The Power of Play 
By: Chantel Yearling 
Platelets. IV. Leukemia. CAT Scan. 

How many of us have been in a doctors’ office and heard them explaining things with medical jargon we then have to decipher?  

Imagine being 7 years old and trying to understand that.  
For the last six years I have been a Certified Child Life Specialist. I was there to help children and families cope with challenges in the medical environment.  Through play, I provided developmentally appropriate preparation, education, distraction, and coping strategies.  Along with families and medical professionals, our goal was to make the medical environment and experience less scary and confusing. 

My degree in college is in Recreation Therapy with a minor in Psychology.  My expertise in child development and social dynamics allowed me to help children cope with challenging experiences.   
“Play gives children the chance to practice what they are learning.”- Mr. Rogers 
Children pick up more than we think and are naturally drawn to want to know more.  Often, I had parents ask me to help tell their child about a new diagnosis as they were having trouble understanding themselves.
This is where Child Life Specialists go into ‘teacher’ mode.   

Here is a scenario that played out several times during my career in child life.  When a school age child is diagnosed with a cancer called leukemia, they have no idea what that is.  They hear cancer and associate it with someone they many have known with cancer (hair loss, sickness, and sometimes death). 
In order to explain in a way children understand we make ‘blood soup’.  This is a hands-on learning experience children get involved in.  

“Today we are going to make blood soup!  Our bodies are made of cells and each of those cells have a job.”  As I explain each cell, I would have the child put the items in the plastic baggie. 
  • Red Hot Candies- “These are the red cells, their job is to carry energy and nutrients through our bodies.” 
  • White Rice- “These are called platelets, their job is to stop bleeding like a bandaid.” 
  • Marshmallows- “These are white blood cells, their job is to fight infections.” 
  • Karo Syrup- “This is the plasma.  It’s job is to move the cells around.” 
“This is healthy blood.  Your blood has another piece that is making it sick.” 
  • Black Jelly Beans- “These are the sick cells, called leukemia and make it hard for the other cells to do their job.  So we need to get rid of them.  What ideas do you have for this?”  
Children typically reply medicine!  Most of the time it clicks and children know they need this medicine to feel better. 

Children’s first language is play! I can easily connect with children and families through play. Play is a way for children to safely express themselves and learn from each other. From my experience, the best play/game is anything that is their idea - Let them come up with what they want to do.  If all else fails and they do not want to choose, almost everyone loves to paint, play Uno, or build with Legos.  

We communicate clearly and are not afraid to explain elaborately when working with children. Children deserve to know all of the information about what is happening and what is going to be done to their bodies. We want to help them understand exactly what is happening in every step. For example, if you tell a child they are going to have a CAT Scan, they may envision cats in their head.  Instead, we explain further and say, “The doctors need to take pictures of the inside of your body using a big camera. Does it hurt when mom takes picture?  This won’t hurt either.” 

Through hands-on experiences, role-playing and various play activities, I was able to help children fully develop their coping skills so that they could feel more confident in challenging situations.  
On Acton Academy 

I love working with children. Have you ever seen that sparkle in a child’s eyes? Children look at everyone as someone that is their best friend. We could learn so much from them by viewing the world as they do. They are far more kind, smart, resilient, and capable than we can imagine.   

What excites me most about Acton Academy Sioux Falls’ Learning Model: 
  • We cultivate what children love and let them find their true passions.  
  • We empower them by giving them a sense of control and offering choices in how they use their time to learn at school.  
  • We focus on the whole development – not just the academics. 
  • The children are free – free to move, free to learn, free to play, free to be themselves. 
  • We see each child as a genius and a lifelong learner who can change the world. 

I am excited for my role as the Elementary Studio Guide and to participate in a mission that puts children at the heart and center of their personal learning journey.  

If you want to learn more about our innovative school, visit these links to connect with us:

Hi, I'm Aaron Johnson. 👋

I'm Co-Founder & Head of School at Acton Academy Sioux Falls

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