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Child Life Specialists make a difference for kids of all ages at SickKids
7 minute read

Child Life Specialists make a difference for kids of all ages at SickKids


In honour of Child Life week, SickKids, is celebrating the important contribution Child Life staff make to patients of all ages at the hospital.

By Samantha Sexton

With files from Jennifer Bassin, Certified Child Life Specialist at SickKids

In honour of Child Life week, SickKids is celebrating the important contribution Child Life staff make to patients of all ages at the hospital.

SickKids Child Life Specialists work to assess the physical, social and emotional responses of children and families to illness and hospitalization. Most notably, they provide therapeutic play interventions, facilitate safe play environments, prepare children for medical procedures and coordinate special events for patients at the hospital.  Child Life Specialists can be found throughout the hospital on individual units, in outpatient clinics, in the patient operative care unit, in the emergency room and in play areas such as Marnie’s Lounge and the Starlight Room.

“Play is the tool that a Child Life Specialist uses when working with patients,” says Child Life acting manager Kim O’Leary. “Sometimes it’s very goal directed, sometimes it’s distraction play, other times it’s play for play sake. We offer all those opportunities depending on the child’s needs, their age, stage of development and temperament.”

Given that each age group responds differently to their hospital experience, Child Life Specialists use their unique training and expertise to tailor programs to a variety of age groups.


Two women wearing SickKids lanyards hold up a picture book
Saghi and Sarah

Child Life Specialists who work with infants are most concerned that their developmental and emotional needs are met while at the hospital. From birth to one year, infants are still developing a sense of trust and security. During their hospital stay, infants need parental comfort (especially after or during painful procedures), minimal sleep interruptions and appropriate playful stimulation to ensure regular development. Child Life offers circle time and provides appropriate toys for every stage of development though The Beanstalk Program.


A woman wearing a SickKids Child Life tshirt and lanyard blows bubbles with a small child

Child Life Specialists who work alongside toddlers are mindful these two to three year olds are at an age where they are starting to recognize their own independence as their verbal and physical abilities increase. It is common to see toddlers have a heightened fear of bodily injury or pain due to a limited understanding of their bodies. This is why even ‘painless’ procedures, such as checking vital signs or stepping on the scale are very upsetting. A toddler’s important reliance on routine can also be disrupted by a hospital stay. Child Life offers televised bedtime stories every night from 7 to 8 p.m to help toddlers wind down and help parents maintain a bedtime routine during their hospital stay.


A woman wearing a Child Life tshirt kneels and holds a bubble wand while a child smiles standing next to her

Preschoolers are at an age where they may understand what it means to get sick, but may not fully understand the cause and effect relationship. Being at the hospital or adjusting to medication schedules may challenge a preschooler’s developing independence, and children may try to counter a lack of control over their world by challenging limits. Play offers preschoolers full control over what they are doing. Pretend play is common at this stage and can allow a child to play out what they are experiencing. Medical play and the Teddy Bear Clinic are two ways Child Life Specialists ensure preschoolers develop their language and social skills. “Most children do better when they have the opportunity to role play before [procedures],” says O’Leary.

School Age

A woman wearing a SickKids Child Life tshirt and lanyard sites on a bench next to a young girl with an IV

School age children are beginning to understand illness and treatment, but they should not be expected to react as adults do. Child Life Specialists work with this group by encouraging them to ask questions and allowing them to participate in their own care. A school age child needs a sense of control over their environment and opportunities for self-expression. Child Life facilitated play activities such as arts and crafts or Bingo allow a balance between difficult "have-to’s" in the hospital and fun hospital experiences.


A woman and teen boy sit on a couch holding gaming controllers

Teens are beginning to develop their own identity separate from their family and put more emphasis on the role and influence of peers. Self-image also becomes a priority during the teenage years. This can be a problem when the teen’s appearance is altered by illness or medication. It can also be difficult for teens to be so separated from their peer group. Child Life Specialists encourage opportunities for socialization with other teens, especially ones they can meet in the hospital who can relate to the issues they are facing. Since 2009, SickKids teens have the opportunity to attend a SickKids prom-inspired party organized by Child Life Specialists.

O’Leary emphasizes that Child Life works to ensure life remains as normal as possible for children in healthcare settings at every stage.

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