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Children tell us why play in hospital makes a difference

Themes of play and playfulness have been central to the architectural designs for Cambridge Children's Hospital. Play is a key part of our holistic approach to care, both to support wellbeing during treatment and distract from the hospital environment.

For Play in Hospital week (w/c 9 October) two of our young experts – Phoebe, 7, and her sister, Alice, 10 - have been telling us why play is vital for children in hospital. They have significant experience of the benefits that play brings to poorly children and their families.

Two girls sitting on the stairs. One had gingery hair and is holding a cat teddy. The other has long brown hair and is holding a unicorn teddy. They are looking at each other and laughing
Phoebe and Alice at home

When Phoebe was two, a common cold triggered a rare inflammatory response in her body, damaging her spinal cord. She had to relearn how to walk, talk and eat. Her respite came from the play teams, who brought fun and normality to each day.

Phoebe, now age seven, says play brings joy to people in hospital but also helps their mental health.

Sometimes people’s imaginations can get crowded with loads and loads of annoying stuff and then they don’t have any room for good thoughts.

Phoebe, 7

Watch Phoebe and Alice talk about how play made a difference to both of them in hospital


Negar Mihanyar, Lead architect for Cambridge Children’s Hospital, says play and playfulness have been at the forefront of their minds when designing the new hospital.

Obviously, the hospital needs to work brilliantly from a clinical perspective, but it also needs to give those who use it the best possible experience.

A woman smiling. She has dark curly hair and a black dress
Negar Mihanyar, Lead architect, Hawkins\Brown

Throughout the hospital Negar says there are spaces that can be used to pause, reflect and relax.

"Children and young people have been telling us what they’d like in these spaces, from play zones and libraries with cosy nooks, to chill out areas and places to play and listen to music. A galaxy of stars has come up many times at our engagement workshops and we hope one of these rooms will allow children and families to look up into the sky – like a rocket room!”

A concept design of a corridor in the integration hub, with people chatting and families sitting together. A Little boy is being pushed in a red pedal car. In the background there is a tall rocketship. The corridor looks over the central courtyard
A concept design showing the inside of Cambridge Children's Hospital

Bryony How, Therapeutic Play Manager at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, describes play as a child’s language and gateway to the rest of the world.

“As Play Specialists, we use therapeutic play to support children before, during and after their medical procedures. This helps them explore anxieties and develop coping strategies for future treatment."

A soft toy that Phoebe calls ‘Trachy Doggy’ helped her understand what would happen when her tracheostomy tube was changed each week. “He helped me feel brave,” says Phoebe, who requires 24 hour ventilation.

Play is also used to provide a more positive experience for patients and their families. This 'whole family' approach is core to the vision of Cambridge Children’s Hospital.

Alice, 10, has spent many hours in hospital with her sister Phoebe.

“I had to visit my sister every day after school, and there wasn’t really much to do. She was just in bed all the time," Alice remembers. "The play therapist nearby brought loads of toys every day and because I was bored most of the time, play helped distract myself from that.”

Two young girls dress a mannequin in silky pink material. they are by a window in a child's bedroom which has pink walls and pink bedcovers
Play is a huge part of Alice and Phoebe's lives

Dr Kelsey Graber is a researcher at the University of Cambridge Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development, and Learning (PEDAL). She carried out a study with patients on a paediatric oncology ward at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

“Our research found that play is fundamental to childhood inside a hospital, just as it is to childhood outside of a hospital. As Phoebe and Alice say, children are the experts of their own play!"

Importantly, the study showed children determine for themselves whether or not something is play, how it makes them feel, and how it affects their experience.

Dr Kelsey Graber, University of Cambridge researcher

Dr Graber continues: “It is worthwhile for all those who care for and support children’s health to strongly value play as an aspect of their lives that fosters a sense of control, expertise, and ownership over their own experiences, especially in the face of illness and hospitalisation.”

Phoebe, who loves imaginary and magical play, will need multiple surgeries until she is fully grown. She and Alice are members of Cambridge Children’s Network (opens in a new tab) and have been involved in shaping many aspects of the new hospital.

The Cambridge Children’s Hospital project team is committed to ensuring the voices of children, young people and their carers are at the heart of all aspects of their work to design and build the new hospital.

Our wish for Cambridge Children’s Hospital is that everyone can enjoy playing whenever they want and however they like.

Phoebe and Alice