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Significant Contributors to the History of Child Life: Dr. Stefi Rubin ​

Claire M. White, MS, CCLS
Senior Lecturer, Program Director
Child Life and Family-Centered Care Graduate Program
Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development

A required reading in any child life academic and clinical program is the classic article, What’s In a Name? Child life and the Play Lady Legacy, that Stefi Rubin Ph.D. authored in 1992.  How did Stefi, a clinical psychologist, child and family therapist and academic faculty member, come to write this article? How did she become so immersed in researching the history of child life and the life of Emma Nuschi Plank? 
Dr Stefi Rubin

Stefi came to historic Wheelock College in 1976 during the last year of completing her doctoral dissertation for Harvard’s Clinical Psychology and Public Practice program.  A mentor shared with her that Wheelock had an opening for a faculty member to conceptualize and implement a new personnel preparation grant for teachers of preschool children with special needs. Her dissertation was an evaluation of an innovative family day care provider training via neighborhood groups and an educational television series. It included a goal of increasing the visibility of often undervalued family day care providers.

She submitted a grant proposal to the federal Bureau of Education for the Handicapped. This led to the creation of the graduate program in Preschool Special Needs with a full-time internship. The interdisciplinary grant included several courses open to early intervention, child life and family studies students. Stefi taught child life students who enrolled in her Helping Children Cope with Stress and family studies courses.  

Stefi completed a clinical psychology post-doc. internship at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Jimmy Fund Clinic at Dana Farber Cancer Institute, where she worked with children with cancer in  playrooms and worked to provide support to parents with cancer, for instance with the pamphlet, Helping Children Cope When a Parent Has Cancer. She collaborated with colleagues and worked to develop a Back-to-School Day for teachers who had students with cancer returning to school after treatment.

Meeting the child life students and child life professionals led to her writing What’s In a Name? Child Life and the Play Lady Legacy (1992).  As an outsider to child life, Stefi wanted to learn more and be attuned to the language being used to describe the child life professional.  She was intrigued that people would refer to the “play lady.” When Stefi would ask a parent where the child life specialist was or did they meet the child life specialist, many times parents would reply, “Oh, you mean the play lady.  Yes, she is great…” 

Stefi wondered why they were still being called “play ladies.”  Because there were notions that play was not work, the profession needed to define explicit knowledge and skills that the profession’s pioneers modelled. It seemed to be a collegial name that could be perceived as sexist or demeaning of the contributions of child life specialists.

Stefi plunged into the history of the profession. She learned how it could be that this profession existed but was not well known. Many healthcare professionals and parents had a narrow view of the role. Child Life was a true member of the health care team, yet it took time to earn respect. Her article explores the importance of naming and the challenges of finding a name that truly describes all the roles child life specialists perform. Stefi emphasized the importance of child life to continue to advocate for the importance of psychosocial care and to “make a name for oneself.”

While immersing herself in the history of the profession, Stefi became interested in the work and life of Emma Plank.  She did not know about Plank until she began to teach child life students and read her book, Working with Children in Hospitals (1962, 1971, 2005).  The Cleveland Metro Hospital photographs in the book intrigued Stefi as did Emma’s writing.  Stefi wanted to learn more about this woman. She learned from child life faculty and students that Emma was considered the “mother of child life.”   Stefi shared in a personal communication, “the engine that drove me to research Emma was my teaching and supervising child life students.”

As Stefi began to research Emma’s life---her life in Vienna, studying, interacting with Maria Montessori, fleeing the Nazi’s and coming to America, her interests in being a teacher and moving into healthcare---she represented someone who was an intriguing, strong woman who recognized the care of children involves intersections between direct medical care and return to school and community. She also integrated child development theories and advocated that child life was a valid profession.

Emma Plank received an Honorary Degree from Wheelock College in 1988.  Upon meeting Emma, Stefi shared that even in her later life she was animated, had a direct gaze and was a very interesting person to talk with (September 2020).   Stefi was never able to present her research to Emma as Emma died in 1990, but in 1995 Stefi organized a symposium panel at the Association for the Care of Children’s Health (ACCH) Conference---The Cleveland Archives Project: The life and works of Emma Plank and she presented again in 2005 at the Child Life Council (CLC) annual conference and wrote a chapter in the Pips of Child Life: Early Play Programs (2014).

Stefi has been involved in researching Emma Plank for over 20 years and we owe her so much in helping us to understand more about the life and work of this amazing pioneer in child life and the evolution of our child life profession. Stefi has been a strong advocate for child life.   She served on the CLC’s history committee for many years and was a member of the CLC Board from 1996-1997. 

Since retiring in 2016 from Wheelock College, where she taught for 40 years, Stefi divided her time as an Associate Professor and as a psychologist and child and family therapist.  Stefi shared that a “motivating force for me was seeing strengths in children and families who too often get pathologized…thinking broadly, ecologically, about the context of children and families lives…”   At Stefi’s retirement celebration, Evelyn Hausslein, founder of the Child Life Master’s program, shared that Stefi was a “gift to Wheelock and to child life as she broke down barriers, crossed lines between disciplines, being innovative and love of the historical perspective.”

Dick Thompson, who worked with Stefi at Wheelock, shared in a personal communication(October 2020), “It was my honor to work with Stefi…I have always thought of her as one of the most principled, deliberate and intelligent faculty members I have known.  I particularly appreciated her interest in the history of child life…her work on Emma Plank has helped keep the life and work of that remarkable woman alive for newer generations of child life specialists.  As an aside, as I talked with CLS’s about Stefi…they were surprised that Stefi was not actually a CLS.  Her understanding and appreciation of the profession were so deep that, they felt, she had to be one!”

Thank you, Stefi!  We value and appreciate all that you have done in documenting the history of child life and Emma Plank!


Plank, E. (2005, 1971, 1962). Working with children in hospitals: A guide for the Professional team. Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve University.

Rubin, S. (1992). What’s in a name? Child life and the play lady legacy. Children’s Health Care, 21, 4-13.

Rubin, S. (2014). Emma Nushi Plank (1905-1990): A pioneer’s journey and her moral compass.  In J. Turner & C. Brown (Eds). The pips of child life(pp.65-76). Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt.

Rubin, S. (2014). "Emma (Nuschi) Plank." In Transatlantic Perspectives, Retrieved October 13, 2020, from Transatlantic Perspectives:

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