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During Sophie's frequent hospital stays, we realised the vital role play specialists play on children's hospital wards.

For Sophie, the play specialist was the best part of going to Southampton General Hospital for chemotherapy. Besides providing light relief through play and crafts, they offered emotional support and distraction during procedures. Play specialists help children feel like kids in a place that can be frightening, traumatic, and socially isolating.

However, we discovered that play specialists often worked only Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm, with no provision for weekends. Sophie would say, "I'm still here. Are they saying I can only play Monday to Friday?"

Additionally, if a play specialist was off sick or on holiday, they were not replaced.

When Sophie was writing her bucket list, she wished for play specialists in hospitals seven days a week. She said, "You wouldn’t run a ward without nurses; I don’t think you should run a children’s ward without play specialists."

After Sophie’s death, we have been exploring how to fulfil her wish. The challenges are significant. There are only 680 play specialists registered on the public register which covers hospitals, hospices etc. There are only a few institutions where one can train to become a play specialist, including Cardiff & Vale College, Leeds City College, Nescot, North Warwickshire College, and Solent University. The courses are either a two-year foundation degree or an apprenticeship.

There is little awareness of the role of play specialists within hospitals, and we aim to change that. We need more colleges and universities to offer courses for training play specialists. We also want hospitals to place greater importance on the role of play for children.

We have been working with NHS England and the Starlight charity to implement changes. I shared Sophie’s story in June 2022 at the National Association of Hospital Play Specialists conference in London and at the Play Research Centre at the University of Cambridge in March 2023.

In June 2022, NHS England announced a new joint task force co-chaired with Starlight. The task force included the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Sophie’s Legacy, the Care Quality Commission, the Society of Health Play Specialists, and over 60 individual health professionals. Children and young people were represented via NHS England’s CYP Transformation Board and a survey by the Heads of Patient Experience (HOPE) Network. The task force has completed its work, producing:

· New national guidance for commissioners and health service leaders on the purpose, design, and composition of health play teams.

· New national standards for service providers.

These documents are currently being evaluated before publication by NHS England.

In February 2023, we funded an art practitioner, Hayley, to work one day a week in Portsmouth Hospital. Hayley provides therapeutic art sessions for children in the hospital, something Sophie would have loved. In 2024, Hayley began working with children referred by Portsmouth community nurses who needed support as long-term patients. Hayley can see children at home, school, or hospital, ensuring they receive therapy wherever they are. This art therapy is proving extremely successful, and Hayley currently has a waiting list due to high demand.

 

Sophie’s Legacy provides play, crafts, and games to all the hospitals we support. We supply these resources year-round because play teams often lack budgets for such items.

 

We also purchased a portable play trolley for the Southampton Paediatric High Dependency Unit, costing £4,800, which has been greatly needed.


 

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