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Play and Health as Everyday Experience:

Being a Child Life Specialist in the Children's Museum

ACLP Bulletin | Spring 2019 | VOL. 37 NO. 2

Saki Iwamoto, MS, CCLS
Boston Children's Museum, Boston, MA 
What does it mean to be a child life specialist working in a museum? How do the child life skills we are trained to use in medical settings apply within an informal learning environment? As the health and wellness educator at Boston Children’s Museum, I get asked these questions frequently. Being part of families’ everyday activities offers child life specialists the opportunity to go beyond their traditional roles. Recognizing how most children and their families spend their time outside hospitals and therapy appointments, the medical and developmental perspectives of child life are valuable in places, such as museums, where healthcare needs are not the main focus.

In a recent publication, the American Academy of Pediatrics has strengthened their position on the importance of play by urging pediatricians to prescribe play, emphasizing how play fosters children’s healthy development, mitigates toxic stress, and promotes well-being (Yogman, Garner, Hutchinson, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2018). Yogman and colleagues describe developmentally appropriate play as “a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain” (p. 1). Yet, children’s increased media consumption and a public fear of children freely playing outside have all contributed to the decline of play opportunities (Gray, 2011; Lukianoff & Haidt, 2018), which is also associated with the rise of mental health issues in children (Gray, 2011).

Children’s museums are responding to this downward trend in playtime by offering exhibits, programs, and community outreach initiatives that promote opportunities for play. The following outlines how I, as a child life specialist in a children’s museum, support this effort by ensuring that the Museum’s playful experiences are developmentally appropriate for all children, specifically engaging the medical
community and medically involved families.

Raising awareness of health and medical experience.

With a focus on developing foundational skills and a lifelong love of learning, Boston Children’s Museum welcomes over 550,000 children ages 0 to 10 and their caregivers every year. A significant portion of my work involves using play to help those visitors develop healthy habits, prepare them for healthcare experiences, and raise awareness of how illnesses affect people. I create programs with a range of topics such as safety, hygiene, and mental health, partnering with a variety of local organizations that support children’s health. For example, each year local hospitals’ child life programs join the Museum in the Healthy Kids Festival, in which visitors participate in various forms of medical play, including a teddy bear clinic, finger casts, rehabilitation games, and syringe painting.

Advocating for developmentally appropriate practices.

Museum staff come with various backgrounds ranging from performing arts to sciences to fundraising, but few have expertise in child development. As such, one of my roles is to serve as an internal consultant, ensuring that what happens in the Museum is developmentally appropriate, supports different types of families, and optimizes healthy growth and well-being. I advise colleagues in designing new exhibits, modifying programs to reach a wider age range, and communicating with caregivers.

This work includes taking children’s mental health and emotional coping seriously and incorporating the social-emotional aspects into Museum practice. For example, in 2013 the Museum had to carefully evaluate how to best support families after the Boston Marathon bombing. 

My child life expertise enabled me to consider age-appropriate understanding of the event, coping styles, and families’ backgrounds and previous experiences that affected their responses. I advocated for the Museum to remain a safe, normalized, playful environment, encouraging children’s self-expression and creativity. I wrote a blog post to help caregivers support their children in processing the event, as the Museum welcomed conversations without bringing such discussions to the forefront of the Museum activities.

Supporting children with special healthcare needs within the Museum.

Although play opportunities are equally important to all children, those with special healthcare needs are often restricted from participating in normal childhood experiences. To them, even a playful environment such as the Museum can be a tough place to visit. The crowds may pose some health risks, unruly movements of people may be overwhelming to navigate, and the busy environment may be too high paced for children who need extra time to approach a new experience. When a child has special healthcare needs, the entire family is affected. Many of these families report interpersonal stress and awkward moments with strangers, which impede appropriate social engagements that promote children’s healthy development (Seligman & Darling, 2009). In order to address these concerns, I work closely with families and community groups to optimize the Museum experience and train all staff on inclusion and accessibility so that the Museum is welcoming.

While the Museum aims to be accessible at all times, there are also options for those families to visit the Museum without the stress of crowds. In 2012, I started Morningstar Access, a monthly program during which the Museum opens early for children and families who have various types of needs, including autism, blindness, ambulatory difficulties, and weak immune systems. This program can be a stepping stone for many families to gain familiarity with the Museum, building confidence to visit the Museum during the regular hours for a more inclusive experience. To encourage use of the Museum by social and health service organizations, I created the Providing Opportunities for Play (POP) initiative. Through POP, the Museum provides training, resources, and discounted passes to participating organizations that incorporate the Museum visits as part of their intervention with their clients. Additionally, I created various written resources that families can use to gain appropriate expectations of their upcoming visits. On a daily basis, I prepare families and field trip groups for their visits and support them throughout their Museum experience. With these accessibility efforts, the Museum has seen an increased number of visits by families and school/community groups with children who have special healthcare needs.

Despite the recognized importance of child-directed play, in our current society, adults decide the time, place, and types of activities for children, threatening children’s right to play. However, playful experience can still emerge from the everyday routines and societal expectations (Lester & Russell. 2010). Child life specialists can reach more children and families by applying our unique expertise to families’ everyday experiences beyond the medical or therapeutic environment. With the proven benefits of play for healthy development and well-being, the decline in play opportunities is a public health issue, which makes it even more meaningful for child life specialists to work in places like children’s museums.


Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology. American Journal of Play, 3(4). Retrieved from

Lester, S. & Russell, W. (2010). Children’s right to play: An examination of the importance of play in the lives of children worldwide. Working papers in early childhood development. Retrieved from

Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2018). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. New York, NY: Penguin Press.

Seligman, M. & Darling, R. B. (2009). Ordinary families, special children: A systems approach to childhood disability. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2018). The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics, 142(3). Retrieved from