Without play, can hospitals be bad for your child’s health?

Hear from our CEO on the need and importance of play for children in healthcare. 

This blog post was originally featured as a guest post by Cathy Gilman on www.mumsnet.com. on 11/10/2023.

As the CEO of Starlight, the UK’s leading charity for play in children’s healthcare, I’ve seen firsthand how vital play is in reducing trauma for children in hospital.

We know that childhood experiences – good and bad – can stay with us forever, and that’s especially true of our healthcare experiences. After my own childhood hospital experience, it wasn’t a huge surprise to learn that nearly one in 10 adults said their childhood experiences of healthcare have negatively impacted their mental health. This could mean that as many as 4.8 million adults in the UK have mental health issues because of their healthcare.

Starlight research shows that the absence of play in healthcare is a key contributor to long-term post-traumatic stress. Without that opportunity to play, a child’s long-term mental health and wellbeing is significantly impacted by anxiety, distress and feeling vulnerable and isolated. We support children to experience the power of play to boost their wellbeing and resilience during treatment, care and recovery from illness. Play isn’t simply ‘nice to have’ - it’s so intrinsic to who we are and our mental health that it is a human right.

Care Quality Commission (CQC) patient experience surveys consistently support Starlight’s research findings. Their surveys show that play professionals and play activities make the experience of hospital better for children and their parents. It’s a universal healer – helping children to forget fear, pain and loneliness, and easing parental anxiety. Play can also save the NHS valuable time and money by keeping children relaxed which speeds up treatments.

On a recent visit to Kingston Hospital in London, I met 7-year-old Afonso and his mum Susana. Despite being diagnosed with Leukaemia and enduring many years of chemotherapy treatment and hospital visits, Susana told me that Afonso never experienced the ‘fear’ of hospital because of the play team. Susana said: “The play team are so supportive. They’re like a family. Afonso feels completely at ease with them. They play and joke together. Thanks to Starlight, they have lots of toys and resources for his wants and needs, always making the hospital a fun and safe space for him.” 

Unfortunately, so many children in hospital do not have the opportunity to play, increasing their risk of mental health problems and trauma. This week we launched our report, Reducing trauma for children in healthcare, marking the start of National Play in Hospital Week. The report reveals the link between play and improved mental health, and the huge gaps in play resources in hospitals across the UK.  We found that nearly three-quarters of NHS Trusts and Health Boards across the UK do not have a designated budget for play. This is despite a poll of 1,031 children which found that over half (54%) said they are worried or scared about visiting the hospital or the doctor.

As well as this, there are only 571 registered health play specialists (HPS) across the country. These highly qualified play professionals, who help children to cope with painful and frightening procedures, are dealing with nearly 1.8 million admissions a year. Because of part-time working, this equates to an average ratio of only one full-time HPS for 3,133 child admissions to hospital per year.  

Starlight believes that children’s healthcare services should fully reflect the importance of play to their health, wellbeing, resilience and recovery. Every child should have adequate daily play opportunities, appropriate to their condition, supported by dedicated play staff.

While we provide play toolkits for play professionals, as well as toys and technology for children in hospital, we are also working with NHS England on the recognition of play professionals and the introduction of guidance and standards for play.

During National Play in Hospital Week, Starlight will be launching an appeal to reduce the postcode lottery of play in healthcare. We want to make sure that even more hospitals have the resources they need to transform the experience for children undergoing treatment. We will also be calling on the government, the health service and all of society to recognise a child’s right to play. Play is not a choice. It is a right.

Cathy Gilman