Play specialist Tanuja Nair uses play as therapeutic tool to prepare children for medical procedures such as injections and operations and helps them to handle pain and anxiety better.

From the simple drawing of blood to more daunting procedures like Magnetic Resonance Imaging scans (MRIs), Ms Nair, 30, has the techniques to put a frightened child at ease.

She uses medical dolls and equipment such as syringes, stethoscopes and medical toys to explain to the child what he will face in his upcoming procedure.

The certified child life specialist has been working in KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) as a hospital play specialist for four years now. She earlier worked at Rainbow Centre with children diagnosed with the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Hospital play was of particular interest to her as it involves supporting children through pain and discomfort,  says Ms Nair. When she saw the opening for a hospital play specialist at KKH, she knew it was an opportunity for her to continue doing what she loves, but from a different perspective.

Ms Nair loves being around children, but she never thought she would have a career working with them. The turning point came when she worked part-time at a playschool after her A levels. She enjoyed herself so much that a colleague noticed it and suggested that she pursue a degree in the early childhood field.

She has since graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social science specialising in children and family studies and holds a graduate certificate in special education.

Play at work

Ms Nair starts the day visiting the children in the wards. She organises daily play activities in the common playroom or by the child’s bedside.

She tries to maintain a regular routine of activities for her young patients during their hospitalisation.

“Hospitalised children tend to lose trust in their circumstances as they have little control over their medical experiences,” she says.

“Creating a predictable environment where the child has the right to exert choices for himself helps him learn to trust again.”

Having worked with boys and girls of all ages and with different medical conditions, she has learnt to be flexible in changing her communication styles to suit her patients’ needs.

“A good sense of humour and words of encouragement never go wrong,” she says. “They usually alleviate the stress and anxiety the children or their family members feel.”

To empathise with her patients better, she has been through many of the hospital procedures herself and even had her unfractured arm in a cast once.

For her, each day is different. She can be busy with medical preparation work, distracting patients from painful procedures, providing emotional support or doing generic play-based supportive work.

As part of a multi-disciplinary team, including speech therapists, physiotherapists, psychologists, doctors and nurses, she contributes to clinical judgments through play-based observations.

She also helps children regain skills lost through illnesses or hospitalisation and advises parents or caregivers on appropriate play for sick and injured children.

Challenges

“I generally do not consider working with children a challenge, even with difficult patients,” says Ms Nair. “But meeting the expectations of the child’s family or caregivers can sometimes be very trying.”

Recognising that dealing with highly charged emotions is part of this profession, she takes a time-out to compose herself after a particularly charged session.

One thing that she finds extremely hard to handle is watching a child die.

But what continues to drive her are the children themselves. She says: “Many of them are so determined to get better despite facing so much prolonged distress and pain that it makes me want to do all that I can to help in their speedy recovery.

“Life is about living it. I just want to help these young ones enjoy life a little.”