Celebrating Child Life Month

Mar 28, 2024 3:20 PM ET
Campaign: Aflac Stories

Originally published on Aflac Newsroom

The hospital setting is specifically designed for healing, both physically and mentally. But for young patients, the experience can still be unsettling.

That’s where child life specialists come in.

As child development experts — often with a background in psychology, counseling and/or teaching — they collaborate with medical staff to provide individual care plans for pediatric patients, and they work closely with children and families to help create an emotionally safe environment during hospitalization.

Using a variety of tools and resources — like medical play with My Special Aflac Duck®, for example — they help patients and families gain a sense of control by explaining medical jargon, preparing them for procedures and developing strategies for coping through what can be stressful or traumatic experiences.

In fact, because of their expertise in helping children and families navigate hospitalization and various treatments and procedures, child life specialists were instrumental in the development of My Special Aflac Duck.

As Child Life Month comes to a close, take a few moments to learn about this world through the eyes of these incredible professionals.

Dana LaLonde, Certified Child Life Specialist 
Children’s Hospital University of Illinois, Chicago, IL

Every day is different. I get to teach, play, support, advocate and help children gain control in the health care world in creative ways! Among the stress, pain, bad news and chaos, there is always an opportunity to create joy. Empowering kids to be brave, play and have fun is so important. Being the one to remind parents that their child is still their child, and that positive experiences are possible at the hospital, is a beautiful gift.

On the outside it may seem like we are the play ladies since you often see us with toys, bubbles and in the playroom. But we do so much more. Play drives everything we do, but we are playing with a purpose. We play to teach about a new diagnosis, to help give choices surrounding medical procedures, to distract and reduce pain, to build trust, to express emotion, and so much more. Play is how children learn, so of course we use that in all our interactions!

My Special Aflac Duck is an amazing toy that helps with this medical play and education, perfectly tailored to help children learn, play, build coping techniques and have fun — then they get to take home a buddy that is just like them.

DeAnna Bay-Markins, Bilingual Certified Child Life Specialist 
Direct to Family Distribution

I did an internship in college where I worked with a physical therapist. She told me I reminded her of her sister, who is a Certified Child Life Specialist. I didn’t know at the time what that was, but once I discovered more about it, I was immediately hooked.

Every day is interesting and different, and though we are very skilled at being able to make our work look easy, it isn’t. Toys aren’t merely toys, and bubbles aren’t just bubbles — they help with coping, growth and development.

I was surprised when I started working with My Special Aflac Duck about the impact that it has on children of such a large age range. Parents are exhaustingly grateful at the idea that their 3-year-old can give medicine to their duck through the duck’s port just like them, and 19-year-olds have talked about taking their duck to college and to appointments because it is a constant in their life and coping process now!

Kellie Maas, Certified Child Life Specialist 
Direct to Family Distribution

My sister spent nine months of her life in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit before passing. While this experience occurred before I was born, her short life and the memory of the nine months spent in a hospital setting left a lasting impression with my family. Growing up, I always knew I wanted to help families similar to my own, and when I discovered the child life profession, I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do.

There is so much to love about being a child life specialist. I think my favorite part of this profession is having the honor to help kids continue to be kids during stressful life circumstances. It’s amazing to have a job where I can assist children in expressing themselves and educating them through play and developmentally child-friendly language to promote positive coping. By having the opportunity to facilitate events such as celebrating big milestones in the hospital setting, like a child’s last day of treatment, or leading a Teddy Bear Clinic outside the hospital to help kids feel prepared for medical checkups, I am truly grateful for all the opportunities and experiences child life has allowed me to be a part of.

In addition to being a child life specialist, I am also a licensed school counselor. By having the background in two helping professions that focus on children and building positive coping skills,

"I can confidently say that the My Special Aflac Duck program is the most impactful program I have ever witnessed. It is so apparent that every aspect of the program was thoughtfully designed to help children and families with cancer and blood disorders.”

I wish more people understood the value of taking the time to meet a child and/or family where they are. As a society, I believe we live in an age where we want the fastest and easiest way to make people “better.” To truly connect and help someone, however, it is essential to hear their perspective and navigate their circumstances on their specific terms. My Special Aflac Duck does this by involving child life in the program and allowing us to create a safe space for families to share their stories and have a supportive connection who can answer any questions or concerns they may have.

Being a child life specialist for over 10 years, I have worked with countless organizations and nonprofits. I can confidently say that the My Special Aflac Duck program is the most impactful program I have ever witnessed. It is so apparent that every aspect of the program was thoughtfully designed to help children and families with cancer and blood disorders. After speaking with the families I serve in this program, I often see them take a literal sigh of relief. It not only provides such an amazing therapeutic toy for children, but creates a feeling that families feel seen and heard.

April Slowenski, Certified Child Life Specialist 
Direct to Family Distribution

I always knew I wanted to help children and families, but I wasn’t quite sure in what capacity. I explored teaching and nursing, and I learned of the child life profession by chance. Once I did, it felt like a lightbulb went off above my head — I knew immediately it was what I wanted to do. I changed schools to pursue my child life degree a week later!

I love how resilient humans are, both children and their families. There is something so magical about seeing someone go from “I can’t do this,” to “I’m doing it!” to “I did it!” Knowing I’ve had a small part in helping them to build their coping skills and resilience in the face of challenges is so rewarding.

I can’t think of a family I’ve worked with in this program that hasn’t benefited from My Special Aflac Duck — the impact is huge. I’ve had parents crying happy tears with excitement to receive their duck because they know it is going to have a huge positive impact on their child’s ability to cope and process their medical experiences. They know the duck will not only help in the moment, but it will be a support for their long-term coping and positive development.

Giovaana Trainor, Certified Child Life Specialist 
Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, Houston, TX

I had multiple surgeries and procedures as a child. I remember being a very frightened, yet quiet kid. All the medical staff thought I was the perfect patient because I would always hold still and never verbalize being scared. What they didn’t know was how terrified I really was on the inside. I fell in love with the child life career when I started working as a nursing assistant at Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. During one of my shifts, I observed a child life specialist prepare a child for surgery. I observed how comforting she was, using a language that he understood best and validating his feelings and concerns. At that moment, I immediately knew that child life was the career for me.

I am very blessed to be a child life specialist. What I love the most is being able to help children and families cope during some of the hardest times. But I also love celebrating their biggest victories, being their cheerleader along the way and reminding them to look for the light in dark times.

I wish more parents could learn about child life prior to their child’s visit. I have been in the profession for about 12 years and just recently started getting phone calls from parents asking for assistance on how to better prepare their child for surgery. It makes a huge difference to prepare both a parent and a child ahead of time. I have noticed that they are more relaxed the day of surgery and throughout hospitalization.

I have truly enjoyed utilizing My Special Aflac Duck with my patients. I work very closely with children who have retinoblastoma. These children go through a series of uncomfortable eye drops with each visit. What I love most about My Special Aflac Duck is that he is a constant companion for the children throughout their visit. He brings joy and huge smiles when kids enter their room and see their duck waiting for them. He is a great communicator when children do not want to share their feelings, and he’s a cuddle buddy that is held tightly during the administration of eye drops and induction. My Special Aflac Duck is also with them when they wake up in recovery — he is that special friend who is always there to support and make them feel better. He is changing the hospital experience for these kids.

Kimmie Fuentes, Certified Child Life Specialist 
Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, Houston, TX

I was working at a camp for kids with special needs when I first met a child life specialist. I knew I wanted to be in the medical field, and I fell in love with the profession after learning about the concept of educating through play.

The work of a child life specialist is intentional, and there is a reason for each playful interaction or conversation. I love the relationships that I am able to build with families and patients. Whether it is after one visit or 15 years later, it is humbling to see how your actions can impact their lives. I love getting to watch my patients grow up!

I have patients who enter pre-op and the first thing they do is ask for their My Special Aflac Duck. It gives them an opportunity to express their emotions, practice medical procedures, or just to have fun! It has also been fun to see other medical staff interact with the patient and their duck.

Brittany Luther, Certified Child Life Specialist 
Private Practice Child Life Services, Matthews, NC

I began my undergraduate career on the Pre-Med track at Elon University. I loved my Psychology and Human services courses. Through those classes, I met remarkable clinicians at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center and Duke Children’s Hospital and learned about child life specialists. When I learned about their focus on diagnosis education, preparation for procedures, coping plans, pain management and play to help normalize the hospital experience, I knew it was the path of study I needed to follow.

I love to prepare kids and teenagers for medical procedures and explore new ways of teaching about diagnoses such as cancer, sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis or even food allergies. When a child understands what is going to happen and can help make choices to create their own coping plan for a procedure, they have control in a setting where there is very little control.

My other passion is medical play, which is one reason that I love My Special Aflac Duck. We named the one in my office “Ducky,” and it’s a primary tool that I use with patients and families to allow for expression of emotions and exploration of medical equipment. It’s not only soft, fuzzy and inviting to play with, it is so interactive that kids connect with it quickly and truly

“I have seen My Special Aflac Duck have remarkable impacts on my patients and families both in the hospital and outside of the hospital.”

become a friend. I have seen My Special Aflac Duck have remarkable impacts on my patients and families both in the hospital and outside of the hospital.

“Play” truly is “the work of children.” When children are provided with the opportunity to play and express themselves in a hospital setting, their length of stay can be shorter, and their health outcomes are often more positive.

Laura Crain, Certified Child Life Specialist 
Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, Houston, TX

I chose to become a child life specialist because I love being able to work with the patient’s and families, and I wanted to help them through difficult times in the hospital.

I wish that every family knew about a child life specialist and how to get a hold of one before coming to the hospital. Child life specialists come to help families talk to their children using child-friendly words, and we can also help children understand what is happening through medical play.

My Special Aflac Duck has helped me with my work — patients have been able to do medical play with the duck, and the emoji discs have helped me to know what the patients are feeling so I can talk about their feelings with them.

Aflac wishes everyone in this remarkable profession a very happy Child Life Month. Learn more about Aflac’s commitment to supporting those with childhood cancer and blood disorders — including My Special Aflac Duck —at AflacChildhoodCancer.org.

Aflac WWHQ | 1932 Wynnton Road | Columbus, GA 31999