Get Well Map Foundation is so proud to feature Child Life Specialists in this special blog post. Many thanks to Jennifer Kelley, Child Life Specialist for championing efforts to advance Patient & Family-Centered Care Initiatives at Nemours Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders in Wilmington, DE. Child Life Specialists play an amazing and critical role in bridging the needs of children, families and healthcare professionals when children and families are faced with medical challenges.

What would it be like to not recognize the people around you? The things you see around you? The things you hear around you? The smells you smell around you?

Being in the hospital can be difficult, scary, confusing, and overwhelming for an adult. Imagine being a child. If you’ve ever navigated this experience as an adult, there are many situations that immediately provoke a sense of uncertainty and heightened anxiety.

Child life specialists are professionals who work to help children and their families cope with these uncertainties. They are trained in child development, and it is this background with formal education and extensive hands on training, that promotes positive coping with stressful situations. Before all else, child life specialists understand and deeply value the fact that they are walking with families during a journey that is extremely personal and emotional.

Workers use tools. A construction worker uses hammers and nails, doctors use stethoscopes, and business professionals use computers. Child life specialists use toys. It might be bubbles or books, dolls or paint, or any number of other play materials. These tools, while commonplace for many, are the materials that help children navigate potentially frightening experiences.

Play is the work of children. Child Life Specialists use developmentally appropriate tools & play experiences to facilitate communication about medical events with children & their families.

Child life specialists utilize play as the core of their role. While often underestimated, play is a powerful tool that allows for exploration, education, and development. It has the power to help adults better understand what children are thinking, how they are processing their experience, and how they are feeling. It can normalize a stressful environment, evoking a sense of comfort and safety. Another amazing value of this tool is that child life specialists can encourage play with even the most medically complex patients.

A particularly useful type of play is called medical play. It is what it sounds like. The child gets to manipulate medical equipment. This can even happen with the youngest of children with pretend or safe medical supplies. There are many benefits to medical play. Gaining comfort and an understanding of the materials often leads to decreased anxiety. As you might imagine, kids (and even grown-ups) have a great deal of misconceptions about some of the tools used by medical professionals and medical play can often be a non-threatening way to allow for better understanding and clarity. Another benefit is the ability to gain control over what they are experiencing.

Medical play helps children gain comfort and improved understanding by allowing them to manipulate medical supplies during therapeutic play.

A hospital experience almost always requires some type of procedure. It may be blood work, an imaging test, or any number of both invasive and non-invasive procedures. Child life specialists help consider the developmental level and learning style to teach about these procedures. There is a great deal of assessment that goes into determining how to best help children prepare for and cope with medical experiences. Has the child ever experienced this or something similar before? What was that experience like?

Child life specialists work closely with the medical team to provide information that will allow patients to know what they might experience before, during, and after a procedure. They can even provide support during the actual procedure to promote increased cooperation with the medical staff, lessen discomfort and pain, and encourage a sense of mastery over the situation. The concept of distraction is more powerful than some might think. Providing an alternate focus can even allow patients to get through a procedure with less sedation. Many times, child life specialists can advocate for parental presence as well, for increased patient comfort.

As you likely know, hospitalization, even a short one, can and does impact the entire family. Child life specialists help to educate on what this might look like and how to handle these effects. Patient and family centered care is the approach used by modern healthcare. This is the idea that both the patient and family are a part of the healthcare team, allowing their active involvement in their care. This has really allowed for a great deal of partnership between the medical team and patients and families. Parents know their children best, so why not use this expertise to enhance the patient’s care? Child life specialists often work closely with family members, especially siblings, to encourage participation in care and advocate for increased family cohesion. When a patient has siblings, many of the same emotional and cognitive concerns that the patient has can also be exhibited in them. Child life specialists help siblings understand and process what the patient is experiencing and how this may affect them.

Child Life Specialists help siblings and peers understand & process challenging situations, which enhances supportive emotional connections for children & families.

Another area child life specialists focus on is legacy building. Child life specialists help patients and families who are facing the death of a loved one process this experience. A variety of therapeutic activities can provide some comfort and clarity in a devastating experience. Helping to make special memories can bring solace to both the dying patient as well as his or her loved ones. While often a topic most people don’t even want to think about, and one of the more difficult parts of the role of a child life specialist, this work becomes incredibly important for helping families that are experiencing unimaginable pain.

These are just some of the areas in which child life specialists can help patients and families cope with the stress of illness and hospitalization. The profession continues to grow and expand and even reaches beyond the hospital environment. The depth of this profession is great with vast possibilities for the continued improvement of positive coping in stressful situations. If you think you or your family might benefit from child life services, please ask your healthcare team. To learn more information, visit

Jennifer Kelley, CCLS received her degree in Child Development from San Diego State University, and has been working as a Certified Child Life Specialist since 2011. In addition to Jenn’s work in Creative Arts Therapy & School Programs, Jenn works collaboratively with pediatric oncology patients, families and medical teams at Nemours Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders in Wilmington, Delaware.

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