Playing is the best medicine, for children

The Elliott family, of Lodgemoor
The Elliott family, of Lodgemoor
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Four-year-old Reuben Elliott frowns in concentration as he pipes chocolate icing onto a bun.

The gooey foundation laid, he presses white chocolate stars onto his masterpiece and gives it a satisfied once-over before taking a bite. Next to him, sister Zoe grins as she finishes piping pink icing on to her own bun.

Amber Whiston, aged 6, of Woodseats

Amber Whiston, aged 6, of Woodseats

But the pair aren’t at a playgroup, or at home baking with their mummy Jennifer, who is sat nearby. They’re in the Outpatients department of Sheffield Children’s Hospital, where Reuben is undergoing treatment for a brain tumour doctors discovered 18 months ago. Nearby, Health Play Specialist Charlotte Cooper waits until the buns are eaten and then hands them fishing rods for a quick game of ‘hook-a-duck’ before they have to leave for Reuben’s appointment.

“Play in hospitals is really important for children,” explains Charlotte as the kids giggle, their rods wiggling in the blow-up fish pond.

“It lowers anxiety so they don’t worry as much and, because play is what children understand, it makes it a more normal place to them to be. Play is how children express emotions, communicate fears and relax so it’s essential we keep that up for them when they’re here.”

Activity sessions like these are being held in hospitals all over the UK this week, as part of Play In Hospital Awareness Week, to highlight the benefits of play in the treatment of poorly children. It is being run by the National Association of Health Play Specialists, which aims to promote the provision of appropriate therapeutic and stimulating play facilities in hospital, in conjunction with Starlight Children’s Foundation.

Play Specialists Katie Farrell and Donna Webster-Payne at Sheffield Children's Hospital

Play Specialists Katie Farrell and Donna Webster-Payne at Sheffield Children's Hospital

Fellow-Play Specialist Donna Webster-Payne has been based at Sheffield Children’s Hospital for over 30 years, promoting the emotional needs of children in hospital and encouraging them to master and express their feelings through play.

She adds: “Play is what children do, it’s their job, and our job is to help them carry on doing what they need to do. We work with them to make their experience of being in hospital easier. There’s the added benefit that we can use play to explain and prepare children for certain treatments, such as scans and needles. We work alongside children before, during and after procedures to be sure they have a good understadning of their treatment.

“If they go home rememebering fun things they did and friends they made, rather than just all the horrible things they’ve had done, we’ve done our job well.”

And for Reuben’s parents, Jennifer and Paul, the Play Specialist team have been invaluable.

“When Reuben was first diagnosed, the team explained his condition and various treatments to him using teddy bears,” recalls Jennifer, 37, of Lodgemoor.

“They would sit with him in the MRI scanner while he played or demonstrate procedures on dolls. They spoke to him in his language, in a way we wouldn’t have thought to do. In the months since, they’ve helped to make his life a bit more normal when he’s here - his sister Zoe too as she accompanies us to his treatments so often.

“They’ve been in the background the whole time offering support.”

Six-year-old Amber Whiston, of Woodseats, was diagnosed with a brain tumour when she was just eight months old and has been undergoing chemotherapy treatment on-and-off for three-and-a-half years.

Mum Lara Joyce, 32, said: “She was so little when she was diagnosed and, particularly when she was really poorly and couldn’t play with other children because her immune system was so low, being able to play with the team in the hospital was so important.

“The Play Specialist team have had a very big impact for us, helping us to keep a balance between coming and doing what we need to do, and making sure Amber is happy and having fun as much as possible while she’s here,”

Visit www.nahps.org.uk