What is Child Life?

That’s what I asked myself back in 2011 where I was a hospitality volunteer at a Ronald McDonald Family Room at Children’s Hospital Orange County (CHOC). At that time, I was working in my undergraduate program in Psychology and wanted to work with children, but I was a bit unsure with the best direction to travel in.

I encountered someone who clearly appeared as a healthcare professional with a young child in the Family Respite area. They sat down together next to our main desk and began a coloring activity. I approached her and offered my services and asked where in the hospital she worked.

“I am a Child Life Specialist.”

Those 5 little words was all it took. I immediately went to the hospital’s website and researched the field.  Upon the website I looked at, they described Child Life at their hospital as:

“The child life department [at CHOC] strives to normalize the hospital environment for our patients and families. “Normalizing” the hospital experience is the process of making things like medical equipment and procedures feel less strange or foreign. By doing this, patients and their family members can feel more at ease while at the hospital and will be able to focus on what is most important: feeling better.”

I began to realize that it was something different and something stirred inside of me.

I pursued further. With my best friend Google at my side, I ventured to the Child Life Council. The Child Life Council is a nationally recognized organization that certifies and accredits Child Life Specialists and programs in hospitals and related organizations in the United States. This is their definition of the Child Life Specialist:

“Child life specialists are trained professionals with expertise in helping children and their families overcome life’s most challenging events.

Armed with a strong background in child development and family systems, child life specialists promote effective coping through play, preparation, education, and self-expression activities. They provide emotional support for families, and encourage optimum development of children facing a broad range of challenging experiences, particularly those related to healthcare and hospitalization. Because they understand that a child’s well-being depends on the support of the family, child life specialists provide information, support and guidance to parents, siblings, and other family members. They also play a vital role in educating caregivers, administrators, and the general public about the needs of children under stress.”

I had my breakthrough. Child Life. Such a magical set of words that would change my life forever.

So, for those of you who don’t know Child Life, I will let this beautiful poem, written by Steve Slowinski, former Child Life Intern at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center speak for itself:

What I’m not:

   A nurse.
A doctor.
A social worker.

A “Keeper of the Toys.”
A magical “make-this-kid-not-cry” person.
Only someone to play with the kids.

I’m not superfluous.

What I am:

   I am a teacher,
A helping hand,
A support,
An advocate,
An active listener,
A therapeutic touch,
And a child development specialist


I am an OR prep-er,
An IV teacher,
A de-coder of PICC, VCUG, MRI and NG,
A distraction provider,
An inpatient support,
And a guide and voice for siblings
All in the same day.

I am calm despite cancer, CAT scans, and catheters.
I am strong in the face of syncope, sickle cell, and surgery.
Kids can’t always do these things for themselves.
That’s why I’m here.

I am deliberate in all of my actions and words
Because I use the language of children
And it has power.
I am flexible and go where I’m needed
Because children can’t always be flexible
About when they’re going to freak.

I am not here to merely play with children,
give them toys, and distract them
With “SpongeBob”.

I’m a Child Life Specialist.
When kids say they can’t, I tell them they can.