U.Va. Children’s Hospital opens an explorer themed therapeutic playroom

The interactive digital space provides a creative and educational distraction for patients throughout their healthcare experience at U.Va. Children’s.

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Children can choose from a wide variety of books written in their native language and read with their parents as they wait during their appointment.

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

Early this month, U.Va. Children's Hospital unveiled an explorer playroom, which provides a creative and therapeutic outlet for young patients. After two years of design and construction, the new space on the fourth floor of the Battle Building expands upon the Lewis and Clark theme which was previously chosen for the building’s design during its rebranding in 2014. 

The playroom includes many unique features such as an interactive wall, a virtual safety store, a reading nook and a wishing well. It serves as an engaging distraction for patients and eases the burden on parents during visits to the hospital. The space was custom-designed to combine aspects of nature and safety into a patient’s healthcare experience and encourages children with disabilities to move. 

The project was a collaborative effort between U.Va. Children’s staff and FrenDesign, a Georgia-based design company. Patricia Carrubba, child life specialist at U.Va. Children’s Hospital, and Joyce Thompson, head of the child life department, sought to transform an empty space which was initially used for resource purposes into an interactive playroom. Inspired by the interactive wall at Boston Children’s hospital, CEO of Frendesign Stephen Nottingham and Thompson came up with additional ideas for the room. 

Nottingham detailed further steps which included analyzing the environment and demographics and creating a design which seamlessly integrated the need of medical caregivers, families and patients. Nottingham desired that each design or item in the room would have functional purpose rather than simply serving as an aesthetic.

“This project gave us the opportunity to present and promote physical, cognitive, learning, visual and hearing experiences that would enhance and benefit the recovery process for a broad patient demographic,” Nottingham stated.  

He also noted that young patients often lose their sense of control while in a hospital setting and they are disconnected from daily interactions with nature. He acknowledged these concerns and developed special features such as 360 degree environmental soundscapes focused on themes of nature and a 176-foot floor-to-ceiling landscape that brings digital animations to life. 

“When a child steps into this space, it is inspiring but also unknown, which is paralleling their experiences in the hospital,” Nottingham said. “This is how the children become familiar with the unknown.”

Carrubba further detailed many of the unique features of the playroom and mentioned that the project was custom made for U.Va. Children’s Hospital. Additions to the room include an interactive wall in which animated animals can come out from hiding and a virtual boat which patients can physically maneuver. The playroom also incorporates instructions about safety. For instance, in one digital exercise, patients are prompted to pack safety kits and other useful items for an expedition.   

Additionally, Carrubba said that the playroom can be used for a form of constraint therapy. She mentioned that some patients may suffer a stroke or other condition that weakens a specific location such as their arm. Physical therapists can place a cast over the patient’s good arm to force the child to use their bad arm. Over time, through this practice of physical and occupational therapy, they can strengthen their weak side. 

“Kids can learn about safety, Lewis and Clark and animals,” Carrubba said. “Once more, therapists can utilize the room for their patients. Their arms can be moving as they sit in a wheelchair and they’re rowing this row boat.”

The playroom satisfies many areas of a patient's healthcare experience at U.Va. Children’s Hospital. Pediatric orthopedic surgeon Mark Abel regarded the playroom as an asset for children and parents. He mentioned that children are coming for the care and entertainment. 

“The kids are having a ball while waiting for their appointment, and they can’t wait to leave my clinic to get back to the playroom,” Abel said. “Needless to say, a safe fun play area in proximity to the clinical spaces eases the burden on parents who traditionally had to watch their children and their siblings.”

Carrubba also suggested absolute praise and admiration from patients and viewers. Currently, she and other staff members are working on logistics such as playroom hours, as well as renovating the teen lounge in the main hospital. Nottingham also mentioned a three year service contract for future development of the therapeutic space. 

“They are working on the teen lounge — picking out paints and furniture for that,” Carrubba said. “Now that we’ve done [the explorer playroom], we know how to do it — including the right questions to ask. It has been a learning process.”

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