This post, originally published on July 12, 2013, was among Healthcare Design’s most popular articles and blogs of 2013. To see the full list, go to

I recently attended the Child Life Council's 31st annual conference, a four-day event for  child life specialists—including teachers, social workers, and their extended teams—who dedicate themselves to ensuring that children, young adults, and their families are prepared to cope with stressful health-related experiences.

As integral members of the healthcare team in both ambulatory care and inpatient settings, this group of individuals makes sure patients have resources to play, learn, and express themselves as they prepare for and undergo medical procedures, receive pain management, and learn coping strategies, all while maintaining  a normal routine.

Research from the Child Life Council has shown that “children who engage in therapeutic play with a trained professional exhibit less emotional distress, increased cooperation, and have fewer negative physiological responses.” Simple distractions, from looking for objects in an “I Spy” book while an IV is being started to guiding a child through a doll-sized MRI or mock operating room before surgery can alter how that child is feeling, and reduce stress and anxiety.

As someone who has spent 20 years designing healthcare environments—many specifically for children and young adults—I’ve witnessed firsthand the profound impact that these individuals can have on improving both the human experience and operational efficiency of a built environment when their expertise and input are included from the start of a project.

I came away from the conference with a few more lasting impressions about the integral role a child life specialist (CLS) can play in the design of children’s facilities:

  • The values of patient- and family-centered care and input from patient advisory groups must inform the design from day one of design discussions.
  • Medical play—and specifically rooms dedicated to such play—has an enormous impact on children and young adults, and helps to reduces stress before and after recovery in a variety of situations. A CLS can recommend a number of medical play techniques that allow kids to feel safe and empowered, rather than frightened by the unknown.
  • Playrooms for patients and their siblings are not "nice to have" but are imperative during the hospital stay to provide a “no-pain zone” and often a “no doctor/adult” zone. A CLS understands what kids need on multiple levels (social, emotional, clinical) and should play an instrumental role in helping to design how these spaces look, feel, and function. For example, a CLS knows that a teen room shouldn't just have a sofa and video games, but should be a safe zone free from adults with a variety of spaces and activities where they can socialize and create moments with their peers that they may be missing at school and at home.
  • Storage for CLS supplies is essential, and an understanding of what and how much will be stored is critical. The room(s) needs to be sized and located appropriately to be utilized best. There are numerous donations ranging from clothes, toys, books, and games that cover the gender and age spectrum. Just as the clinical team needs to keep supplies handy, these items are part of the CLS’s everyday routine.
  • Areas that incorporate positive distractions (murals, sculptures, lighting features, design details, etc.), which often can be incorporated into the architecture or design, enhance the space but are also an important tool for the CLS. They offer unique and surprising opportunities for interaction that the CLS can incorporate into his/her work to spontaneously engage and/or distract kids in a variety of situations.

Child life specialists are an integral part of the care team. As design professionals, it would serve us and our clients well to embrace their educated voice, expertise, and the pure love they have for what they do to help guide us in designing optimal children's environments for all ages.

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