A child life specialist is a professional who is trained to work with children in a medical environment. They help ease children’s fear and anxiety by normalizing the hospital experience. They do this through therapeutic play, education and emotional support.

Child life specialists have bachelor’s or master’s degrees in the areas of child life, child health, child development, family studies or recreation therapy. They work closely with the medical team to address the developmental and psychosocial needs of children and families. At University of Maryland Children's Hospital, child life specialists are wherever kids are receiving care, including the pediatric inpatient units, intensive care, ER and hematology/oncology center.

The Healing Power of Play

Since play is an important part of children’s lives, child life specialists use play in many ways to help children cope. The play room and teen room are where children and teens can go to relax, play and enjoy the spaces, which are “ouch-free zones” with no medical procedures allowed.

Therapeutic play is used to help children manage pain, emotional stress, meet treatment goals and teach new skills. Medical play involves using real or pretend medical equipment and supplies to help familiarize children with healthcare environments or prepare them for surgery. Child life specialists provide education and support to parents and siblings. They also coordinate numerous activities, events and celebrations for pediatric patients and their siblings throughout the year.

Benefits of a Child Life Program

Besides the invaluable benefit it has on children and families, a child life program also benefits hospitals and other healthcare settings. Child life specialists help reduce the need for sedation and other pain management therapies in children, lowering medical costs. Child life specialists help children be more accepting of medical treatments, allowing for great staff efficiency. They promote a culture of patient- and family-centered care as well as improve patient and employee satisfaction.

In Their Own Words

Child life specialists at the University of Maryland Children's Hospital share what it’s like and why they chose this profession.

"Growing up, I always knew that I wanted to work with children. I had cancer as a child, so I was in and out of the hospital. As a child, I do not remember meeting a child life specialist, but I still have a cloth doll dressed in a hospital gown with a central line placement. If I were to guess, somewhere along the way, a child life specialist must have prepared me and my family."

— Elizabeth Connelly
Child Life Specialist for General Pediatrics

"Everyone has a niche, and mine is working with kids who have illnesses. The most rewarding part of working in child life is seeing how resilient kids and families are during crisis moments in their lives. My role is to figure out how we can make this easier for the child. I see the kids from the time they’re diagnosed throughout their health journey, and then I follow up with them when they go back to their regular lives – back to school, back to girl scouts, soccer and playing piano."

— Becky Halagarda
Child Life Specialist for Hematology/Oncology Center

"I knew that I always wanted a career in healthcare, and I love working with children. I have been practicing for 11 years, and every day is new and different. I often see a child’s fear replaced with relief after providing procedural preparation for an upcoming medical procedure. I see joy in the midst of illness when I engage children in a play activity. I see a parent relieved when I provide distraction and support during a procedure when the parent may be struggling to find the energy to help their child cope. I am in a career where I have the ability to see the impact that my work enables on a daily basis. It is such a rewarding career."

— Molly Baron
Child Life Specialist for General Pediatrics