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‘Play to Heal’: A Visiting Student Researcher Perspective on Play and Health

In this article, visiting student Cate Schultz from the Univeristy of North Carolina at Chapel Hill  reflects on her internship in PEDAL.


The UN declared in 1989 children’s right to play “a fundamental human right for all children” (UN, 1989). For children, “play is not a luxury, play is a necessity” (Dianne). Despite rising psychopathology rates among children on a global scale, play is not being properly prioritized in policy nor funding. For children who are at risk of poor outcomes, play opportunities are essential to support their development. In order to heal, especially from traumatic circumstances, children must be provided therapeutic outlets through play. This summer, I explored how play interventions can support children’s health, by doing an internship at PEDAL.

My interest in play for health stems from my experience in the United States working with Wonder Connection, a non-profit at University of North Carolina Children’s Hospital. At Wonder Connection, I provide patients with hands-on opportunities for therapeutic play. Utilizing nature and science activities, we offer a play outlet so that patients are able to feel a sense of control and autonomy that can often be lacking in other areas of their hospital experience. I was inspired by Dr Paulina Pérez-Duarte Mendiola’s (who is part of PEDAL’s Play and Health team) PhD work investigating paediatric patients’ perspectives on their experience with UK Health Play Specialists. Drawing parallels from my work at UNC Children’s Hospital, it was immensely valuable to hear Paulina’s insights and read through her field notes together. We analysed the key themes from her observational notes and created mind maps to help to inform the structure of her dissertation.

One particularly impactful experience was our discussion of “compassion fatigue”, a phrase used within the paediatric medical field to describe the intense emotional burnout that can result from working continuously children struggling with life-threatening illnesses. Thus, we strove to find balance in our own studies. One day, we worked in the haven of the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. We were both inspired by the fields of lavender and adorable children exclaiming ‘look at the ducks, I love them!’ around us in their British accents. Paulina’s important global work has motivated me to engage more deeply with research from the child’s point of view.

I also performed thematic analysis of interview transcripts with Kelsey Graber, another PhD student at PEDAL, whose work also emphasizes the value of play in hospital from children’s perspectives. Working with Kelsey helped me to gain a deeper understanding of hospital administrative and systematic barriers to play for paediatric patients.

In terms of trauma-response play, I engaged hands-on with Sydney Conroy’s PhD work on children’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, where they shared their reactions through sand play. Utilising her play therapist background, Sydney is learning more about the fears that lingered from the pandemic and how that influences children’s social and emotional development now.

I also assisted with the Healthy Start, Happy Start longitudinal follow-up study, which is exploring the impact of an early child mental health intervention on long-term behavioural outcomes and parental self-efficacy beliefs. My time spent on data entry and quantitative tasks were brought to life when I shadowed a research visit in London, seeing the way data is collected from parent-child dyads and the meticulous nature of field work.

With the Helping Little Minds Thrive Golden Threads study, I contributed to a systematic, comprehensive literature review of early mental health intervention programs to identify the common elements that heed significant benefits for children and families with Dr Beth Barker. This illustrated the need for evidence-backed programs to be accessible to families, especially those from vulnerable populations.

Originally, the title of my proposed project for the Burch Fellowship (which is what allowed me to have these incredible experiences!) was “Play to Heal” with a focus on play in medical contexts, based on my UNC hospital background. As I spent more time connecting with and learning from researchers in many different sectors of play, health, and child development, I found ‘playing to heal’ does not only pertain to paediatric hospital patients. Play is not a luxury nor a privilege, it is a need of all children, a right of children, and essential in scaffolding their well-being. How can children feel capable in this world if they are not listened to? Play is a child’s way of expressing themselves and navigating their surrounding environment, especially pertinent when it is traumatic terrain to cope with. I am so grateful for my time at PEDAL for informing my perspective on play rights for children and in motivating me to pursue more play research to support children experiencing traumatic circumstances on a global scale.

Further Reading

To find out more about play and health, and ongoing PEDAL studies exploring how play can scaffold children’s well-being in healthcare settings, visit our Play and Health projects page.

To read further about the role of play in hospital contexts read Paulina’s play piece on play in hospitals in Australia, Spain and the UK.

To read Kelsey’s research about children’s perspectives on play during the COVID-19 pandemic, follow this link.

An update on the Helping Little Minds Thrive Golden Threads project can be found here.