Playing so children can relax and feel happy in hospital

James Powell, six, with play specialist Anne Ricketts. Below, Play specialists at Queen Alexandra Hospital, from left, Anne, Tracy Morgan and Sue Richardson, and Sue with patient Aaliyah Hammond. Pictures: Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust
James Powell, six, with play specialist Anne Ricketts. Below, Play specialists at Queen Alexandra Hospital, from left, Anne, Tracy Morgan and Sue Richardson, and Sue with patient Aaliyah Hammond. Pictures: Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust
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Two play rooms packed full of toys, games and costumes are there to keep children occupied during their time at Queen Alexandra Hospital. Health reporter Priya Mistry finds out more about play specialists who work with young patients to keep them calm and explain what will be happening while they are in hospital.

Hospitals are a place you go to get better because you have hurt yourself or are ill.

Left to right: Play specialists Anne Ricketts, Tracy Morgan and Sue Richardson. PPP-150130-221245002

Left to right: Play specialists Anne Ricketts, Tracy Morgan and Sue Richardson. PPP-150130-221245002

With that comes the prospect of having surgery, being in pain and not surrounded by your creature comforts.

This can be quite daunting and upsetting for children, in particular.

Enter three women who have an important role in the children’s wards at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Cosham.

Anne Ricketts, Sue Richardson and Tracy Morgan are health play specialists.

James Powell, six, with play specialist Anne Ricketts

James Powell, six, with play specialist Anne Ricketts

Their job is simple but vital – play with children in hospital in order to relax them, make them feel safe and secure and explain what is going on.

Anne, who has been a specialist for 15 years, says: ‘Play is good for your health.

‘We sees a range of children who are battling anything from cancer, anorexia or a broken arm or leg, so it’s important to provide distraction, keep them entertained, stimulated and motivated.’

QA has a play room and a terrace that’s bursting with toys, games and dress-up kit, for children to play with.

From Lego to Cluedo, electronic games and wordsearches, costumes and crayons, the rooms invite play.

And there’s also a classroom which resident teacher Emma Scarott is in.

‘Patients that are fit to do schoolwork will go to the classroom or complete it in their bed,’ adds Anne.

‘I will be based in the play room completing board games or puzzles, arts and crafts and building things out of boxes with the children.

‘Each day is different; you can have a child who comes in who is really sick and needs one-to-one attention, or you can have a group of four or five children that can sit together on an art-and-craft table or do role play and interact with each other.

‘A lot of children need surgery while they’re on ward I try to release their anxiety by playing with them and preparing them for surgery.

‘I will aim to build up a bond with each child, then visit their bed on the morning of surgery and maybe draw a picture with them while talking them through what to expect.

‘I will then give them a challenge and ask them to count all the animal pictures they see on the walls on the way to theatre – anything to distract and ease any anxiety they may have.

‘I always do a ward-round before I leave and check that the children who are going to be in overnight have wordsearches, games or books to read while I’m not on site.’

It’s a team the Powell family from John Bunyan Close, in Whiteley, are very familiar with.

Sarah’s son James, six, was in QA for a week before Christmas, and was also in last week.

Her younger son Matthew, three, is also a regular patient at the hospital.

Mrs Powell, 33, says: ‘The team is brilliant, they do so much to make both the boys feel at ease and distract them from the reason why they are there.

‘It’s so important because we can’t be with the kids all the time, so it’s good to know they have people to turn to that will play with them, explain what’s happening and help them feel at ease.

‘Matthew has been admitted more than 30 times, so we are very familiar with them people here and they are fantastic.

‘They just take away the stress of being in a hospital and I want to say thank you to them for their help.’

Over the years the team have seen changes in the kind of play they can do.

Anne adds: ‘Years ago technology wasn’t what it is now and it’s interesting to see the difference in how children now play.

‘And as much as I think it’s brilliant that we have X-Box, PlayStations and computers, I still like to play traditional games with the children such a Cluedo, Snakes and Ladders or Jenga.’

As well as playing, the team also make sure the children are aware of what is happening and relax them if they need to have surgery.

One of the ways they do this is by using a medical bear that can demonstrate what different procedures entail.

For example it has removable tonsils so a child can see what will happen if that is what they are in hospital for.

Sue, who has been in the role for 20 years, says: ‘This is the best job, it’s so rewarding.

‘When children come in they can be shy or nervous.

‘It’s my job to relax them, to get them feel okay in hospital and we do that through play.

‘Part of that is also showing or explaining things so we can rid them of their phobias.

‘We do that with play and distraction.

‘We wear purple T-shirts so we can be recognised as separate from medical staff.

‘And it works, sometimes we are asked to be present when nurses and doctors are explaining things to the children, as we are trusted and the children feel reassured.’

As well as playing with the children, the team also organise entertainment and panto visits as well as a trip to Popham Airfield for a fun day.

Each year sporting teams and the cast of different pantomimes visit the Starfish and Shipwreck wards.

It’s something Cathy Freeman is grateful for as her daughter Ellie-May has been in and out of hospital for the past six years.

The nine-year-old suffers from cerebral palsy.

Cathy, of Waterlooville, says: ‘The help the play specialists give is extremely vital.

‘Without it I don’t think Ellie-May would be where she is at school.

‘She is often in hospital for long periods of time and they make sure she has things to do which helps her development.

‘And even if they aren’t playing with her, they always pop their head around the door and make sure she’s okay, see if she wants anything or put on a DVD for her – they are absolutely brilliant.’

The team is also grateful for the donations of toys and money to buy new equipment.

Anne says: ‘People can be very generous and we really appreciate it.

‘In order for our toys to move with the times and offer children that are here long-term a difference, we rely on such donations, they’re fantastic.’