Joy and play are central missions for UCLA Health Child Life Specialists

‘All kids should have the opportunity to play, connect and enjoy childhood,’ says Chase Child Life Director Kelli Carroll.

The idea of trick-or-treating with a remote-controlled robot likely would appeal to any child — especially during a pandemic that all but eliminated the tradition last year. For youngsters hospitalized at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, it was a reality.

Pediatric patients who were immunocompromised or in intensive care on Halloween were able to trick-or-treat and gather goodies across the medical center through Zoom, iPads, remote-controlled robots and a team of Child Life Specialists dedicated to bringing the joy of childhood into the hospital setting.

“You don't have to watch life pass you by and watch your friends post about all the things that they did that you didn't get to do,” says Christine Banderas, a Child Life Specialist at UCLA Health. “We can bring those opportunities. So just because you’re in the hospital, it doesn’t mean you’re missing some of those events you look forward to.”

Certified Child Life Specialists are advocates for hospitalized children during both challenging and cheerful moments. These trained experts accompany pediatric patients and their families to medical tests and procedures, explain diagnoses in kid-friendly terms and spend a lot of time injecting joy and light into their hospital stay.

“All kids should have the opportunity to play, connect and enjoy childhood,” says Kelli Carroll, director of Chase Child Life and expressive arts therapies at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. “When you grow up in the hospital, those moments have to be intentionally constructed.”

Deen shows off the leprechaun house he made for a Chase Child Life virtual playroom session. The volunteer leader of the St. Patrick's Day art project looks on proudly via Zoom.

Celebrating holidays big and small, from Valentine’s and St. Patrick’s days to Christmas and Hanukkah, is one way Child Life Specialists at UCLA bring festive energy and a feeling of normalcy to children who are hospitalized.

In February, patients decorated paper-bag mailboxes that nurses filled with classic classroom Valentines with messages such as “You’re my superhero” and “You have a pizza my heart.” March brought a crafting session, guided by a volunteer fairy, where kids made little leprechaun houses.

“We try to give patients — and also their families — a sense that even though your life got disrupted, it doesn't mean that your year has to be on hold,” Banderas says. “You don’t have to forego a holiday just because you’re here.”

Play is central to the mission of the Child Life Specialists. Before the pandemic, they hosted multiple weekly playroom sessions that brought patients out of their hospital rooms and into a toy-filled play area, where they could forget about their diagnoses for a while and have fun with other children. When COVID-19 shut down such in-person interactions, the staff tapped the hospital’s technology resources to move the playrooms online. Donated iPads allow patients to participate from the safety of their hospital rooms.

Thanks to partnerships with various community organizations, the Zoom playrooms still bring a sense of adventure, says UCLA Child Life Specialist Clarissa Byrd. A recent session took kids on a “Zoom-fari,” where they got up-close introductions to wild animals. There are bingo games every Friday night and special Saturday sessions featuring a magician sharing the tricks of his trade. There are also “playrooms” for parents, where they can chat and support one another through the experience of having a hospitalized child.

Despite being digital and socially distanced, the playrooms still foster connections among participants, Byrd says.

She recalls a recent session that included two girls who typically wouldn’t spend time together because of differences in their cognitive abilities. They didn’t interact much in the playroom, during which they were drawing and painting. But when Byrd visited the girls in their hospital rooms afterward, each had spontaneously created a drawing for the other.

“Just talking about it, I’m getting choked up,” Byrd says. “They weren’t communicating or conversing with each other, but they still made a connection just in that small amount of time. That’s something that made us realize, OK, these playrooms aren’t necessarily about having the greatest fun time, but are really just about human connection.”

Even when in-person gatherings are allowed again, Byrd and her colleagues will still use iPads and Zoom to involve patients who otherwise couldn’t participate in social activities because of their isolation precautions. Having the choice to join a digital event — or drive a trick-or-treating robot through the hospital hallways — is a way to empower hospitalized children, she says.

“As a Child Life Specialist, our goal is giving kids a sense of control in an uncontrollable environment,” Byrd says, noting Zoom has choice and control built into its platform. Beyond deciding to participate in an online playroom, children can choose how they want to use the camera and chat functions.

Adapting to the pandemic and digitizing previously in-person events on the fly was a challenge for the Child Life staff at UCLA, but the creativity inherent to the job helped, Byrd says.

“We’re constantly put in these situations where we have to be creative to bring joy or comfort to a child,” she says. “I think the greatest tool we have is our ability to just change and adapt and be what we need to be for that child and that family at that time.”

Taking so many Child Life services online allowed greater involvement of patients and staff, Banderas adds. Most importantly, though, it served the mission of bringing fun and a sense of connection into the hospital.

“You get to see children smile and be joyful,” she says. “It’s impactful for the children and the parents especially, but it’s also really impactful for our staff. It’s rejuvenating for everyone.”