Student Voices: More Than Just the “Play Lady” – Common Misconceptions about Child Life Specialists

March is Child Life Month and we’re delighted to spotlight the experiences of some of our MS in Child Life and Family-Centered Care students. 

By: Christina Listernick

Hi, my name is Christina and I am part of the Child Life team. Have you heard about our role before?” This is usually how I greet my patients and families at Tufts Children’s Hospital, where I am currently completing my clinical Child Life Internship on the Pediatric Hematology/Oncology units. Since our role has many facets and is a growing field, part of our responsibility is to educate patients, families, and the community about what Child Life Specialists do. A broad description of our role is to help patients and families cope with the difficulties that come with illness, hospitalization, and disability. As both professionals and community members are learning more about Child Life, there are misconceptions associated with the profession. In this article, I will identify and clarify five common misconceptions regarding the roles and responsibilities of Child Life Specialists.

1. Child Life Specialists are just the “play” or “bubble” ladies

There are two misconceptions in this statement. First, our role extends beyond just dropping off toys to a patient’s room or using bubbles to make a patient smile. Although toys and bubbles are standard methods utilized in our Child Life tool kit, we use these items in a therapeutic manner. Illness and hospitalization can cause children of any age to regress developmentally. Child Life uses play to normalize the setting and provide activities that support the patient’s development. Additionally, we use medical play to enhance mastery and education regarding a patient’s diagnosis. These interventions encourage patient coping and understanding of their medical condition. Bubbles are just one practice Child Life can utilize to divert a patient’s attention when undergoing a tough procedure, such as an IV placement or anesthesia induction. We have several other distraction techniques that we use with our patients that vary upon developmental appropriateness. Second, although women make up the majority of the Child Life professional population, there are also men who pursue the field. If you identify as a male and are considering the Child Life path, do not let this intimate you. We are always looking for more male representation in the field!

2. Child Life Specialists are “babysitters” for children in the hospital

Respite for parents and caregivers is a part of our role as Child Life Specialists. Parents and family members need occasional breaks to support their coping with this challenging journey. However, Child Life will offer developmentally appropriate activities or therapeutic services when visiting with the patients. We may also coordinate volunteers to keep the patients company, as supervision of volunteers is also a part of our job description.

3. Child Life is meant for young children

A teaching doll Christina made to prepare patients for their port-a-cath access

Child Life serves all ages, from infant to young adult. We adapt our interventions based on patient need and development. For example, if a preschooler needs distraction for a procedure, we may utilize a light-up toy or pinwheel to reinforce deep breathing techniques. For a teenage patient, we may converse about non-medical topics or implement guided imagery to enhance patient coping. In addition to supporting all patients, our role extends into supporting the families as well. Being the parent or sibling of a child with a serious illness can be very challenging to endure. Child Life Specialists offer psychosocial support for families when navigating such obstacles. Additionally, we help to address complex topics to siblings in a developmentally friendly manner so they feel supported and educated. The family-centered care model is the approach we use with all of our patients and families.

4. Child Life is a reward for patients in the hospital

Some individuals view Child Life as a reward or motivation for good behavior. This idea stems from the misconception that Child Life only provides pleasure or enjoyment. Although we do add “fun” to our interventions, we are a therapeutic service. It is important to note that Child Life is a right for all patients and families and not a privilege.

5. Child Life is only seen in the hospital setting

Child Life Specialists play a significant role in providing support to hospitalized children, but our role can expand to various alternative settings. Examples include family shelters, early intervention services, non-profit organizations, mental health centers, hospice programs, and private practice. In fact, the Boston Children’s Museum has a Certified Child Life Specialist on its staff who brings the expertise in child development and family-centered care to the museum education setting.