The power of play in Starship’s Children’s Emergency Department

Meet brave Lulu. When little Lulu was just 22 months old, her mum Tash received a call from daycare informing her that her little girl had slipped on a toy and hit her head, sustaining a nasty gash above her left eye. Lulu was quickly whisked off to the family GP where it soon
became apparent she would need the wound glued. Given the proximity of the gash her eye, and the near impossibility of a distressed and hurting toddler keeping still, treating the wound then and there was out of the question. Their GP recommended they go to where the best care was – Starship’s Children’s Emergency Department (CED).

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After an initial assessment at Starship, the doctor suggested a play specialist come in to support Lulu who was becoming more anxious by the minute. Remarkably, when Lulu was introduced to the CED play specialist, she became calm within a matter of seconds – meaning she wouldn’t need to undergo sedation to have her wound treated.

As Tash recalls, “The play specialist gave Lulu a little doll with pink hair, asked her what her favourite song was and started singing it to her.” Soon, anxious Lulu became calm enough for the team to glue her wound, almost without her noticing.

Play specialists bring courage to children in CED

Play specialists are an essential part of the child healthcare team at Starship, supporting children and their whānau by using play to quickly form trusting relationships, help minimise stress and anxiety, explain medical procedures, build coping strategies and create opportunities for tamariki to feel involved in their own healthcare.

Tailoring their approach to each family, play specialists may use 'medical play' to explain procedures in child-friendly language and familiarise them with medical equipment. Children might even get to practise on a soft toy!

“The Play Specialist Service provides play programmes for children. These might be in one of the hospital playrooms, at the bedside or in a treatment room,” says Hospital Play Services Team Lead, Nicky Woollaston.

This is essential in an emergency environment where play specialists use play-based techniques to support tamariki undergoing procedures like suturing (stitches), intravenous line insertion or blood tests. This also helps to provide comfort and reassurance to the wider family during stressful situations, making a tough time a little more bearable.

Critical support from Mercury and their wonderful customers plus the Dines Family Charitable Trust is ensuring that the Play Specialist Service is available seven days a week in CED.

This is vital during peak times, such as evenings and weekends, which are typically the busiest periods in the emergency department – a space which has also seen a 25% increase in visits over the last year. Having a play specialist present helps to ensure procedures are as positive as possible and frees up other team members, such as doctors or nurses, to focus on the clinical aspects of their role while the play specialist supports the broader needs of the child receiving treatment.

Now two years old, Lulu is proud of her scar and loves showing it to people, shares Tash. And she still loves her little doll with pink hair. “I’m so grateful the play specialist was there to support Lulu and help her feel brave. It meant that she didn’t have to be sedated. I was just so impressed with how skilled, caring and kind she [the play specialist] was,”says Tash.

A huge thank you to Mercury, their customers and the Dines Family Charitable Trust for ensuring vital services, like play specialist support in CED, are available for ill and injured kids like Lulu across Aotearoa New Zealand.

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