For one little girl in Rehab, none of her appointments at the IWK were more important than band practice with Buddington, the IWK’s therapeutic clown and Darrel Cameron, music therapist.
“Some of our kids look forward to that so much. We have a girl right now who every time she comes she wants to do what they call band practice. When she couldn’t do anything except move one hand they would do band practice and she would be tapping a beat of some kind,” says Elaine Churchill, occupational therapist and team lead for inpatient rehab. “There was so much silliness that went on it was just awesome. Those activities break up the day and makes them feel like they can do normal kid stuff.”
That integrated approach and shared appreciation for the value of play during hospital stays is exactly what makes IWK’s Child Life service a success.
But with all that fun going on it’s easy to miss the therapeutic side of what the team does.
“I think the scope of the work that we do would probably be surprising to most people. Sometimes people will see us playing a game of checkers at the bedside and make an assumption that it’s a simple game,” says Chantal LeBlanc, professional practice leader & coordinator, Child Life Services. “Actually, there could be a very therapeutic and intense conversation happening related to adjustment to a diagnosis or treatment plans or transitions to high school or how to help with peers and managing that in social perspective.”
Child life specialists at the IWK are credentialed and certified through the Child Life Certification Commission. The role requires an undergraduate degree with specific course work related to ethics, bereavement, family systems, play, and child development. There’s also a 600 hour internship. Backgrounds for child life specialists often include psychology, social sciences, nursing and child and youth degrees.
The original Child Life department started at the IWK in 1971 with the support of Dr. Richard Goldbloom who advocated for it.
Today, the team of 17 promote the wellbeing of children, youth and their families by assisting them to cope with the stresses of health care through play education, preparation, music, humour and emotional support.
“They support our kids by helping them cope with being in hospital, helping them understand their illness or their injury at an age-appropriate level and helping support the therapeutic goals the team has,” says Churchill. “For example, we might be focusing on standing balance and fine motor skills so they would incorporate that into their play. We’re all targeting the same kinds of things without it feeling like work.”
“Our primary focus is really about child coping and supporting development and family-centredness so we’re constantly thinking about how we can do that within the parameters. It helps kids finish treatment, be able to get through the procedure, take their pills and say – ok I’ll do it!” notes LeBlanc.
The approach works. Evidence points to decreased anxiety, reduction of sedation and other tangible benefits that truly enhance treatment outcomes.
Care teams try their very best to honour the Child Life activities patients are most looking forward to. Sometimes that means rearranging schedules or dressing changes to make sure kids can attend special events like a visit from the Toronto Blue Jays.
One of the ways kids and teens at the IWK work through their experiences is Child Life TV (CLTV). The IWK’s CLTV is somewhat unique in that the primary focus is patient-led videos.
“It’s their ideas and we help make it happen. Kids have used their videos at school to teach their classmates about their conditions. Topics might include, what it’s like to have a feeding tube. Kids are teaching kids and supporting one another through creating video and also working though some of their own experiences at the same time,” explains LeBlanc.
Opportunities for expression, along with dedicated spaces for play and peer socialization, are key aspects of the service. LeBlanc is quick to credit the IWK Foundation and IWK Auxiliary for recognizing the importance of environments that feel safe for children and teens – just to be a normal kid.
“Getting kids into the play spaces exposes them to kids again. Some kids are self-conscious because they have a g-tube or an eye patch. When they get to a place like the play space or the teen lounge they realize other kids have stuff going on too, so it frees them up not to be quite so self-conscious,” explains Churchill.
After 26 years on the job, LeBlanc is as passionate as ever about the importance of Child Life Services for families coping with the stresses inherent in health care experiences.
“It’s incredibly humbling to be able to walk away knowing that what you’ve done has helped that child, that family to feel a little bit less anxious, a little bit less stressed, more informed and have the tools that they can use to be able cope, not only today, but over the long haul,” says LeBlanc.
March is Child Life Month and Music Therapy Month. During this month, and every other day of the year, we thank the Child Life Services team for the incredible service they provide to patients and families at the IWK.