What is a Child Life Specialist?

March 23, 2021 5:00 AM

From medical play to gaming, child life specialists offer different ways to ease stress and anxiety in kids during medical visits.

Nurse with children at patient mother clinic
Courtney Hoffenbacher, a child life specialist, helps distract Aiden during a blood draw. Credit: Michigan Medicine

Medical environments, especially hospitals, can be an intimidating situation for a child. From needle pokes and unfamiliar procedures to dealing with incredibly difficult situations, such as end of life, it can be a heavy weight for a child to bear.

Luckily, Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital has a team of trained professionals with expertise in helping reduce any stress and anxiety associated with hospitalization and illness. They’re called the Child and Family Life team.

“The Department of Child and Family Life is comprised of a variety of child life disciplines, including certified child life specialists, board certified music therapists and art therapists, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, learning specialists, patient technology specialists and child life assistants,” says Lindsay Heering, director of Child and Family Life at Mott. “Our mission is to support the psychosocial, developmental and emotional needs of pediatric patients and their families through coping, comfort and education.”

Patients’ strengths, needs and interests are integrated into all interventions, with services so individualized, patients and families often feel a connection with their child life specialist.

“Play, art, music and gaming are all tools for therapeutic interventions, which help us build rapport, relationships and trust with patients and families,” says Heering. “They appreciate the support we’re able to offer and the joy, smiles and memorable moments we’re able to create for them.”

What many may not know is that Mott was instrumental in starting the child life profession.  

In 1922, C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital was the first hospital to establish early play programs and a hospital school program for children. However, the Child Life movement didn’t experience rapid growth until the 1970s and ‘80s.  Now, there are more than 560 child life programs within hospitals throughout the world varying in size from one to 150 specialists per program, and you can ask your physicians or nurses at any time about whether or not this type of specialty group is available where you or your child is receiving care.

SEE ALSO: 6 Cool Things to Know About Mott's Child and Family Life Team

“Over time, the Child and Family Life program at Mott grew to include recreation therapy and evolved into the thriving, multidisciplinary team we are today,” says Heering.

The Department of Child and Family Life at Mott now employs 70 staff members across six disciplines. You can find Child and Family Life teams throughout the hospital’s inpatient units, intensive care units, emergency services, radiology, radiation/oncology and surgery, as well as at the outreach clinics in Brighton and Northville.  In addition, the Families Facing Cancer program at the Rogel Cancer Center employs a certified child life specialist as does Metro Health, another U-M hospital center, in Grand Rapids.

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Here, Heering breaks down the six different areas within Child & Family Life who can help you and your family during any hospital visit or stay:

1. Certified child life specialists

Procedure preparation, distraction and medical play are provided by certified child life specialists through a wide array of developmentally appropriate tools and techniques to calm fears, soothe anxiety and encourage children to express their feelings.

This may include using books or pictures to explain a procedure, showing kids the medical equipment that’ll be used, and/or the rehearsal of a surgery to help a child cope. Distraction techniques can also be helpful in giving your child something to focus on that will minimize their anxiety.

SEE ALSO: A Fun Way to Ease Kids’ Anxiety About Medical Procedures

“A great example of how certified child life specialists benefit our health system is through the MR-I Can Do It program, which helps eliminate the need for sedation during MRI scans,” Heering explains.  “The program provides age appropriate patient education on what to expect during the visit, helping reduce the stress and anxiety associated with the procedure and, therefore, the need for medication. Over 500 patients in the past year have benefitted from this program with a 97% success rate of getting patients through their MRI scans with child life preparation and procedure support in place of sedation.”

Certified child life specialists offer 24/7 service and also respond to consults for children of adult patients throughout the health system.

2. Child life assistants and recreation therapists

Play and diversional opportunities are provided by child life assistants or recreation therapists for patients at the bedside and in hospital playrooms.

click through photos to see the different specialists in action
child with giraffe toy in hospital bed with child care specialis tin black shirt sitting over bed
Andrea Rentz, a child life specialist, walks a young boy through what to expect before, during and after surgery (all photos in slideshow taken pre-pandemic.) Credit: Nicole Haley Photography
therapist with an infant on floor and young girl playing with keyboard in playroom
Kelsie McStockard, a child life specialist, plays with young patients in the patient activity room. Credit: Nicole Haley Photography
woman with child sewing blue pillowcase at table
Raja Aossey, an art therapist, helps a young girl sew together a pillow case. Credit: Lourdes University
woman reading book to a boy in the playroom
Learning specialist, Natalie Moulton, reads with a young patient. Credit: Michigan Medicine
child playing drums on floor with music therapist
Emma Wymer, a music therapist, plays music with a patient in one of the activity rooms. Credit: Leisa Thompson Photography
child pointing from wheelchair to video screen with video game therapists playing with remote next to him at table in room full of people
Andrew Gabanyicz, a patient technology specialist, plays video games with patients during “Mott Arcade.” Credit: Michigan Medicine


At Mott, there are designated activity centers staffed by professionals trained in child development and designed to be safe environments for patients and families. These areas allow some “normalcy” during a difficult or scary time, allowing families a place to relax and have fun, which are two key elements in recovery and improved mental health.

There are several playrooms on the inpatient units of Mott, from a room geared towards teenagers to one called the “Michigan Game Day Experience”, which is a University of Michigan sports-themed indoor playground.

3. Art therapists

Board certified art therapists provide art therapy in hospital rooms or in small group environments. Interventions are personally tailored to provide meaningful and memorable experiences for each patient and can include drawing, painting or photography. Each art activity is designed to focus on a patients’ strengths and interests.

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“We have an art therapy gallery in the lobby of Mott where patients and families can showcase their artwork and story,” adds Heering, who says the exhibits cycle through a regular rotation schedule.

"Play, art, music and gaming are all tools for therapeutic interventions, which help us build rapport, relationships and trust with patients and families."
Lindsay Heering, director of Child and Family Life

4. Learning specialists

Certified teachers are on staff at Mott to assist children and adolescents in keeping up with their class work and remaining engaged with their school. These learning specialists serve as a liaison between patients and their families, their medical team and school community to work together to bridge medical challenges.

Keeping up with school while in the hospital provides structure, a distraction from illness and a focus on a future outside the hospital.

“This past year there has been an increased demand for this service with the normalcy of virtual and remote schooling,” says Heering. “This has leveled the playing field for our patients living with chronic illness.”  

5. Music therapists

Board certified music therapists provide musical therapy services which includes singing, playing instruments or learning to play one, listening to music, writing a song, dancing or recording music.

Mott music therapists are well known for their heartbeat recordings for young transplant patients where they create customized songs with the beat of a child’s first and second heart. There was also a viral video in 2019 of music therapist Emma Wymer calming 8-year-old Evie, who is blind, during seizure testing. The two sang one of Evie’s favorite songs “Scars to Your Beautiful”, which drew the attention of celebrity and song’s artist Alessia Cara.

A dedicated music therapy environment called Sophie’s Place is set to open later in 2021 and will provide a state-of-the-art recording studio and opportunity to promote creative expression, such as recording music, working “behind the scenes” of a studio and live streaming performances through the hospital’s closed-circuit television network for patients unable to leave their rooms.

6. Patient technology specialists

Through a wide range of emerging technology platforms, a hospital environment can be virtually transformed, which in turn can support patient healing. Mott is a leader in this space, having been one of the first medical centers in the country to introduce patient technology programs.

Although it sounds like all fun and games, therapeutic gaming, set up by patient technology specialists, can help to improve a patient’s fine motor skills, problem solving and critical thinking capabilities. It can also assist with socialization and normalization by facilitating cooperative game play and it has the ability to promote science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, or STEAM, learning skills.

Patient technology specialists can set up in-room gaming systems, provide volunteers to play games with patients, assist in developing games, building LEGO robotics and/or setting up virtual or augmented reality experiences through the use of books and games like Pokémon GO.