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Play in health: Hospital play, pandemic play, and play therapy

PEDAL’s Play in Health initiatives explore the role and value of children’s play in healthcare contexts, inclusive of both physical and mental health. When children are in a healthcare environment, play can be a powerful tool for meaningful communication or care – encouraging children’s learning and understanding, aiding in procedural preparation or distraction, or supporting coping or recovery.

Play is a key feature of childhood and a right for all children, regardless of their environment or circumstances. Children will naturally seek out play opportunities even in settings that seem inconducive to play, such as a hospital or clinic. Our research looks at play in health from a variety of perspectives with the overarching goal of understanding and improving how we care for children’s health and quality of life. You can find out more about our work exploring play in health below.

Play in the pandemic rapid review

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced many changes to children’s everyday lives, including play. Children’s play was substantially altered due to lockdown and safety restrictions, creating a unique pandemic experience for children. We conducted a rapid review of the literature on the impact of quarantine and restricted environments on play,

Understanding children's play experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic

Following PEDAL’s Play in the Pandemic rapid review, PhD Student Kelsey Graber conducted a qualitative research study to investigate children’s own play experiences and perspectives during the COVID-19 pandemic, a state of global health adversity. Fifteen children (ages 3-10) participated in virtual interviews over Zoom between August-October 2020, answering questions and expressing their ideas about play during this exceptional time. This work sheds light on the importance of including children, as members of society, in our understanding of health emergency preparedness, decision-making, and effectiveness, particularly when considering matters of childhood.


Play in hospitals: children's perspectives and staff curriculum

This research project explores play during paediatric hospitalisation by talking with those directly involved in hospital play, including healthcare professionals, play specialists, families, and children themselves.

With support from the LEGO Foundation, our team (comprised of PhD student Kelsey Graber, Dr. Christine O’Farrelly, Prof Jenny Gibson, and Prof Paul Ramchandani) collaborates with clinician researchers at Copenhagen Children’s Hospital (Mary Elizabeth’s Hospital) in Denmark and Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge – where new children’s hospitals are being built with an eye toward play and mental health during childhood.

This project is underway until Summer 2023. It is comprised of multiple initiatives, including: an international Delphi study on hospital staff perspectives on hospital play; a review of the literature on play in hospital educational curricula; observations on paediatric wards and interviews with children, families, and staff about playing during hospitalisation; and the development of a curriculum for ‘play professionalism’ in hospitals.

The next phase of our work will include analysing and disseminating literature, survey, and interview data on play in hospitals with the goal of supporting children’s childhoods amidst hospitalisation.

  • Read more about the team’s work in their scoping review for BEME (Best Evidence Medical and Health Professional Education)
  • Find out more in our open-access research paper, published by BMJ Journals

An investigation of children's perspectives regarding their interactions with health play specialists

During her Master’s in Medical Anthropology at UCL, Paulina delved into the fields of ‘play’ and ‘imagination’ within paediatric healthcare settings. She learnt that the use of play can help chronically ill children to make meaning of their condition(s) and empower them to actively participate in their own healthcare. Through her research, she documented the strategies and methods we can and need to learn from Health Play Specialists in the United Kingdom, to improve communication with patients and the way we deliver paediatric healthcare.

For her doctoral research within the PEDAL Centre, Paulina is supervised by Prof Paul Ramchandani and co-funded by the CONACyT and Cambridge Trust. In this project, she is exploring the world of hospital specialised play from a different point of view – the perspective of children and young people.  Paulina’s research is expected to be finished by Winter 2024 and has been designed to capture children’s perspectives of their playful interactions with Health Play Specialists.

One of the main objectives of this project is to carefully understand and evaluate the place of specialised play in paediatric healthcare settings, as well as to discover how this new knowledge (from the perspective of paediatric patients) could potentially be incorporated into medical education.

Play in Hospitals Awareness Week in Mexico (Semana JIM®)

As a researcher and advocate for play in hospitals, Paulina is the Founder and Director of Semana JIM® ‘Play in Hospital Awareness Week in Mexico’ (Semana del Juego Intrahospitalario en México).

Semana JIM® is a virtual space for students and child healthcare professionals who want to: (1) learn how to provide child-friendly medical care, in order to improve their paediatric clinical practice; (2) inspire other healthcare professionals and younger generations to acquire a pro-play mindset; and (3) meet more child healthcare professionals interested in this innovative area of knowledge and discovering new professional opportunities.

Paulina’s work on Semana JIM® is inspired by her own experiences working as a clinical paediatrician in Mexico, and guided by her previous research and ongoing PhD project at PEDAL. This pro-play virtual space is Paulina’s attempt to bridge research into medical education and paediatric healthcare delivery, as well as to foster and protect the right to play of hospitalised children. Additionally, one of the aims of Semana JIM® is to share everything she has learnt in the UK with other Spanish-speaking child healthcare professionals. This project is what Paulina likes to call a ‘play and health Revolution’.

You can find out more about Semana JIM® using the links below:

Play therapy and children's mental health

Sydney’s PhD project is working to tell a story of three different intersections of the topics of child-centred play therapy, trauma, and excluded perspectives. Each project works with different methods, different populations, and utilises her expertise as a play therapist in her academic work.

1) Child-Centred Play Therapy & Trauma, a systematic review 

This systematic review evaluates how individual child-centred play therapy has been used to support trauma healing across the globe. A small number of studies exist, allowing a critical analysis to support creating a strong foundation for future play therapy research.

2) Child-Centred Play Therapy & Children’s Perspectives, a sand tray study

This creative methods study plans to explore the perspective of children who have experienced trauma and been in play therapy. It seeks to hear, from children themselves, why play therapy ‘works’, using a sand tray. This method allows children to engage in research in a developmentally appropriate way using play.

3) Trauma & Play Therapists’ Perspectives, a digital survey

Following the world’s renewed attention towards children’s play during the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns, this study seeks the perspectives of a subset mental health professionals who have unique insights into play: play therapists.

It will explore how the pandemic has changed play therapy playrooms, the impact of surviving an ongoing pandemic on children’s mental health from their professional perspective, and if this group of professionals views the COVID-19 pandemic as a collective traumatic event.

  • To learn more about Sydney’s work, visit her website
  • Read Sydney’s first playful engagement with publishing in academia, titled Encanto and Intergenerational Trauma, here