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Child Life Corner: An Inside Look at Riley’s Child Life Zone

Blog Child Life Corner: An Inside Look at Riley’s Child Life Zone

As one of 24 Certified Child Life Specialists at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, I am often involved when a child is struggling with their illness.  My name is Kathleen Odinga and I am the Child Life Specialist for the Child Life Zone (CLZ). Currently, there are 11 Child Life Zones at children’s hospitals throughout the nation, and our CLZ is the newest.  Child Life Zones are therapeutic play spaces.  As a new parent myself, and someone who has worked with hospitalized children, I know that helping kids through a medical crisis is challenging. Being able to be a “safe” person for a child as they face the uncertainty of the medical world is one of the reasons I pursued a career as a Child Life Specialist.

The Child Life Zone at Riley is a safe place that allows patients and their families to play, learn, and relax.  Child Life Specialists, the individuals who work here, are specifically trained professionals who help patients and families cope with medical challenges.  The work of each of the Child Life Specialists at Riley varies depending on the patient population with whom they work.  Some Child Life Specialists provide knowledge and comfort during painful procedures like IV pokes. Child Life Specialists also “de-code” medical jargon to help children understand a new diagnosis in a developmentally appropriate way. Other Child Life Specialists work with the siblings of patients who are in intensive care units, teaching what all of the tubes and machines are, and how the medical staff at Riley is helping their sibling heal. In the CLZ, I personally work to desensitize medical materials so they’re less scary to children.  By allowing a child to play doctor and give their doll a checkup at the medical play ambulance, I facilitate a conversation to help that child process what they’ve been through.

Wondering how we do it? Here are several tips to help parents:

1 - Carve out time to relax together.

One popular area of the CLZ is the G.R.E.E.N. room: where patients Grow, Relax, Energize, Explore, and Nurture.  I work with patients privately in the G.R.E.E.N. room, which is equipped with Somatron vibro-acoustic chairs, which sync to patient-preferred music and vibrate on the beat, creating a massage effect.  I pair this with dimmed lights and a starry scene projected onto the ceiling, which facilitates a relaxation session to let a patient “escape” the four walls of the hospital. You can create a similar calming environment at home by bonding together over your child’s favorite music, painting your nails together on your own “Spa Day,” or turning down the lights and taking a moment to reflect on what you’re each grateful for.  By letting your child relax, even in the midst of a medical challenge, you can decrease their anxiety.

2 - Engage in creative expression.

Experiences in the hospital can be foreign and  scary for a child.  Children may not be able to pinpoint what they’re feeling. For school-aged children, we create masks with different facial expressions such as “happy,” “scared” or “excited.” As your child holds each mask to their face, ask about a time when they felt that emotion. Activities like this let children feel safe in expressing the various feelings they are having, which gives helpful insight to parents as to what misconceptions they have, and how to best support them.  

3 - Understand the need for normalcy.

The Craft Kitchen area of the Child Life Zone focuses on creating artwork and/or therapeutic baking activities. Let your child help make food in the kitchen with you.  Creating a more normal environment for a child while they are hospitalized will help them feel comfortable.  

4 - Allow and encourage your child to make choices.

The removal of routine choices happens each time a child is hospitalized.  Children don’t have a choice about getting an MRI, and they can’t choose if they want to take their medicine or not.  If a parent can let a child choose what to eat for dinner or which show to watch, that gives the child a bit more control over their situation, which is often comforting.

Understanding how to deal with stress is part of life.  By utilizing these mindfulness tips, every parent can foster resiliency in their child, especially in times of high stress.  

Want to learn more? Come visit us at the Child Life Zone, located on the first floor of Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health. Open Monday-Friday 10am-7:30pm for inpatients, outpatients, siblings and family members.                

-- By Kathleen Odinga, CCLS, MT-BC, Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health

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