The importance of play for children goes beyond developmental growth when it comes to children who frequent hospitals.
A hospital experience, short term and long term, can be a frightening and confusing experience for children - especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. As well as their physical wellbeing, caring for their emotional wellbeing is also necessary.
Play therapy is an effective way to reduce the stress and anxiety of being in hospital, making the experience of hospitalisation, treatments and being away from home, that little bit easier.
While play is known for developing motor skills, intellectual development and socialisation, play therapy for children in hospital creates a distraction while also encouraging an opportunity for them to be heard and understood.
"The importance of play in the recovery of the hospitalised child is universally recognised," says Children in Hospital Ireland volunteer manager Elizabeth Morrin. "We have been helping to fill this role since 1970 and today approximately 500 play volunteers bring fun and enjoyment to sick children in many hospitals around Ireland. Familiar games and activities provide reassurance and comfort, occupy children who may be nervous or bored, and help to make friends."
Without the understanding, experience and willingness of volunteers, a child’s hospital visit could be a lot different. Volunteers encourage an independence, rapport and positive experience for a child undergoing treatment. The hospital is less scary, and the routines and environment become more normal relieving stress. “Children in Hospital Ireland volunteers work in co-operation with the hospital play specialists and the ward staff,” says Morrin. “Organising play activities in the playroom, on the ward, in the outpatient’s department and the A&E department. Volunteers also facilitate play and activities at children’s bedsides for those who may not be able at that time to visit the playroom.”
Children in Hospital is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with its supportive network of volunteers as important as ever. Volunteers across the country make an important difference to the experience of hospitalisation for children and their families. “For those children who experience longer stays in hospital or whose families are travelling long distances and have siblings at home,” says Morrin, “having a volunteer available to bring a sense of normality through play, in its most basic and joyful form, can mean respite and relief during long days. However, even for those children who will have thankfully much shorter experiences in hospital, play helps to make their experience more positive and promote a sense of wellbeing for future healthcare visits.”
Catriona Kelly has been volunteering in Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin, for the past 14 years. "Volunteering was always something I knew I would get involved in and Crumlin was definitely the right fit. I grew up with a severely physically and mentally challenged brother and my parents spent a lot of time in Temple Street Hospital. They never had any help or support and I realised that a sick child is one of the most challenging things to deal with and makes you very vulnerable as a parent. You are constantly wishing you could swap places with the child."
After a few years’ break from volunteering, her eldest daughter finished school and sought out her own path in volunteering. She joined as a volunteer in the same hospital and now both mother and daughter volunteer in the heart unit at Crumlin.
“As a volunteer, I go to the heart centre in Crumlin each week. You never know what you might be doing when you arrive, but your job is to play with the children and give the parents a break. Play makes them forget. We normally paint, colour, play games, play music or chat. This usually gives the parent an opportunity to have a coffee and a break. If this is not possible, the parents normally love a chat or to sit and paint and forget also.”
Catriona says that the few hours in the heart centre are her favourite couple of hours every week. “There is never a day you leave Crumlin that you don’t feel good about the positive effect you have had on the children and parents you met,” she says. “Parents are so grateful for the respite and you feel you made a difference. To my mind, volunteering makes you less selfish and allows you to focus on someone else and not yourself. My enthusiasm has rubbed off on my three girls. They are all in college or work part time and volunteer in Crumlin too.”
Morrin notes that 83 per cent of volunteers in the Children in Hospital 2019 annual survey maintain the main reason they volunteer is simply to give back, and that they enjoy interacting with children. “We know from research that volunteers often feel they get more than they give,” she says, “and that volunteering helps them to feel better mentally and physically. Our volunteers responded that 76 per cent felt their sense of being a part of their community increased or greatly increased due to volunteering, 74 per cent increased their range of friendships, and 63 per cent increased their personal development including confidence, and self-esteem.”
Paul McCoy has been volunteering with Children in Hospital Ireland for two years. After witnessing the positive impact play therapy has on children and their families, he felt compelled to become involved. When he joined Children in Hospital he was the only male volunteer and feels strongly about the importance of all ages and genders being a part of the charity. “I saw first hand the effect a male volunteer had on young males as they were able to express themselves differently with me as they would have with a female representative. Both male and female volunteers are equally as important, but I think it’s essential to give a diverse selection to the children on the type of volunteer they may want to interact with.
“There is no doubt, after every shift I do, that volunteering makes me not only feel grateful for the experience of distracting the children from the medical and negative sides of hospital, but it allows parents of the children to have a break.
“All children, whether sick or not, deserve the opportunity to enjoy their childhood. Being a volunteer allows me to give back and to give these amazing children the chance to forget reality and enjoy every moment they have on this earth.”
– Children in Hospital Ireland volunteers directly and actively participate in making hospital a happier place for children. To register your interest as a volunteer, visit childreninhospital.ie/become_a_volunteer