Mental Health Week: Health Play Specialist shares her insights on the role of play

Kimberley Millar, Health Play Specialist

Kimberley Millar is a dedicated Health Play Specialist at GOSH, with extensive experience as a Play Worker and recent completion of the Health Play Specialist course. Her passion for helping children shines through as she brings joy and smiles to their faces, focusing on supporting their mental well-being and providing a safe space for play and self-expression. During COVID, she launched the @Playinhospital Instagram account, offering activity ideas for parents and promoting the valuable work of the Play Team with patients in the hospital, solidifying her invaluable role in the Play Team at GOSH.

Why did you want to be a Play Specialist at GOSH? What's your favourite part of your job?

I started working as a Play Worker at GOSH in 2015, and I felt very lucky when I got accepted into the Play Specialist course in September 2021. Whilst studying, I continued to work as a Play Worker. Now that I'm nearing the end of my course, I'm grateful for the new opportunities being a Play Specialist will bring me at GOSH. My favourite thing about my job is making children and young people happy and seeing them smile. One of my favourite activities is creating artwork using footprints.


What does a typical day at GOSH look like for you?

I gather information from the wards I cover as a Play Specialist, which are Hedgehog and Bumblebee Ward. Then, I plan and organize my day based on what the patients need. I help prepare and distract patients before they have medical procedures, and I provide different play activities to keep children occupied while they're waiting for surgery or during their hospital stay.


Can you explain the role of a play specialist in a hospital and how it supports the mental health of sick children?

As a Play Specialist, I create a safe place for sick children to talk, play, and take a break from medical things. Hospitals can be scary for kids, and some may have gone through difficult experiences. It's our job to let them express their feelings and provide activities to support them. We also speak up for children and make sure they have a positive experience in the hospital.


How play can help improve the mental well-being of children in the hospital?

Play can distract children and get their attention by incorporating their likes and interests. For example, if a child loves baby dolls, we can use dolls and medical toys to role-play and prepare them for medical procedures. This creates a positive play experience for the child, allowing them to learn and develop while having fun.


How do you customise play activities to meet the specific needs of each child, considering their medical condition and emotions?

Most activities can be adapted to meet the needs and abilities of patients. Understanding the child's age, development, and comprehension helps us plan activities. We also adjust the language we use to make sure the child understands. It's important to use language that suits each child.


Can you share any success stories where play significantly improved the mental health of a sick child during their hospital stay?

Recently, I worked with a patient who had experienced trauma at another hospital. They were terrified and didn't speak or understand English. Luckily, the patient's parents could translate from Greek to English. I brought in role-play resources like a playhouse, play food, and dolls. By using these resources to build trust, the child became comfortable. When it was time for medical observations, I used medical toys to role-play with the dolls. The child engaged well and, after practicing on the doll, had their own observations without any tears or worries. It was a positive step forward after experiencing trauma.


What challenges do you face as a play specialist in promoting the power of play for mental health in a hospital environment?

The team of play specialists are on hand to explain to the children in a child friendly manner any medical procedures they may be going through as they may misunderstand or not fully understand the medical language. If a play plan is in place for a child, we do our best to follow this through by working with the medical team to ensure the best chance of success.


Do you have any tips or play techniques that parents can use to support the mental health of their ill child?

Parents can support their ill child's mental health by listening to them, talking, and responding to their needs. They can find out about their child's thoughts and feelings through play or conversation. Some children express themselves through drawing or role-playing, which can help parents understand their emotions.


Looking ahead, what are your hopes for the future of play therapy in hospitals and its impact on the mental health of sick children?

We are extending our play service at present to include some weekend and evening cover. 

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