Posted on 3 Comments

Why Toys Are Important for Child Development

Play and toys support child development. Playing  is what children do. Toys are their tools. When adults shop for tools, quality counts. We want safe ones that work well and enable us to do our best. We look for thoughtfully designed, well-made, sturdy, built-to-last products that we’ll enjoy using over and over again. All this, and more, holds true for toys.

Here’s what I have learned. Play is essential. Quality developmental toys support skill- building and, thereby, enhance play. Consequently children flourish. So what does that mean?

Safety Matters

Safety matters. Sound construction is a must. But that’s not the whole picture. The developmental age of the child matters too. Safety is a collaborative effort. Even the safest toys require adult supervision.

Manufacturers are required to label products that pose a chocking hazard. The most common reads  WARNING: CHOKING HAZARD – Small parts. Not for children under 3 years old. That’s one of six. The others apply to a toy that is or contains a small ball or a marble or, likely the most serious hazard, contains magnets.

Yet another warns that children under 8 years of age can choke or suffocate on un-inflated or broken balloons. That Children with balloons require adult supervision. Safety warnings alert us to hazards. Beyond that we must take into account where our children are developmentally. We do well to remember that some need more time to grow out of the habit of putting everything in the mouth. No blame, no shame. Every child develops at his or her own pace. 

Thoughtful Design and Careful Construction

Thoughtful design and careful construction are hallmarks of the best tools for  play. First and foremost these attributes reflect an understanding of child development and an appreciation of how children acquire skills while playing.

When a toy is well-made, it is not only safe, but also satisfying. It works as intended. That’s important. Just as we want our tools to perform well, children want their toys to meet their expectations. Otherwise play becomes frustrating, and the toy is cast aside.

Building Beakers

ten graduated cups for nesting and stacking

Let’s look at two toys that exemplify top-notch design and construction. These are Building Beakers and Lock a Block. Made by Ambi, both are classic early childhood toys that engage infants and toddlers in skill-building play. Moreover both are toys that support child development.

The manufacturer recommends Building Beakers beginning at 10 months old. A true developmental toy, these cups offer new ways to play as the child develops new skills. At first, I suggest offering only the smallest and the largest cups. That invites putting one inside the other, turning the larger cup upside down and watching the smaller one fall out. That’s filling and spilling, an activity the toddler will repeat over and over again.

What’s happening here? The child is experimenting. Observing when-I-do-this-that-happens. Confirming the cause and effect through repetition. Developing fine motor skills: grasp and release  while filling and wrist rotation as the child spills. When we offer words to describe such attributes as color and size of the cups, we’re encouraging language development.

Features  Make A Difference

Rolled Rims

Rolled rims are an important feature of Ambi Building Beakers. On the one hand, they make separating nested cups easier. On the other, stacking becomes more successful. When a toddler is learning to stack, eye-hand coordination, grasp and release, and dexterity are only beginning to develop. Obviously stacking is challenging. Quite often the adjacent block slides off as the child attempts to place another on top of it. The rim helps hold the beakers together and makes the stack more stable.

Raised Patterns

Each cup also features a unique raised pattern on its base. These invite both visual and tactile exploration. Pressing the cups into sand, play dough or clay creates patterns and encourages creative expression. Furthermore recognizing patterns is a pre-reading skill.

Pinholes

Sand and water provide further opportunities for play. In the sand, the cups become molds. Two pinholes in the bottom of each beaker add another dimension to water play. The graduated sizes allow young children to explore how the cups are alike and different. All the beakers are round, but each is a different size. Small or large or big or little, short or tall. These are important math concepts learned through play. 

Lock a Block

shape sorter toy with lock and key

Lock a Block – an inclusive toy, if ever there was one – is my favorite shape sorting toy. Because all children like saying, “I did it.”  Note the high contrast between the bright white top and the color matched raised rims outlining each opening. That makes “hitting the target” easier. Dropping a shape into its slot not only requires shape discrimination. It also takes eye-hand coordination and the ability to grasp and release the shape. Developing fine motor skills takes practice. Success motivates.  Lock a Block is a must for the blind and visually impaired. As well as for those with fine motor challenges.

Furthermore, three dimensional shapes drop more easily into place than shaped dowel pieces that require precise fitting. Again motivating the repetition that leads to skill-building. This shape sorter toy includes two each of three shapes, a plus that encourages one to one matching games. Furthermore naming the colors and shapes encourages cognitive and language development.

In First, Then Out

Retrieve shapes through a door on the front of the box. Permanently attached key fits smoothly in the lock and turns easily. As the key turns, the lock clicks. Following the sequence of steps required to get the shapes out involves problem solving, memory, and concentration. Eye-hand coordination, grasp and release, and wrist rotation  increase with each repetition.

Thoughtful design makes toys adaptable and versatile. More inclusive and engaging. Children naturally enjoy playing with toys that  work well. A delighted “I did it!” not only announces success but also shares the joy of achieving a goal. As they play, children build competence and confidence. Through play, children acquire the skills they need to reach their fullest potential. Toys support child development by enhancing play.

Posted on Leave a comment

Mathematics: Geometry

Shapes and the arrangement of relative parts within a whole are the subject of geometry. Consider the construction of spider webs. The arrangement of petals forming a rose. Study the facade of a cathedral. The angles and the fitting together of its architectural elements. Or all the parts in myriad shapes that combine to make an automobile. Both the natural and the human-made environments are studies in shapes, angles, and intersections.

Best Shape Sorter Toys

Through observation and experience children learn about shapes and parts. First come basic shapes: round, square, triangular. Among early childhood play experiences are sorting and matching of shapes using a shape sorter. Simple ones are best for beginners, and Ambi Toys Lock A Block is best of class. High contrast between the bright white top and the color matched raised rims outlining each opening facilitates “hitting the target.” Equally importantly, its three dimensional shapes drop easily into place.

As shape discrimination, eye-hand coordination, and fine motor skills improve, children are ready for the next shape learning toys. Fitting two-dimensional shapes into corresponding holes. Sound Puzzle Box is a popular choice that rewards proper placement with distinct auditory responses.

Basic Shapes Puzzles 

Puzzles are all about shape. Again starting simple is key. Chunky shapes facilitate placement. Shapes that fit only in their proper places make a truly self-correcting learning experience. Left to right orientation models the direction of reading and writing. Children are ready to identify and match more unusual shapes only after they easily recognize basic shapes.

Interlocking Pieces Puzzles

After learning individual shapes through puzzles, children move on to explore the arrangement of shapes as parts of a whole. Start simple. The more pieces and the smaller the pieces, the more challenging a puzzle is. Wooden puzzles with thick pieces are easier for small hands to manipulate than thin cardboard ones.

A single layer, wooden 8-piece fish shaped puzzle for toddlers, Rainbow Fish, invites exploration of color and shapes and the way parts fit together to make a whole. With only one way to complete the puzzle, the child has to sort out and make sense of the pieces. Then work out how the parts go together to create the whole, a sometimes frustrating experience that benefits from adult encouragement.

Layered Puzzles 

Layered puzzles introduce perspective and offer graduated challenges. As always, start simple and progress gradually. More layers offer more challenge; however, the number of pieces is a more accurate indicator of difficulty.

Mathematical Concepts Puzzles 

Although most puzzles go together in one and only one way, others offer options, and these literally open doors to understanding of mathematics.

The Binomial square wood puzzle introduces mathematical concepts through observation and experience. Children develop proportional reasoning, area concepts, and place value understanding when they discover four small squares cover the same area as the rectangle and four rectangles the same as one large square. And that’s only the beginning of the possibilities.

Power of Two Puzzle encourages experiential learning of important mathematical ideas from fraction equivalents, fraction multiplication with a common factor of 1:2, proportional reasoning, and area. The 10 puzzle is cut into one-half, one-fourth, one-eighth, one-sixteenth up to 1/128th. Clearly challenging, the beauty of Power of Two lies in the multiple ways the pieces can fit together and the arrangement of relative fractions.

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted on Leave a comment

Mathematics: Measurement

red, white, blue, yellow nesting cups

Measurement is a basic math concept for time, quantity, size, weight, and volume. Children learn these properties naturally through play. Think about the concepts learned while filling and spilling, nesting and stacking. Fill the pail. The pail is full. Spill the contents of the pail. The pail is empty. Full or empty, the pail has weight and dimensions. The pail is its lightest when empty, heaviest when full. Between empty and full, t volume and  weight vary.

Variety of Materials

Children learn sizes, order, and spatial relations as they explore, stack, and nest boxes and cups in a variety of materials, each with its own properties. Consider graduated boxes. These may be constructed of cardboard, wood, or molded plastic. Both plastic and cardboard will be lighter than wooden. Experience with a variety of nesting and stacking toys broadens children’s understanding of the properties of different materials and the ways those materials predict how the toys can be used.

Size, Order, and Spatial Relations

 Nesting Cylinders and Nesting Boxes give children an opportunity to experience nesting and stacking different shapes. Exploring both invites an experiential understanding of similarities and differences. Similarities include three sizes of each shape. Measuring confirms the dimensions of each and shows their corresponding heights. Weighing each shows their corresponding weights. During play children discover differences as well. The small cylinder will fit inside the medium box while the small box stays on top of the medium cylinder.

Learning Words

Such play enhances emerging cognitive, language, and mathematics skills. Learning words to describe the relative positions of the boxes and cylinders develops spatial awareness. And sets the stage for geometry. Think of the concepts being explored: small, medium, and large. Smaller and larger, shorter and taller. Lighter and heavier. Inside and outside. On top of, in the middle, on the bottom.

Wooden toys are classic and durable, apt to withstand rigorous play and be handed down to the next generation. That said, sturdy plastic nesting and stacking toys invite sand and water play that would be ill advised with their wooden counterparts.

Volume

Children explore volume as they fill and spill the 10 round, graduated, plastic baby stacking beakers. Pouring sand or water from a smaller into a larger beaker demonstrates differences in volume. The child readily discovers that what fills one beaker is too little or too much for another. Experimentation may lead to discovering how many of the smallest beakers are needed to fill the largest.

Developmental Age Matters

How far a child goes with such experimentation varies with developmental age and personal interest. The play and learning development of a one-year-old obviously differs from that of a three-year-old. Dropping the smallest beaker into a larger one, then dumping the smaller one out, over and over again, is appropriate beginning play. Learning simple concepts-empty and full, in and out, small and large-lays the foundation for more complex learning. Nesting and stacking require differentiating sizes and ordering the beakers to fit one inside the other or one atop the other. Repetition further solidifies concept acquisition and readies the child for taking the next step in learning mathematics.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

Posted on 2 Comments

How to Choose The Best Toy

Looking for the Best Toy?
 Customers sometimes ask me to recommend the best toy for their child or grandchild, particularly if the child has a special need. Many begin the conversation by sharing a diagnosis. While valuable, this information only addresses one aspect of who the child is. To answer the question, we need to think beyond gender, age, development, or disability. That’s because we all have preferences, and those make all the difference.
We Buy What Appeals to Us
 Just think about ourselves. When we’re shopping, we bring our preferences with us. Think about a sweater. I might find one that seems perfect in every way, except one. The fiber, style, and fit are exquisite. The price, the lowest it’s ever been. The only drawback is the color. It’s a lovely color and the height of fashion, but it isn’t one that makes me look my best. Perhaps I could convince myself it’s not all that bad. In fact, it has much to offer, considering the price. Who doesn’t appreciate a bargain?  And it will keep me warm. That’s the main reason for buying a sweater, right? Yes, but… And here’s the reality in that three letter word. I’d end up not wearing that sweater, except if I was freezing and had absolutely nothing else to keep me warm. What we buy has to appeal to us if we’re to use and enjoy our purchase.
Kids Choose Toys That Appeal to Their Sense of Play
 Children are the same. A toy has to appeal to a kid before she’ll give it her attention. Something about the toy has to invite play, and once the child begins playing, the toy has to prove its worth. The child decides if it merits her time, if the toy offers enough value to hold her interest. Young children like repetition. That’s how they develop skills. Their toys need to be safe, well constructed, and durable, able to stand up to persistent play. Being easy to clean counts too.
Kids Learn Through Play        Array of flannel covered crinkle paper for babies
 Kids also like to explore and discover. Through play, infants begin to understand cause and effect and learn about their environment. Small enough for tiny fingers to grasp, Baby Paper is made of soft flannel with an inner layer of crinkle fabric that makes the sound of paper being crumpled when touched. Babies typically find that appealing and repeat the action that produced the original sound, learning through repetition about cause and effect, about their ability to make something happen.
Observe Kids at Play Before Shopping For Toys
 We make our best decisions when we’ve observed the recipient at play and know her preferences. When choosing toys, select from those you think will appeal most to the child and mesh best with her current abilities, emerging skills, and developmental goals. This is true for all children, with or without special needs. Toys are tools for play. When a child finds a toy intriguing and engages in play, learning occurs naturally and joyfully.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

Posted on

Show Respect. Judge Not.

I’ve been thinking about my friend and her heartfelt desire not to be defined by physical limitations caused by a chronic and incurable disease. I bristle at the thought that anyone would make assumptions or label her based solely on limitations. I suspect anyone doing so would be a stranger. Those who know her know she’s so much more than any limitation.

Defining someone by disability isn’t the only way we short change ourselves or others. Consider all the assumptions we make based on casual observation, something we’ve heard, or attitudes instilled in us. These “settled ways of thinking” can become so ingrained that we rarely question their validity. Experiences and observations that challenge our beliefs raise doubts. Being willing to face our doubts takes an open mind and heart. Once we start questioning one attitude, we likely become more willing to re-consider another. This can put us at odds with family and friends. Battles to change popular opinion can be fierce and long. And some people never change their view.   

Attitudes towards women, race, sexual orientation, religious tolerance have changed dramatically in my lifetime, yet battles rage on, passionately and stridently. I’d welcome a paradigm shift to self-reflection and compassion. To ratcheting down the volume in an effort to learn how to sit with those whose beliefs differ from ours, engage in dialogue, find common ground where we can, show respect and be respected.

Not so long ago, tattoos were a fringe practice. Something men might choose to get, and those who did were primarily soldiers, sailors, marines, …and bikers. “Nice people” didn’t “go there.” Then attitudes began to shift, beginning, of course, with rebellious youth, both males and females. Initially being taken seriously professionally required folks to keep their tats under wraps, either by personal  decision or employer dictates. Gradually the practice became mainstream, and fewer and fewer restrictions apply in the workplace. Tattoos have become more elaborate, more an art form than a carnival side show. Such shifts in attitude are seismic. Now anyone can embrace body art, and anyone who doesn’t want to, doesn’t. 

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

Posted on

Asking for Help

259562

Recently I received an email from a friend. She was writing to family and friends, with encouragement from her internist of many years, to address an elephant in the living room. She experienced progressive symptoms affecting her ability to walk months before being diagnosed with the rare, chronic, progressive, auto-immune disease CIDP,  for which there is no cure. If the only USDA-approved treatment continues to manage her symptoms, she can hope to be among the 90% who can walk without aid, except during periods of regression.

A resilient woman who weathered Guillian Barre Syndrome as an adolescent, she has remained physically active, despite knee and ankle surgeries. Many who know her likely assigned her increasingly halting gait and occasional use of a cane, to the ravages of injury and age and would ask how her ankle was. You see, except for those she trusted most, she’d kept the new diagnosis under wraps. That’s her prerogative of course.

The internist, however, encouraged disclosure believing she will benefit from help and support from family and friends as she navigates the challenges and obstacles before her. None of us can make those disappear. We would, if we could. Like her, we have to accept the chronicity of CIDP. What we can do is rally around her, become her teammates. Encourage her to remain optimistic and to continue adjunct practices that improve her quality of life. Such a commitment of time and energy would be a challenge for all of us. Think about people who resolve to exercise regularly, then falter. Having someone hold us accountable improves the likelihood that we’ll stay the course.

We can, as now she’s given her permission, insist she use a cane or walker when safety or comfort dictate. I’m thinking we can also add artistic and creative flourishes to that cane and walker. Take “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” to a new realm. Shall we knit bomb or decoupage a cane? Maybe both. Having a choice of canes has its advantages.

Writing that email was hard for my friend. Independent, not one to ask for help, yet quick to respond to the needs of others, she has never wanted to be defined by her physical limitations. She fears that CIDP with its chronicity and incurability could alter the way people think of her. 

That’s what prompted me to write this blog. Would anyone of us like being defined by a single attribute? I think not. We’re all so much more than any single trait could suggest. Yet, like gender, race, and ethnicity, some limitations are so obvious that we’re apt to register the limitation as a primary attribute. That’s a disservice. When we define a person by disability, we’re being disrespectful.

In response to her fear, I emailed a list of all the qualities she possesses that make her who she is and assured her that those distinctions are more important than physical limitations. I also urged her to take names of any who appear only to see her limitations, promising to get up a posse and kick butt for her.

Honestly I cannot imagine anyone who knows this woman being anything but supportive, but you never know. I better get back to Tai Chi. Just in case my “services” are needed. I made a promise after all;-).

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

Posted on

Standish Foundation: Hope, Healing, Happiness

We’ve all heard the adage “one thing leads to another.” That happened when I was putting together the posts on certified child life specialists pursuing their passion in nontraditional ways. One guest, Morgan Livingstone, urged me to contact Andrea Standish and invite her to write about Standish Foundation for Child and Family Centered Healthcare. Following her advice, I emailed Andy who graciously agreed to share her story, including a field report showing how implementing simple, effective, and sustainable practices creates positive change not only for children and their parents but also for healthcare professionals.

“There is no profit in curing the body if in the process we destroy the soul.”   -Samuel Golter

These words inspire the work of Standish Foundation for Child and Family Centered Healthcare where we aim to dramatically change the hospital experience for kids and their families.

 In 2010, I started the Standish Foundation for Child and Family Centered Healthcare. The organization was named after my husband Michael Standish in recognition of his long-time support of my passion to help ill children and their families. As a certified child life specialist and educator, I’ve worked extensively to support the rights and needs of ill children and their families. My work has taken me to fourteen countries, and I hope to spend the rest of my life working to introduce sustainable child and family friendly healthcare practices globally.

 It’s simple really. We love kids and believe kids shouldn’t suffer. At Standish Foundation, we work to minimize the pain and suffering of hospitalized children.

Hospitals can be intimidating and medical procedures can be scary – especially for children. A hospital stay can be filled with stress, fear, anxiety and pain. But it doesn’t have to be filled with suffering.

Standish Foundation for Child and Family Centered Healthcare empowers medical professionals with training, mentoring, and resources to effectively deliver child and family-centered care. We help hospitals provide hope and healing to children and families.

 Our team is made up of volunteers who live and work in 12 countries and range from eight to 68 years old. We are patients and parents, nurses, psychologists, pediatricians, child life specialists, music and art therapists, play therapists, and professors.

 We believe that health care free of suffering is a right for all, not a privilege for a few. We honor and help implement healthcare standards in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

You can learn more about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, by reading FACT SHEET: A summary of the rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Among hospitals partnering with the Standish Foundation is Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem. This field report shows the positive impact of using Comfort Positions and distraction techniques during procedures and play before and after.

Our goal for this trip is to work with the nurses, nurse managers, and doctors to help develop their practices and policies on the use of “Comfort Positions.” These positions incorporate the parent into the procedure and include other best practices for reducing stress for the child.

 Comfort Positions were developed by Mary Barkey, CCLS and Barbara Stephens, CRRN and involve the use of sitting and hugging positions rather than restraint. Parents are invited to hug/hold the child or at least be very close by while the procedure is being performed.

 The staff at AVH are known for their kindness and compassion. Adding Comfort Positions to their practice is a logical next step. We’ve spent the week working with staff.  A new play area is set up, a social worker is here, and we’re ready for the clinic to open.

 Many of the children we are seeing are having a blood sample taken or IV/Cannula inserted. This may seem simple to an adult, but for a child, it is terrifying. Most of these children have been undergoing treatment for a while – they know what’s coming. For many, it was scary last time, so why would it be different today?

 Today, patients are playing before and after their procedure. Comfort Positions are used and the child is sitting in the parent’s lap or sitting up in a chair. They are soothed and distracted, and then praised and validated after the procedure for doing a good job.

 There were very few tears, a lot of laughing, smiling, and playing. In fact, a curious physician came into the clinic because he hadn’t heard any crying. He was delighted and said he hadn’t imagined that the few changes would make such a great impact for children, parents, and staff.  Everyone was happier!

 This is a great testament to the importance of PLAY! The sweet children here in Jerusalem inspire us with their warmth and playfulness. We are to happy to be a part of this team effort with the patients and parents, nurses and social worker. 

Wishing you hope and joy,

Andy

Learn more about the work of Standish Foundation and ways you can support their efforts to bring child and family-centered healthcare to hospitals worldwide. Donate online or contribute items from their wish list. I like their Ways to Help Us list. How often are we offered non-traditional ways to offer our support?  While not everyone has frequent flier miles or hotel points to share, we can review the website, share their story on social media, and add our prayers.

There’s even a way to get the kids involved. Standish Foundation welcomes new and gently used Beanie Babies. Organize a Beanie Baby Drive. You’ll not only be collecting Beanie Babies. You’ll be sharing the story of the Standish Foundation and its goal of minimizing pain and suffering among hospitalized children worldwide. And, on a personal level, you’ll be modeling the generosity of spirit you want to blossom within your children.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

Posted on

Supporting the Grieving

KLeigh.HeadshotRobert Frost wrote in his lyric poem, The Road Not Taken,“I took the road less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”

Our guest, Korie Leigh, a certified child life specialist and certified thanatologist, knows that choice well. She began working in a traditional setting. Then, responding to inner callings, she chose to focus on end of life and grief, in nontraditional settings. Currently in private practice, Korie also teaches at the graduate level, conducts research, and writes.

Let’s be honest, dying and death are hard topics to discuss and even harder to face. We become uncomfortable, aren’t sure what to say or how to act. Yet, as my mother, a nurse by profession and a pragmatist by nature, would point out, “we’re born knowing we’ll die.” She knew how to be with the dying and the grieving, how to bear witness to their grief without being undone by it.

Korie Leigh does too. She grew so passionate about supporting the grieving that she earned a MA in thanatology, the study of death and dying. Currently a doctoral candidate in integral and transpersonal psychology, her dissertation focuses on “legacy building and its impact on bereaved parents and siblings.” Her professional journey is a series of passionate responses to her deeply felt sense of the purposefulness in her life.

She begins with a quote,

“Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put into every heart” –Rumi

From the time I was a young child I knew I wanted to work in the helping profession. At the age of seven, I recall sharing with my second grade teacher my desire to be a counselor with “sick kids”. Little did I know that this inner calling, this deep knowing, would lead me on a career path that would define my life’s purpose. The path would be filled with obstacles unknown, immense joy that filled my soul, and such sadness and pain that struck deep within the core of my existence. 

Along this path, I completed my BA in child life at Wheelock College in Boston, MA. With a passion for music and the expressive arts, I was constantly trying to push the limits of the traditional role of a child life specialist. Every practicum, internship, or placement I sought to challenge existing norms, asked hard questions, and fought to broaden the scope of child life. Though I had a handful of mentors, I generally encountered great resistance and was told over and over again that the role of a child life specialist was to “first and foremost be a play lady”.

Is play important? Yes. Is it how children learn, grow, and express? Yes. Is it an integral tool for children coping with stress, illness, and tragedy? Yes. Is it the core of child life?  In my opinion, No. And I would soon find out that this core, which at first I only intuitively understood, is so much more than play alone.

Soon after I began working my first position as a CCLS in intensive care settings, I was faced with an unusually high level of death and loss. And yet, during my internship, I was the only student from my class that never experienced the death of a patient. Frankly, I was not interested in death and end of life. However, I ended up working with the most medically fragile children in the hospital, an experience that makes me recall the saying, “sometimes our soul knows what we want before our hearts and heads do”.  During this short time on the intensive care unit, I experienced upwards of four to seven deaths a week within the first few months. During this emotional time, I came to realize that not only was I interested in working with death and grief, I was deeply passionate about doing so. Yet I was ill equipped at the time to deal with the magnitude of loss and suffering I encountered – not just with parents and siblings, but also with my own relationship to death and loss.

I left my ICU position and enrolled in a Thanatology Masters degree program at City University of New York, Brooklyn. Thanatology is the study of death and dying and thus, I spent three years immersed in these highly sensitive and culturally taboo topics. Concurrent with this program, I held a variety of traditional child life positions, working in a one-person program at a hospital in Queens, NY, then in hematology/oncology at a hospital in Manhattan. After completing my degree and successfully passing the CT (certified thanatolgoist) exam, I left the traditional field of child life and embarked on a new path – hospice and palliative care.

Working as a bereavement counselor in a city-wide hospice agency, I was profoundly impacted by the nature of my profession. During my time tending to the end of life needs of patients’ families, I began to understand the ‘core of child life’ that I had struggled to articulate in positions past. The core was uncovering itself and leading me to realize that child life is not limited to hospital walls, pediatric patients, or even medical experiences. Rather, this core is rooted in empathy, unconditional positive regard, the ability to bear witness to suffering, and the self awareness to hold space while placing my own agenda, beliefs, and values aside for the sake of true emotional expression.

Shortly after I began working in adult hospice, I moved to California to pursue my dream career of working at a pediatric palliative care facility. There I held a dual position as a child life specialist and bereavement coordinator. However, as life had shown me in the past, our souls know far deeper and sooner what we desire than do our heads and hearts. While pursuing this deeply meaningful and passionate work, I began to experience a longing to contribute to the larger field of child life and find ways to legitimize our profession beyond the walls of medical facilities through research and scholarship. Thus, I enrolled in a PhD program in Transpersonal Psychology.

Transpersonal psychology is a holistic field dedicated to acknowledging the full scope of human experience. This scope, for me, includes examining experiences of suffering, trauma, grief, and the subsequent processes of post traumatic growth, meaning making, and spiritual growth that result from such experiences. During this time I experienced a flood of personal, professional, and spiritual growth. It challenged my comfort zone, shifted deeply held assumptions and beliefs, and led me to embark on a new journey in private practice.

Working in private practice did not come easy. In fact it took me nearly four years to develop my practice enough to have a steady client population. While focusing on childhood grief and loss, I also work with children, adults, and families experiencing a host of stressful life transitions. I also began lecturing at the graduate level to child life, early childhood, infant mental health, and special education students at Mills College, in Oakland, CA.

I currently work as an assistant adjunct professor, internship supervisor, and academic advisor to the graduate child life students at Mills College. Some of the courses I teach include The Hospitalized Child, Childhood Grief & Loss, and History & Theories of Play. I still see clients in my practice and am always finding new ways to reach out to the community to provide child life and grief counseling. I am now in the final stages of my dissertation process on the topic of legacy building and its impact on bereaved parents and siblings, and will defend my research in the early fall of 2016.

Throughout my 10+ years of child life and grief work, I feel blessed to be constantly learning from and growing with the children and families I work with. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for the countless opportunities I have been offered to walk along side and companion parents and siblings through their grief. I have much to say about grief, loss, compassion, and the human capacity to share pain and grief with others. For now, I will leave you with these thoughts.

1. Grief is a journey, not a destination. What we, as a western culture, understand about grief is often wrong. And through its wrongness, we continue to disenfranchise and silence millions of grievers, children especially. The notion that grief comes in stages, phases, or tasks for that matter is helpful for our desire to make sense of and compartmentalize an experience which by its very nature is unpredictable and intense. But these stages, phases, or tasks can also limit our understanding of the grief experience.

2. The death of a loved one fundamentally changes you. The notion that you can ‘go back to normal’ or simply ‘move on’ after a death is not accurate. There are of course ways by which we can integrate and make sense of death and loss, but simply going back to what was is not a realistic goal for this process.

3. Childhood grief looks different and lasts longer than adult grief. Due to the unique aspects that development plays in a child’s ability to understand the finality of death, the grief process of children is constantly evolving. As children reach new cognitive and personal understandings of death, they must revisit their loss and their grief in new and unfolding ways. This happens over the course of a lifetime. As children reach and meet new milestones, so too they must integrate and make sense of their loss.

4. Be a companion-not an advice giver. For those of us who support and love others in our lives who are experiencing death and loss, one of the best things we can do is walk along side our friends and peers in their grief. Grief and the process of grieving needs to be witnessed, held, and honored with respect. Provide a safe space for peers and loved ones to feel what they need to feel, without judgment or the advice to “move on”. Some of the most hurtful experiences bereaved parents tell me are the little comments that friends or family say, such as “God needed another angel”, “he/she’s in a better place”, or even “you can always have another child”. If you don’t know what to say, simply say “I can see you are really hurting now. I don’t know what to say. Can I sit here with you and hold your hand?”

5. There is no right way to grieve, only your way. We are constantly flooded with information about how to grieve. Whether it be through cultural or religion norms, we have programmed ourselves to limit our grief expression. If someone is not crying, there must be something wrong. If someone is crying too much, there must be something wrong. If someone is struggling, there must be something wrong. If someone is not struggling enough, there must be something wrong. We, in this western culture, have made a habit out of shaming others into believing they are not grieving the right way, when in fact there is no right way. There is only your way, with your heart, your culture, your expression, and your coping tools. We need greater permission to allow ourselves to feel what we need to feel, and provide one another with the space and tools to do so.

Korie Leigh offers services for professionals, from trainings and presentations to self-care workshops and retreats and both child life and bereavement and grief services to individuals and families. Her passion for expressive arts and knowledge of holistic practices, allow Korie to incorporate the arts, mindfulness, guided imagery, and Reiki into her practice. And she makes home visits! She understands the challenges families face in getting to appointments and recognizes they feel safest and most comfortable in their own home. That’s proof of her compassion and commitment to service. www.expressive-coping.com.

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

Posted on

Celebrating Child Life in Kenya

Morgan Livingstone, a certified child life specialist in private practice in Toronto, Canada, is a steadfast champion for global child life programs. She dreams big, really big, and works tirelessly to nurture child life in Kenya. As Child Life Officer for World Eye Cancer Hope, she partnered with Sarah Ellen Mamlin, director and chief child advocate at Sally Test Pediatric Centre, to grow a thriving, locally staffed, locally sustainable child life program. WE C Hope Brings Child Life to Kenya gives us a chance to tour the hospital and hear staff members share their perspectives on the benefits of child life to the children in Kenya.

*last day in Eldoret 2014

Morgan shares her story

 My journey growing a locally sustainable child life program in Kenya started with my work at World Eye Cancer Hope, formerly The Daisy Fund – a UK/Canada/USA charity and Kenyan NGO focused on the medical and support needs of children and families facing retinoblastoma (RB).

Meetings with clinicians, RB survivors, and community leaders in Kenya in 2006, identified the need for a national strategy to improve RB survival in East Africa. In 2007, members of a global team from Canada and the UK traveled throughout Kenya, including Kisumu, Mombasa, Nairobi, and Eldoret, shaking hands, making friends, and assessing sites for “growing” a locally sustainable child life program. I was looking for a “child life” site, a place to incubate child life practices with an existing child-focused staff, space for a playroom, and very visionary hospital leaders willing to “dream big” with us. When I heard about a playroom in Eldoret, I emailed a proposal to provide annual child life training and clinical supervision to grow a full child life program there to Sarah Ellen Mamlin, director and chief child advocate of the Sally Test Pediatric Centre at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital. Our inaugural child life training took place during summer 2008, when I pilot tested child life practices and theories within Kenyan healthcare.

Since that initial weeklong intensive, I’ve continued providing engaging, hands-on, rigorous annual trainings for the team, covering child development, the history and value of child life, essential child life theories and practices, from child life research to medical play, procedural preparation, pain management, and play. Learning to work on multidisciplinary teams to support specific populations and situations from burn and oncology patients, including young children and families confronting retinoblastoma diagnosis and treatment and children facing loss of a body part to palliative care and bereavement support. Providing infant massage and child life in the NICU. Supporting siblings and MORE!

What’s most important to remember is this extensive, incredible child life work involves local Kenyan child life health workers providing child life supports to local Kenyan children within the existing public healthcare system. I’m there to teach local staff ways to translate child life concepts and implement child life supports and strategies in Kenya. I’m not there to do the work for them. Creating locally staffed, sustainable programs is the real goal for global child life.

The team received their first international certification as infant massage instructors in 2011, when I brought Andrea Kelly from the International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM/WINC) to Kenya to provide training for 17 hospital staff, including the entire child life team and members of the World Eye Cancer Hope (formerly Daisy Fund).

With all this great training, I could see that the team was ready to begin planning to write the child life certification exam. With all the requirements, I knew this would take great planning to make it locally sustainable and economically viable. With some serious fundraising completed in 2013, Judith Duncan a retired professor from Cambrian College joined us in Kenya to provide the Children and Youth in Healthcare course – required by the Child Life Council for eligibility for the child life certification exam. This incredible course was well received and attended not only by the great child life team from the Sally Test Pediatric Centre but also by a doctor and nurse from Nairobi, a community nurse from Kisumu, and two play therapists from Tanzania.

We have also been able to include other staff from the Sally Test Pediatric Centre – that’s right, there are MORE amazing people involved, including child life assistants, teaching staff, infant staff that provide love and care to abandoned babies, a librarian, and a seamstress who makes clothes and uniforms and teaches interested parents a valuable skill!

With outside funding from a generous donor, a new children’s hospital was built in 2015, on Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital’s campus. This new pediatric hospital, the Shoes 4 Africa hospital, opened in the summer of 2015, and the dynamic team of child life health workers and their assistants provide enriched, play-based, creative activities and child life programming both at the bedside and in the new playrooms on each ward.

As this incredible child life program gained greater and greater visibility  in Kenyan healthcare, we knew certification was essential to validating this new profession in Kenya. In early 2015, I started discussions with the Child Life Council about hosting the child life certification exam in Kenya. Through a lengthy long-distance process, I helped complete all the relevant paperwork for the eligibility assessment for each child life health worker, and with the help of some local and global fundraising, we were able to move forward with the certification exam in Kenya in September 2015. Due to technical issues beyond anyone’s control, the exam did not go smoothly. Our second attempt in late 2015 experienced similar technical challenges. Despite these hurdles, there are now two certified child life specialists in Kenya! Focusing on the positive, we celebrate these certifications and continue to advocate for further testing for the remaining team members in  Kenya.

Remaining positive and focused on the long term goals is essential for me in continuing to grow child life in Kenya. Our strategic plan for the next few years balances maintaining hopefulness with being realistic with our timelines. Two skilled child life health workers offer child life supports in the NICU, including group sessions with the mothers.

The team and I will be working with Dr. Sherwood Burns-Nader from the University of Alabama to complete a child life research study. We remain focused on developing and building the child life i

Internship program that will enable us to properly train staff from other Kenyan hospitals, healthcare centers, and hospices interested in implementing child life in their institutions. Other long term projects include offering the required child life course at Moi University in Eldoret, Kenya, and building an appropriate technological infrastructure and staff to support future child life certification exams in Kenya.

I encourage skilled child life specialists from Western programs interested in child life in Kenya to share or donate child life resources and materials, both new and used. Even simple presentations and posters for specific patient populations that can be adapted to the Kenyan child life program are valuable. Help us raise awareness of the Sally Test Pediatric Centre and the Kenyan child life program by sharing the video on social media and visiting the web pages. Donations help us cover the costs for running annual and ongoing child life programs – consider making a donation – every bit helps! 

PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play

Posted on

Child Life Mommy Shani Thornton

In honor of Child Life Month, PlayopolisToys invited four child life specialists pursuing their passion in nontraditional ways to share their stories. We’re beginning with Shani Thornton, MS, CCLS, who relates how she came to her profession and has adapted her practice to balance two passions: child life and mommyhood.

IMG_2219

When you find your passion in life, you will do anything to nourish it.

I stumbled across the child life profession when I was working as a recreation therapist assistant at a children’s convalescent hospital in San Diego. I loved my job, but had an overwhelming feeling that there was something more that I was suppose to do. I began my research, took on additional tasks at work and interviewed my colleagues about their medical positions. Nothing was standing out to me, until I heard about child life. That was it! It resonated deeply within me, and I was on a mission to become a Certified Child Life Specialist.

Fast-forward a few years later and I had reached my goal by providing child life services within a hospital setting. I loved my job, but I also fell in love with something else, my newborn son.

So, how can I balance these two passions of mine?

Thinking outside the box I developed a child life and parenting website/blog called ChildLifeMommy.com. It provided me an outlet to share resources on a large platform.

Just as you advance yourself in a work place, I began to do the same in my setting. I set new career goals and strengthened my skills by filling gaps in service.

child life mommy logoMy first project was creating a children’s preparation book about a wellness visit, including vaccinations and a blood test. There was nothing available in the market that used social story photographs and had the language of a child life specialist. It’s Time For Your Checkup: What to Expect When Going to a Doctor Visit was developed and made available on Amazon in paperback and digital format. It was quickly an added resource to many websites, including Autism Speaks and the Child Life Council.

I also took on an adjunct teaching position for the Graduate Child Life Program at Bank Street College of Education. My co-teacher and I changed the face-to-face therapeutic play course to the program’s new online format. Using creativity and our knowledge of social media and blogging, we are able to connect and scaffold our students across the country.

As I have found the rhythm in balancing parenting full-time and child life, I was able to take on my largest professional goal thus far, private practice. Providing in-home child life services to families struggling with life’s challenges has rooted me back to the hospital experience of patient work. Engaging with children, supporting parents, and providing therapeutic interventions is what really fills my child life cup.

There is a large gap in service with supporting programs and families in the community, and child life specialists are beginning to step outside hospital walls and apply our skills in various areas. I believe the future of the child life profession lies in expanding both community-based settings and globally.

Grab a favorite beverage and settle in at ChildLifeMommy.com. The resources for both child life professionals and parents are plentiful. The posts present information, insights, and personal experiences in a conversational tone. When she writes about her life, she writes from her heart, sharing her feelings openly and honestly, showing us that feelings require acceptance. Bookmark Child Life Mommy.com. Get to know Shani by reading My Life. And follow her blog. Connect through social media at Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I promise you’ll find your time well spent.

 PlayopolisToys – for the diverse needs of the citizens of play