who is a child life specialist

Who is a Child Life Specialist?

Once referred to as “the play lady” in the hospital setting, the Child Life Specialist role has since grown into one that addresses the psychosocial concerns of children and their families. They take the approach of family-centered care and help to make a hospitalization experience positive and growth-promoting.

I was fortunate enough to be a certified Child Life Specialist for almost 6 years at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. When Iwho is a child life specialist first heard of the profession, it almost seemed too good to be true…I would be able to “play” with children and work in a hospital setting—2 things I was looking for in a job. During my first 6 months, I was shocked and surprised to find out that my role was way more than just playing!

The Mission of a Child Life Specialist:

To start, let me tell you what the mission of the Child Life Specialist is, straight from the Child Life Council: “We, as child life professionals, strive to reduce the negative impact of stressful or traumatic life events and situations that affect the development, health and well-being of infants, children, youth and families. We embrace the value of play as a healing modality as we work to enhance the optimal growth and development of infants, children and youth through assessment, intervention, prevention, advocacy, and education.”

What this mission means is that Child Life Specialists will work with children and their families by doing the following (and more!) to minimize the stress and anxiety of the healthcare experience:

  • Age-appropriate play (both bedside and in a playroom area; individually and in a group setting)
  • Preparation and explanation of what is happening in a developmentally-appropriate manner
  • Coping and distraction during procedures
  • Sibling support
  • Bereavement
  • Education
  • Support ties to home, school, and the community
  • Work alongside a multidisciplinary team

What Does it Take to Become a Child Life Specialist?

While some may think anyone can play with a child, Child Life Specialists must take an exam and become certified to become employed. In order to be eligible for the exam, an applicant must have a minimum of a Bachelor’s Degree (in 2025 it will change to an advanced degree); must complete a total of 10 college-level courses in child life or a related department/subject; must complete an internship with a minimum of 480 hours (this will change to 600 hours in 2019). Once certified, the Child Life Specialist must maintain the certification by receiving 50 Professional Development Hours within a 5 year time period.

Fortunately, this profession has been growing since its start in the 1920s and most major cities have children’s hospitals with Child Life Specialists on staff. Some areas in which they work are emergency room, outpatient clinics, surgery center/same day surgery, in-patient units, and specialty clinics.
Working as a Child Life Specialist was very rewarding as I was able to see how my work, with mostly a hands-on approach, affected not only the child receiving the medical care but also the family in such a positive way. I was the “safe” person that was trusted by the child to not hurt them but to help them. I was the person who advocated for the child: take the child to the treatment room for a procedure vs. having it done in their bed which is their safe space; have the resident get down on the child’s level when introducing themselves and talking, giving the child a choice in a situation vs. telling them what to do. I was the person who allowed the child to be a child!

The Child Life Council has a wonderful website that is easy to navigate for more information. Should your child or a family/child you know be hospitalized, have an upcoming procedure or surgery, or have a sibling going through one of these situations, ask the hospital if they have a Child Life Specialist on staff to help ease the stress of the situation…it will make a world of difference!

Click here for more information on how to help when a child you love suffers trauma.