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Why the World Needs Child Life Specialists

Published on Mar. 22, 2021

When a child is hospitalized and is stuck in a strange place, how do you make them feel comfortable? How do you help them understand what is happening while also celebrating things like holidays and birthdays?

Enter our Child Life team.

“Child Life Specialists are child development experts who are also equipped with a wide variety of clinical trainings and experiences to best meet the needs of diverse patient populations,” explains Child Life Specialist Danielle Stapf. “Child Life Specialists wear many ‘hats’ that can range from being a hospital teacher, coping coach, comforter, advocator, distracter, normalizer, validator, encourager, preparer, assessor, sibling supporter, grief supporter and many other roles.”

These specialists are important in all areas of Valley Children’s. When a child is in the emergency room, a Child Life Specialist will help them understand what is going to happen, whether that is preparing for an IV, surgery or a long-term stay at the hospital. When a child is hospitalized for long periods of time, a Child Life Specialist may come sing songs or come up with age-appropriate activities for patients to participate in, like blowing bubbles or hanging colorful mobiles.

"Child Life Specialists offer play, normalization and opportunities to learn coping skills, but most importantly choice,” says Child Life Specialist Courtnee Hoogland. “In an environment where children have very little choice over what is happening to them, a Child Life Specialist is able to offer choice, which gives children back some control, helping them to overall cope better with the stress.”

When COVID-19 hit, Valley Children’s took a variety of precautions for the safety and well-being of our patients. This included limiting how many people could come in and out of the hospital, canceling events and staff wearing additional protective gear such as masks and goggles (causing an extra layer of difficulty when try to connect with young patients).

Virtual Santa on portable cart screenBut our Child Life Specialists didn’t let anything stand in their way of making certain days extra special for patients. When Halloween rolled around, our Child Life Specialists were able to get creative in getting patients dressed up in character themed hospital gowns. A “reverse” trick-or-treat was then held with nurses within the unit, allowing staff to safely visit rooms and give treats (no tricks). Come Christmas season, the pre-COVID tradition included Santa visiting the hospital on a firetruck. With the visitor policy in place, Santa wasn’t able to visit in person, but he was able to visit patients virtually. So our Child Life Specialists brought virtual Santa from room to room to create a special memory with patients in the time of COVID.

“Being a Child Life Specialist is the most rewarding work I can imagine,” says Child Life Specialist Elizabeth Fox. “I truly feel like I’m making a difference in the lives of our patients, their families and our staff. In situations where we can feel so helpless with sick or injured children, I can do one thing: make this moment – this hospital experience – a little bit better.”

And that’s exactly why the world needs these Child Life Specialists: to make what is a stressful, scary and emotional time for families a little easier.

March is Child Life month, and 2021 marks the 51st anniversary of Valley Children’s Child Life services. Thank you, to everyone on our Child Life team, for each day that you come to work and make children’s – and their parents' – lives a little easier.