Laura Walter is Spread a Smile’s Director of Services. She also works 1 day a week as Senior Radiotherapy Play Specialist at University College London Hospital (UCLH).
Tell us a little bit about your background…
I’m originally from Canada and trained as a Child Life Specialist before relocating to the UK to work as a Play Specialist. I’ve also completed a Masters degree in ‘Child Life and Paediatric Psychosocial Care’ and a diploma in Childhood Bereavement. I’ve just celebrated my 3-year work anniversary with Spread a Smile and I love the fact that I can combine my work as Senior Radiotherapy Play Specialist at University College London Hospital (UCLH) with the fantastic work of Spread a Smile.
Why did you want to become a Play Specialist?
I’ve always loved working with children. I’m really passionate about supporting children, young people and their families through challenging healthcare experiences, empowering them to cope with difficult procedures and treatments and helping to make their time in hospital a little bit easier.
It is very special to be able to help a child who arrives in hospital fearful of what might happen. The resilience of children is just incredible – they can cope with almost anything if they are given the right tools and support to get through it.
What does a day in the life of a Play Specialist look like?
The role of the Play Specialist differs depending on which specialist area or hospital you work in. No two days are ever the same, which makes it so exciting. One day I might spend a whole day with one particular child who is going through a difficult procedure or treatment. Or I might be supporting lots of different patients, using play to prepare them for surgery, distracting them for cannulas and blood tests, or doing an age-appropriate play activity to build trust and rapport. Every element of our play has a purpose.
Tell us about your work for Spread a Smile…
I started working for Spread a Smile in September 2019. I had known them for a long time through my work as a Play Specialist. The charity would come in with entertainers twice a month to support our busy Wednesday clinic, taking the patients and families I worked with on outings to the theatre and other special events.
The difference to the overall mood in our department when Spread a Smile visited was just incredible. Patients and families were distracted from looming treatments and appointments, and overall felt happier and more relaxed. When patients and families attended a Spread a Smile outing, they would talk about it for days afterwards. Often these special moments were what they remembered about being in hospital.
Having seen first-hand the benefits of Spread a Smile’s work, I was really excited to be given the opportunity to join their team to lead on services, and help develop and implement exciting new initiatives that I knew would make such a difference to children, young people and their families going through serious illness. It’s really important to me to support NHS staff in a way that really complements and enhances their work.
Why is the role of a Play Specialist so important?
Play Specialists help children adjust and cope effectively with the hospital environment. Children learn and explore the world through play and play opportunities are essential for healthy development. Research also illustrates that play in hospital actually helps children recover quicker from illness.
Play Specialists help to demystify healthcare experiences for children and young people, enabling them to understand what is happening in a way that is appropriate to their developmental level. They are an integral part of the multidisciplinary team supporting patients and their families through all aspects of their healthcare journey.
How does the work of Spread a Smile fit into the healthcare provision?
Spread a Smile supports and enhances the work of healthcare professionals, working alongside the play specialist teams to provide essential play opportunities for children in hospital. We have an incredible team of highly skilled and talented professionals who are able to adapt appropriately and with sensitively to difficult situations. Our range of entertainers are experienced working with children and young people of all ages and abilities, and our entertainment is inclusive and adapted to each individual patient we see.
For a child in hospital, everything is related to their medical condition – tests, procedures, reports and machines. Spread a Smile’s work doesn’t focus on their illness, it focusses on the children. It is during these times that they can forget about being in hospital and just be a child.
How does Spread a Smile provide support?
Hospital staff call on our entertainers in many different ways to support the emotional well-being of children under their care. This could be a visit by an entertainer or therapy dog to a child who is extremely anxious waiting for surgery or an upcoming procedure. To provide distraction during a cannula insertion, to act as a ‘reward’ for doing something difficult, to encourage children to mobilise and get out of bed or to help patients going through similar illnesses to engage together as a group. The remit and positive benefits are extremely wide.
Importantly, our visits boost morale across the ward and for families and staff, creating an overall more positive environment and improving patient experience.
What is the reaction to our services?
We receive so much positive feedback about Spread a Smile visits and it wonderful to hear the difference we make. Parents often tell us how amazing it is to see their child smiling and laughing again and how special it is to see their child just being a child. I feel privileged to be able to see this first hand – to watch a child who have been withdrawn, down and disengaged, literally transform in front of my eyes.
What are the biggest challenges faced today?
Always resource. The demand for our services is forever growing and we really want to be in as many hospitals as possible because we know the positive difference we can make.
At the end of the day, the more we can raise as a charity, the more children, young people and their families we can help. That’s why I love being able to combine my role as a Play Specialist with my work for Spread a Smile to try and ensure that as many as possible have access to play when they need it most.