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Play in Hospital Week 2023

As she concludes her fieldwork observing play in hospitals, PEDAL PhD student and paediatrician Dr Paulina Pérez-Duarte Mendiola reflects on what Play in Hospital Week shows about the work of Play Teams.

If play is so powerful and transformative for children and their families, should we not be doing more to celebrate it all year round?

During my years working as a paediatrician, I was always curious about how children experienced their illnesses and the hospital environment. I immersed myself in the field of medical anthropology, learning about cultural and social factors that shape those healthcare experiences, and I became very interested in chronically ill children. Eventually, without a clear plan, but guided by my infinite curiosity, I became a researcher focussed on how children cope and make meaning of their illnesses, treatments, and prognosis.

Over the last year, I have been conducting hospital ethnography, spending over 275 hours observing play in hospitals. Last week – during national Play in Hospital Week (PiHW) I marked the end of my five months of fieldwork and data collection. I decided to end my research during this week to make it special and finish with a ‘bang’ by having a final explosion of fun.

Play in Hospital Week aims to raise awareness of the benefits of play in hospitals across the UK. Play Teams, mainly composed of Health Play Specialists and Play Workers, along with multiple charities, and those allies involved in the provision of play and playfulness within children’s hospitals, come together to deliver a magical week for children in hospitals. All Play Teams display their creativity, proactivity, and resourcefulness, as they share with children, young people, families, and other members of staff the value they bring to the hospital environment.

During my fieldwork, I’ve learned that Health Play Specialists constantly interact with children in many ways, both directly, when Play Team members are working within the same time and space with children, and indirectly, when the playful effect of their actions expands beyond the time and space they share… like a ripple! (pending publication).

I have identified how Hospital Play Specialists guide and organise the activities of a group of staff and volunteers I have come to see as “playful allies”. By guiding these activities within hospital wards, Play Teams indirectly create playful opportunities for children and their families. Play Teams use their skills to carefully guide the work of playful allies. For example, a Giggle Doctor will arrive at the ward and start asking the Play Team “Who do we have today?” Health Play Specialists will quickly assess and suggest which patient could enjoy one of their visits, and approach each bed space asking children for their consent: “Would you like to receive a visit from one of the Giggle Doctors?”

Research has never been as fun as it was in PiHW. I witnessed the reaction of children, and surprised adults, to a Health Play Specialist who wore a massive bear costume and gave away balloons at the entrance of the hospital. I saw children, parents and staff queuing in the hospital’s garden to pet a pony (Yes! A pony!). I particularly enjoyed seeing children coming out of their wards, pushing their trolleys, with the help of their parents, nurses, and physiotherapists, to see a fire engine. This also included ‘water play’ with the firefighters which led the children to laugh out loud. A professional DJ, who also works as a porter in the hospital, brought his equipment and allowed older children, and staff, to mix some music. Multiple charities, like Starlight (a charity that champions the value of play healthcare), sent boxes with gifts or planned playful activities. Rays of Sunshine brought Miss Balloonuiverse to amaze the children with professional balloon shapes. Spread a Smile entertained children and their parents with songs, magic tricks and ‘tailored made’ poems made up on the spot!

Coordinating Play in Hospital Week came on top of the normal duties of Play Teams, and the effort that they put into planning, organising, and executing PiHW was admirable. Health Play Specialists showed me, once more, how proactive, creative, and resourceful they are, as well as highly committed to children’s wellbeing. Play teams can create wonders, against all odds, to radically transform children’s hospital experience.

Curiosity led me to ask online: “What are you doing for Play in Hospital Week?” A great deal of posts by Health Play Specialists working in hospitals, or across the community, showed me how Play Team members were doing their best to make this week special for children and their families. However, I noticed a lack of support provided by administrative staff, and hospital authorities. All the initiatives I witnessed had to be created by members of the Play Team supported by their external ‘playful allies’. In the absence of formal support and resources, many Play Teams drew on informal networks; goodwill and their own sheer determination and personal resources to make things happen.

The ‘Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children’s Charity’ hosted a special celebration aiming to thank all members of their Play Team for the titanic work they do on behalf of children. This event was celebrated at the beginning of PiHW, showing gratefulness to their play professionals and empowering all their team members to create a wonderful PIHW and to keep up the work they do for children and their families throughout the year. As far as I am aware, no other hospital had anything like this ‘thank you’ celebration. This made me wonder if clinical staff, administrative teams and hospital authorities are fully aware of the benefits that their Play Teams, and play more generally, bring into the healthcare settings. PiHW also made me wonder if, when published, healthcare professionals will be interested in reading my ‘fun’ research. I am curious… if play is so powerful and transformative for children and their families: Why are we not paying attention every week of the year?

Read more about play in hospital

Let’s Play Doctor! An article about Paulina’s work to promote play in health care settings in Spanish speaking countries.

Exploring Play in Hospitals in Spain, Australia and England Paulina’s reflections on being a play explorer around the world.

Children’s perspectives and experiences of play in hospital A talk by PEDAL researcher Kelsey Graber on her research.