Art and play in paediatric healthcare brings magic and wonder to worrying places, writes Rosalind Sanderson.
There are challenges to working in a hospital, but persuading people of the value of creativity for children’s wellbeing is not one of them. Creativity and play can relieve anxieties, connect people to their interests and provide shared experiences which can support people to have fun and enjoy themselves despite going through what can be traumatic experiences.
I trained and worked as an artist before moving into arts in healthcare, which has been a fascinating learning curve. I have the wonderful job of coordinating and overseeing a participatory arts programme of artists who work bedside on hospital wards and in community health settings. My job is interesting and varied, and quite far ranging in scope. I am encouraged to be creative in how I work and have been able to put my own stamp on the programmes I oversee – always with an eye to producing engaging and child-led experiences. Amongst other experiences, through my job I have brought touring theatre, festivals, and orchestras into the hospital, supported flash mob silent discos on wards, instigated a hospital-wide Glow Festival and danced on stage in front of 800 people with a group of children at my work’s annual Christmas concert. My job is, at its heart, about using creativity to transform moments and to connect, bring joy, inspire and empower people – which is profoundly important always, but perhaps particularly so within hospitals which can be difficult and worrying places for anyone to spend time.
Over the past three and a half years working in hospitals, I have been fascinated to learn about the creative and playful approaches healthcare professionals use when engaging children in treatment, from the physiotherapist who uses bubbles and treasure trails to incentivise children to move and to do their exercise, to the play specialists who use special dolls to help relieve children’s anxieties about procedures. I observed how an occupational therapist used drawing and doodling to measure and strengthen a child’s hand grip, and how painted hand-prints are used to support memory making for children who are on palliative care. Play is a really important part of how children express themselves and understand the world, which is why creative engagement techniques are so widespread in a children’s hospital, and why bringing artists into paediatric healthcare settings makes so much sense.
Despite having a very different background and training from my NHS colleagues, we share the common goal when using creative approaches to make a positive impact on healthcare experiences. From magic to storytelling to visual arts and pantomime, arts can provide welcome distraction and enrich the time we have. Hospitals can be places to experience fun, wonder and culture too. It is encouraging to feel part of a movement of arts in health programmes, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with the aim of creating special and magical experiences that can change people’s view and experience of hospital for the better.
Pictured above is my art box, which has become a collaborative artwork in itself. When I use it to lead arts sessions at the hospital I invite children to contribute drawings to it. It has become a roaming and constantly changing artwork that represents, to me, the most important function art and creativity can perform, which is to create moments of real connection, to ideas and to each other.