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Together is a new resource for anyone affected by pediatric cancer - patients and their parents, family members, and friends.

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Child Life and Learning Through Play

Child life specialists help children and teens maintain a sense of normalcy in a world that has changed dramatically. A child’s diagnosis of cancer and beginning treatment thrusts families from their everyday lives into unknown territory. Child life specialists explain what is happening in terms children and teens can understand and create opportunities to keep life as normal as possible.

Most pediatric hospitals have a child life department. Child life specialists have advanced education and specialized training in child development.

Child Life Specialist engages a young cancer patient in medical play to prepare her for an exam.

When getting ready for medical procedures or tests, medical play gives patients the chance to see or rehearse medical procedures and learn why they are necessary. 

Child life specialists are there to

  • Explain cancer diagnosis and treatment in simple, honest terms children and teens can understand and parents are comfortable with. 
  • Minimize the stress and anxiety that kids and teens may have.
  • Teach patients positive coping techniques.
  • Support children and teens through medical procedures and hospitalizations.
  • Work with kids on developmental milestones.
  • Provide opportunities for children and teens to gain a sense of mastery, learning, self-expression, family involvement and peer interaction.
  • Provide support and education to siblings.

Play With a Purpose

Many of these goals are accomplished through play and activities because that is how children and teens best learn and express themselves.

  • Therapeutic play: When patients are not be able to express themselves with words, a child life specialist may observe the patients expressing anxiety when they play or participate in other activities. The child life specialist can use play as an opportunity to respond to the patient’s needs and decrease stress of the hospital environment.
  • Medical play: When getting ready for medical procedures or tests, medical play gives patients the opportunity to see or rehearse medical procedures and learn why they are necessary. Knowledge and understanding help children and teens overcome fears.
  • Developmental play: It’s important for children to play and be as active as possible, so they can achieve important developmental milestones. It also provides ways for children and teens to interact socially with peers having similar experiences.

If you are interested in your child receiving support from a child life specialist, ask your care team.

Child Life Specialist teaches young patient about a medical procedure. 

Most pediatric hospitals have a child life department. Child life specialists have advanced education and specialized training in child development.


Reviewed: June 2018

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