Superhero Princess and the Power of Play

Every child has a deep, intrinsic love for play. I was reminded of this during a visit to the Family Center at C.S. Mott's Children's Hospital. Among the children in the room, I saw a little girl of about 5 years old who was sitting in a large wheelchair. Her body was weak, connected to a variety of lines and equipment. She wore a princess gown, but that wasn’t fun enough: she wanted a superhero cape, too! And with the cape, of course, she wanted someone to push her wheelchair around the hospital at high speed so she could feel like she was flying. As tired and sick as she was, the playful spirit bubbling out of her was unmistakable and heartwarming.

Play is not just something that children love, it’s something they need. It's how they explore and learn, and how they engage with their world. Maria Montessori, the creator of the Montessori education approach, said that “Play is the work of the child.” This doesn't change when a child is hospitalized. Play is the way kids prepare for and cope with their treatment. Play also acts as a motivator for kids going through rehabilitation therapy that can be painful and frustrating. As an occupational therapist at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital put it, “When you do pediatric therapy, you have to play games. Kids don’t care about your goals.”

 Denali Katnik and a patient playing with SpellBound tools together.

Denali Katnik and a patient playing with SpellBound tools together.

That's why there are so many tools and technologies out there to encourage play for kids in hospitals. From simple light spinners and bubbles to immersive augmented and virtual reality, these tools share the ultimate goal of helping kids to focus on the play and not on the downsides of hospitalization or treatment. It's also why hospitals have dedicated staff like child life specialists to provide support for patients. These specialists have the important role of helping kids have fun in the face of crisis.

Do child life specialists have to "relearn" how to play since the playful nature of children is often lost in adulthood? To learn about this, I talked to Denali Katnik, a child life student at Concordia University, who told me about how she learned the importance of play through her studies and her role as a child life intern.

"I have learned, most importantly, that play is not always in happy moments, but also in devastating times. It replaces the words children and families cannot express."

Denali feels that, in a way, relearning how to play wasn’t hard at all. "We all still have an inner child in us and play is incorporated into all of our lives! It just looks different based on age and developmental levels." She mentioned that as adults, we still need time to ‘play’ and incorporate stress relievers and time for ourselves into our daily routines. As she started working with children, she knew it wouldn't be difficult to play because kids embrace people no matter who they are. The non-judgmental environment made it easy for her to be a kid again with each patient.

As for the power of play, Denali emphasized how play is crucial for children, and also to her success as a Child Life intern. It’s allowed her to communicate with patients who didn't want to verbally communicate, to learn the ways kids cope and express emotions, and to understand how to facilitate child development in any setting. "I have learned, most importantly, that play is not always in happy moments, but also in devastating times. It replaces the words children and families cannot express. It can be used to help children and families cope while facing the trials of life."

Denali says that being able to play on a daily basis actually benefits her as well. We don't get as many opportunities as adults to truly play, and working with kids has been great for re-engaging her inner child. Child life specialists like Denali use their training to help their patients play like the kids they are, and they learn a thing or two from their patients as they’re doing it. "Kids are so smart and teach us all how to 'play' through life!"