Paid to Play - Life As A Child Life Specialist
"You are so lucky! I wish I could get paid to play all day!”
I have heard this so many times in my 23 year career. Yes, I am very lucky. I am a certified child life specialist and I have had the chance to spend so much time with children who are facing a life limiting illness or the children who love someone facing a life limiting illness. To be allowed into their world for even a short period of time is so very humbling. Toys are like a child’s words and play is their language. So, yes, in order to truly speak a child’s language, I play with them.
I play with the child who has lost the ability to walk due to a progressive neuromuscular disease. We bury small animals in the sand repeatedly while growling as loud as we can. I play with the child whose baby sister has had multiple hospitalizations. We play the same board game over and over again so she can feel accomplished and laugh as hard as we can. I play with the toddler who is unable to eat. We play with pretend fruit which he feeds to every stuffed animal in his room. I play with the teenager who no longer has the energy to attend school or even get out of bed. She makes scrapbook cards full of loving private messages for all of her loved ones. I play with the child who has relapsed and is refusing to speak. She paints with large strokes using the darkest bold colors. I play with the child who can longer move due to a large brain tumor. I play for her but she leads the play by glancing with her eyes. I play with the child whose brother has just died in a room down the hall. We play his favorite video game in his room where he feels safest.
Sometimes words are necessary but oftentimes words are not. So much can be said in play, sounds, actions and movement. The two other Hands of Hope child life specialists and I allow children to lead us where they need to go. Sometimes they want to talk about illness and sometimes they don’t. We never force them to be at a particular place in their journey. It takes time to come to terms to the changes in their lives and they grieve over the loss of control. We provide them with what is familiar and safe - play. Play helps them to make sense of their world and provides them with the safe space to sort through all of the emotions. Sometimes play helps them to focus on anything but the illness. Other times play is how they confront their illness.
So, do I get paid to play? Absolutely. As we celebrate child life in the month of March, I want to recognize those of us who go into the world of children every day and walk beside them. It is not always easy but there is nowhere else a child life specialist would ever want to be.
Stephanie Mishoe, MEd, CCLS, CPLC
Certified Child Life Specialist, Hands of Hope