part of a multi-disciplinary team that collaborates to provide the best care for each patient and family based upon individual strengths and needs.

This article is republished with permission. It first appeared in the Newsletter of PatchSA, the South African national children's palliative care association. Bri Swope and her students visit Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital every second year as part of the students' practical experience.

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