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Child Life Celebrates 65 Years at Johns Hopkins

December 01, 2009
Hospital playroom

A hospital playroom circa 1930.

Patrice Brylske

Today's Child Life director Patrice Brylske keeps the focus on play as therapy and relaxation.

JERRIANN WILSON TELLS this story of former director of pediatric surgery Alex Haller. On a pediatric unit in the 1960s, a staff member was looking for a child scheduled for surgery. The hospital bed was empty but there was conversation beneath it, where the little patient had retreated. “Dr. Haller was sitting on the floor talking to the child because that’s where the child was,” says Wilson, director of Child Life at Hopkins Children’s from 1972-2005. “The child was frightened, so Dr. Haller had gotten right down to his level.”

Haller, a keen supporter of Child Life throughout his career, attended its 65th anniversary in September 2009, where he reiterated the tenets in practice at Hopkins Children’s today: “Children have to un­derstand what’s going on and to feel loved, understood and cared for in the hospital. If they do, they’ll feel less stress and anxi­ety and better by the time they get home. Putting yourself in a child’s shoes is part of being a good surgeon.”

And a good health-care provider. To­day’s Child Life program, whose special­ists work to ease the stress and worries of hospitalized children, was set in motion at Johns Hopkins more than 65 years ago by then Chief of Pediatric Nursing Helen Schnetzer. She impressed upon a receptive Edwards Park, then director of the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children (Hopkins Children’s predeces­sor), her patients’ need for more nurtur­ing and developmentally appropriate play than busy nurses and nursing aides had time to provide or were trained to deliver. Parents were not much in the picture. Vis­iting hours were an hour on Sunday and another on Wednesday.

So in 1943, Schnetzer brought on board the head of child development at Hood College, Md., Onica Prall. Prall, intent on helping Hopkins as part of her volunteer “war effort,” and some of her students set up a playroom and began training nurses in child development and age-appropriate structured play. One of her students, Mary Caulkins, became the Lane’s first “play director” in 1944. When today’s Hopkins Children’s building opened in 1964, the play program moved from nurs­ing to the Department of Pediatrics and was renamed Child Life.

Caulkins’ salary was funded by the Johns Hopkins Women’s Board, which would fund the post into the early 1960s. “With the advent of scheduled play and bedside diversions,” says Wilson, who first joined Johns Hopkins as a teacher in the Harriet Lane’s school program in 1962, “board members said they no longer heard crying on the wards and patient units.”

Child Life's 65th anniversary celebration .