What Is A Child Life Specialist?

young girl pretending to listen to a stuffed animal's heart with a stethescope

By: Abigail Staley

Some early intervention families may experience a child’s hospitalization at some point in their parenting journey. Children may view the hospital as a scary, unfamiliar place that can cause them to be overcome by anxiety. However, Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLS) can provide developmentally appropriate interventions such as play, preparation for procedures, and effective teaching that helps children reduce their fears and anxieties. Play is a child’s most powerful tool and can help normalize the hospital experience.

So, what exactly is a Child Life Specialist? Child Life Specialists are healthcare professionals that work closely with children and families in a hospital setting to provide age-appropriate techniques to help them cope with the stress of hospitalization. 

Diving deeper into the world of play:

There are many play opportunities CCLS can offer hospitalized children. CCLS can use play toto help children of help children of all ages to engage their feelings, cope with the past and present, and adapt to new experiences. Child Life Specialists will also use play as a tool to help children and their family understand what may happen during their visit or stay. Here are three examples:

  • Therapeutic play refers to activities that promote typical development in children of all ages and help facilitate emotional well-being. Therapeutic play can help a patient express and process their emotions by listening to music, using art supplies, and playing board games to help young children understand the hospital experience.
  • Medical play allows patients to freely explore medical equipment, in a non-threatening way to educate children on the types of equipment they may see in the hospital. For example, allowing a patient to play pretend doctor with actual medical equipment on a doll or stuffed animal. 
  • Preparation play uses pictures or models to help children understand and become aware of their procedures before it happens.  An example of this type of play would be a Child Life Specialist providing a surgery picture book to describe what the child might see before his/her surgery. 

Why is the work of a Certified Child Life Specialist important?

  • Child life services help guide children and families through this challenging time.
  • CCLS are advocates for children and their families to ensure their needs are being met.
  • Having a CCLS present reduces both parent and child anxiety.
  • They empower children as they may enter an unfamiliar environment, such as the hospital, providing play opportunities and a sense of comfort.

The transition into a hospital can be challenging for most families. Child life services using play preparation, interventions, coping techniques, and resources help their hospital experience to be less scary.

Abigail Staley is a Certified Child Life Specialists (CCLS) at the Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, TN.

Publication date: 2024