The vital role of play

Play Specialist Alanna Rudd, who you may have spotted on series two of Paul O’Grady’s Little Heroes, talks about the vital role of play at Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH).

Play is an important part of any child’s life, but for the patients who come to GOSH from all over the UK, it’s vital in helping to reduce their anxieties and providing a positive, normalised environment for children when they are at hospital. 

“We use play to help prepare and distract children for procedures, provide age-appropriate information for diagnosis and treatments, and use different therapeutic play techniques to help children explore their feelings and create positive experiences,” says Alanna.

Alanna is one of more than 40 members of staff in the Play team at GOSH, which comprises play specialists and play workers. The team is funded by Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, and it’s only thanks to donations from our supporters that we can provide this vital resource for patients at GOSH, as well as the toys, training and uniforms that the team use.

“Being in hospital is a difficult time no matter what age you are,” says Alanna. “I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to help the children smile and provide positive memories throughout their hospital stay.”

A typical day

“My day could involve anything from preparing a child for surgery, distracting for a blood test, supporting through a scan, helping to explain a diagnosis in a child-friendly way, or helping a family to create memories,” says Alanna. 

“We create daily plans and sticker charts to motivate the children during their treatment. We help to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays, when a child finishes their treatment, and decorate the wards for Christmas.

“Daily activities are provided in the playroom and at the bedside, and we work closely with the child’s healthcare team, including nurses, doctors, physios, school... My role is important for creating positive experiences in the hospital and to minimise what can be a traumatising time.”

Combatting anxiety

“It’s very common for children to feel anxious or worried while at hospital,” says Alanna. “Play helps to combat anxieties as it’s something a child can relate to – it’s not only fun, it’s how children learn and express themselves. 

“When a child comes to GOSH for the first time, they’re in an unusual environment with lots of new people. They may also feel really unwell and encounter painful procedures. They may feel like they have no control with what’s happening to them and worry about what’s going to happen next. Our aim is to try and reduce their fears and anxieties by building up trust, providing enjoyable moments and providing the child with information as appropriate. 

“We use real – and safe – medical equipment to help educate and prepare the children before a procedure. For example, they can use syringes to squirt paint or water rather than just seeing the equipment as something which causes pain for injections. 

“Sometimes we make a personal plan for how children may want a procedure to be carried out and we use different techniques to try and help make it more tolerable for them. Using medical play in a safe environment where the child can act as the nurse or doctor provides them with an opportunity to be in control and familiarises them with what they will experience.”

Distraction techniques

“We use distraction to try and take children’s minds off what’s happening,” says Alanna. “It may be during a procedure, scan, or any other stressful situation. For distraction, we might use books, stress balls, sensory toys, or an iPad to watch or play games, or have a conversation. 

“Some children like to see exactly what’s happening during a procedure like an injection, while others prefer not to see, and so we’d use a book or iPad to help block their view. Sometimes just having a play specialist present can help to reduce anxiety as it’s someone the children may trust to advocate for them.”

Support GOSH Children’s Charity

We raise money to enable GOSH to provide world-class care for its young patients and their families in many ways, including the Play team. 

Get involved and help raise money for GOSH and join our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram communities to hear more stories like Alanna’s. You can also sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with all the amazing things that take place at the hospital and charity every single day.