“Recuperation fostered by creative outlet” – such is the philosophy behind the Child Life & Creative Arts Therapies Program at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. If you ever sought catharsis in making collages, sculpting clay or other artistic activities, you’re in line with the practices of the Child Life program.
A deviation from your typical health care service, the Child Life program combines play, art and music into their healing practices. Their goal is to imbue the traditional medical practice with a positive environment that promotes growth and development.
“Our goal is to minimize the stress and anxiety of hospitalization and to strengthen the coping skills of the hospitalized child,” said Hannah Hunter, art therapist at the Child Life & Creative Arts Therapies Program.
Hunter said artistic activities help the children cope with problems that run the gamut from anxiety to depression to trauma-related symptoms. By helping them increase their coping skills and their level of social functioning, art therapy becomes a particularly useful tool for children in the midst of these challenging transitions, Hunter said.
“Music is very important in the lives of young children – we all learned our alphabet by singing the song – and it’s a source of familiarity in the alien environment of the hospital,” said Kathleen Lorenzato, music therapist at the Child Life program.
“My goal as a music therapist is to offer the antithesis of the hospital experience to my patients. In our program we do a lot of silly songs, offering opportunities to make creative animal noises, and plenty of chances to laugh. I want to give them a chance for silliness, laughter and joy in a place that can be terrifying. “
Lorenzato said the music therapy offers daily structure, including a drum group in the playroom, where kids and family members alleviate their stresses by playing drums and singing familiar songs. Since children thrive on structure, providing a music group that meets consistently Monday through Friday optimizes their progress.
Such structure also helps the nursing staff, who use the daily group as a motivator to get kids out of bed, Lorenzato said. In addition, physical therapists use the group as a destination for children ambulating for the first time post surgery.
Christian Baldini, music director of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra, offered praise for the reparative methods of programs like Child Life.?
“Basically, anything that takes an individual out of their ordinary life can serve as a type of therapy,” Baldini said. “Whether it’s a sport, cooking, walking or listening to music, it can serve the purpose of switching from one state of mind to another. So it’s not surprising that it is used with great success to treat patients.”
Hunter added that the implementation of art into the program helps children problem-solve using the right side of the brain, which is the part of the brain responsible for intuitive, creative and imaginative impulses. It may also lessen the anxieties a child often holds in your typical hospital setting, Lorenzato said.
“Since it can be very difficult to place an IV in a squirming, terrified child, they may be physically held down while a nurse searches for a viable vein,” Lorenzato said. “This can produce rage in a child, as well as distrust and fear. When they arrive on the Pediatric floor they don’t trust anyone, they don’t know what will come next and they sometimes cope with the terror of hospitalization by hiding under the bed covers and screaming at anyone who comes into their hospital room.”
Lorenzato, who has a degree in piano performance, holds private keyboard lessons for some of the children that are stuck in the hospital for weeks at a time. Having taught hundreds of lessons to patients for the past 22 years, Lorenzato has watched children become solid piano players, even without access to keyboards at home. She said that some of their long-term teen patients have even been able to receive school credit for daily keyboard or guitar lessons while they were hospitalized.
Music therapy can be effective to patients in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), Lorenzato said. Some of her patients on ventilators, though chemically sedated, respond either to songs she sings them or to their own favorite songs.
“Part of the brain is still aware, and still listening,” Lorenzato said. “They know my voice and they know our songs, and it can provide comfort in the even more alien environment of the intensive care unit. PICU machinery monitors vital signs and I can watch a high heart rate calm down while I sing to these children. Family members frequently join me in song, and it has been a very sweet way to say goodbye to a beloved child.”
Baldini agreed that rather than being passive, hearing can provoke responses and activate body processes.
“The ear takes the sound in, sending it directly to the brain and setting in motion an entire creative process of thought,” Baldini said. “The physical and cognitive processes of hearing are not passive at all.”
For more information about the Child Life program, visit ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/children.
ELENI STEPHANIDES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.