More than 3,000 play professionals needed for children in hospital

Trauma and mental health problems are a real threat to children in hospital if they do not have the opportunity to play.

Our new research shows 3,783 health play professionals are needed across England to provide adequate inpatient and A&E cover, compared to the current 644 (full time equivalent).

Play professionals include roles such as health play specialists, playworkers and play assistants, whose training, qualifications and job responsibilities can vary from hospital to hospital.  

We’re launching our manifesto today to mark the world’s inaugural International Day of Play (11 June), a UN Assembly awareness day which asks decision makers to invest in children’s wellbeing by protecting their right to play.

Our manifesto is asking for: 

  1. Health play services to be available seven days a week, supported by the creation of 1,000 new posts every three years for nine years. 
  2. New guidance and standards for health play services across the NHS. 
  3. Training in play for all children’s health professionals. 
  4. Play to be integrated within the design and commissioning of all children’s health services. 
  5. A new role – Cabinet Minister for Children – to be created who works closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to provide a joint lead on children’s play as an essential part of the government’s long-term strategy for children's health and wellbeing. 

Our previous research showed play reduces the risk of trauma and developing mental health problems because it helps children to cope with painful and frightening medical procedures and treatment.  

Many hospitals do not have health play professionals and where they exist, current play provision is similar to standard office hours, from Monday to Friday and from nine to five.

Even where health play services exist in hospitals, the lack of play in the evenings and at weekends means children and their families can still be at risk of not getting the support they need. 

Darshil’s story

Darshil was diagnosed with leukaemia in March 2021, when he was just three years old and has only just finished his cancer treatment.

Kalpana, Darshil’s mother, said: “It was so difficult to explain to a three-year-old, and it took him about a year to fully come to terms with his treatment and understand that this was a way of life now. He was terrified when anyone came into his hospital room because he thought they were going to hurt him. It was really hard to watch.

“Eventually, Darshil did get used to the medical teams, and it helped that he knew health play specialists were at the hospital to calm him down and play with him. The play team were vital, they gave him a chance to be a kid again.

If we have to go into hospital over the weekend, it’s really tough because I have to explain to Darshil that the play team won’t be there. He now understands that he has to wait until Monday to see them, but it would have such a positive impact if play teams could also work on the weekends to support the children who have to go into hospital.    

I couldn’t imagine life without the play team. If we didn’t have a play team, our lives would have been so difficult. We would have struggled to get him even into the hospital. It would be so hard to survive without play, what would children do? Children need distraction, play and people to talk to.” 

Cathy Gilman, Chief Executive of Starlight, said: “Starlight wants politicians to protect children’s play when they are ill and in hospital. Play is an essential part of a happy, healthy childhood. Play is not a nice to have and benefits everyone. We know that play can reduce the risk of trauma and long term mental health problems. 

In doing so, play offers time efficiencies and cost savings in the short and long term for the NHS. Having to sedate children, call in additional healthcare professionals or not even being able to do a simple procedure like a blood test first time round costs time and money. 

We must listen to what children say and they are telling us hospitals are scary and play makes it better.”