Play as a therapeutic tool

12 Sep 2019, 11:19 a.m.

Meet Alanna Rudd, a Play Specialist at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH). She explains the importance of play in reducing patient anxieties and providing a positive, normalised environment for children when they are at hospital.

What does being a Play Specialist involve? 

My role as a Health Play Specialist is to use play as a therapeutic tool to support children and their families while they are in the hospital. We use play to help prepare and distract children for procedures, provide age-appropriate information for diagnosis and treatments, and use different therapeutic play techniques to help children explore their feelings and create positive experiences.

What does a typical day as a Play Specialist look like? 

My day could involve anything from preparing a child for surgery, distracting for a blood test, supporting through a scan, helping to explain a diagnosis in a child- friendly way, and helping a family to create memories.

We create daily plans and sticker charts to motivate the children during their treatment. We help to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays, when a child finishes their treatment, and decorate the wards for Christmas. Daily activities are provided in the playroom and at the bedside (ensuring the children aren’t getting too bored), and we work closely with the child’s healthcare team such as nurses, doctors, music therapy, pet therapy, physios, school, psychologists etc., as well as charities. My role is important for creating positive experiences in the hospital and to minimise what can be a traumatising time.

How common is it for patients to experience anxiety whilst at hospital? 

It’s very common for children to feel anxious or worried whilst at hospital. When a child comes to hospital for the first time they’re in an unusual environment with lots of new people around them. On top of this they may feel really unwell and encounter painful procedures. They may feel like they have no control with what’s happening to them and worry about what is going to happen next. Our aim is to try and reduce their fears and anxieties by building up trust, providing enjoyable moments and providing the child with information as appropriate.

How does play help to combat these anxieties? 

Play helps to combat anxieties as it’s something a child can relate to- it’s not only fun, but it’s how children learn and express themselves. Play helps to normalise the hospital environment and encourages their development throughout their stay, as well as helping to keep the children motivated.

We use real (and safe) medical equipment to help educate and prepare the children before a procedure. Using medical play in a safe environment where the child can act as the nurse or doctor provides them with an opportunity to be in control and familiarises them with what they will experience. They can use syringes to squirt paint or water play rather than just seeing it as something which causes pain for injections. We can make a personal plan for how they may want a procedure to be carried out and have different techniques to try and help make it more tolerable for them.

How are distraction techniques used? 

We use distraction to try and take their mind off what’s happening- this may be during a procedure, scan, or any other stressful situation. For distraction we could use an iPad to watch/ play games, books, stress balls, sensory toys, guided imagery/ using their imagination, conversation.

Some children like to see exactly what’s happening during a procedure, eg watching their injection, while others prefer not to see and we would use a book or iPad to help block their view. For some children distraction can work extremely well and for others it doesn’t work so well, but sometimes just having a Play Specialist present can help to reduce anxiety as it’s someone the children may trust to advocate for them.

How did you get into your career as a Play Specialist? 

I went to university in the USA which is where I first heard about the career and I completed a degree to qualify as a Child Life Specialist (the US equivalent of a Play Specialist.) I have always enjoyed working with children and find the healthcare aspect interesting as there’s always new things to learn. I completed an internship in a children’s hospital in Florida before returning to London where I worked at a private hospital before coming to GOSH.

Being in hospital is a difficult time no matter what age you are, and I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to help the children smile and provide positive memories throughout their hospital stay.

What do you enjoy about working at GOSH? 

I enjoy working at GOSH because it’s a very child-centered environment, wherever you go in the hospital there’s animals which light up your way to theatre, colourful lights in the canteen and the different outdoor areas. As well as the daily routine of the hospital there’s often exciting events, parties, and projects for the children to participate in. I enjoy working as part of a larger team and we all have the same goal which is to provide quality and compassionate care, with the overall outcome for the child to be as healthy and happy as possible.

Find out more about the Play Team at GOSH. 

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