July 2011 teddy_bear
Ready Teddy Go! How playing games makes hospital procedures less frightening

It takes a lot of imagination to take blood from a teddy bear. But the play specialists at UCLH have come up with an ingenious method, thanks to some creative needlework and a plastic bag full of red paint.

Liz Wilkinson, senior play specialist in the children’s outpatient department explains: "We get lots of very ill children here, and they can be very frightened by their illness. But sometimes the interventions they have to endure can be just as frightening."

"Having a cuddly toy on which we can demonstrate how a blood sample is taken reduces the fear of the unknown. The children can even use a real syringe - under careful supervision, of course - to take a sample, and put it into a tube. We can then explain how it will go to the lab for testing so that the clever scientists can work out what is wrong with them."

Liz and her 15-strong team support all the children and adolescents across the Trust’s hospitals, working closely with medical staff to identify how they can help make things easier for the young patients. These range from using lights and music to distract babies who need injections through to teaching older children relaxation or meditation techniques to help them cope with invasive procedures.


For example, children who need radiotherapy have to be held perfectly still in a tailor-made mould to prevent damage to healthy tissue. To prepare them for this, the play specialists help them to make moulds from soft toys so that they are familiar to the procedure.

Building trusting relationships with the young patients is vital. Even in the outpatients department, children may come back again and again and the specialists have to work on developing a strong rapport with them.

"We start off with general play – such as pool, Nintendo or snakes and ladders – or just talking to the children to find out more about them" says Liz. "It’s helpful if we can get the children familiar with the medical equipment that will be used and talking about how nice the doctors and other medical staff are helps them to feel more positive about the experience. We always have to be honest about what’s going on, but if we can do it in a constructive way it helps reduce their fear."

And a lot of children are scared of hospitals. Sometimes it can be because of a bad experience in the past or because they’ve picked up their parent’s anxiety. So the team work with the children’s parents and siblings so that they are able to support the children through the process. Liz and her team can also teach families how to communicate with very premature babies or children with disabilities.

Talking to the patients, and using creative play and art, can also uncover how the children feel about their illness. This can then help the staff to address their psychological wellbeing as well as their physical ailments. "Sometimes drawing a picture can draw out feelings the child was not consciously aware of, so that these can be acknowledged and faced" says Liz.

Working with the young patients can also be an on-going task that spans many years. "One girl who had intensive support at the age of six chose to come back twice more, at nine and twelve, to have more sessions as she moved through different stages of her childhood. It’s things like that that make our work so worthwhile!" says Liz.