If you enjoy working with children and have excellent communication and teamwork skills, consider a career as a health play specialist

As a health play specialist, you'll use therapeutic play techniques to help children - from birth to their transition into adulthood - understand their medical condition, treatment and its impact on their daily life.

Working mainly in hospitals, hospices and clinics, you'll organise play activities to help them prepare for operations and other clinical procedures and to work through their concerns and worries.

Your work will be underpinned by a combination of theoretical knowledge and evidence-based practice, enabling you to plan, implement, review and evaluate therapeutic play programmes that support children and young people emotionally and developmentally.

You'll also provide support to parents, carers and the wider family, including siblings, and will offer advice on how they can use play to help their children make sense of what's happening to them.

Responsibilities

As a health play specialist you'll need to:

  • create a welcoming, safe and caring environment that encourages children to take part in play activities
  • act as an advocate for children and young people in their interactions with the healthcare team
  • plan and implement a range of age-appropriate play, drama, art and craft activities for children and young people, both individually and in groups
  • use play to help children and young people settle into life in hospital, to help them prepare for medical procedures and to help calm and distract them during these procedures, facilitating their consent and compliance
  • use play to help children reach developmental targets, learn new skills and relearn skills they may have lost during their illness
  • facilitate social interaction to help patients and their families to make friends and find support from others in the wards
  • observe children playing either in a dedicated playroom, in the ward or at their bedside
  • take individual referrals for children and families who are having difficulty coping with hospital admission and procedures or with transition to home-care or hospice
  • carry out and document therapeutic assessments and monitor each child's progress or regression
  • evaluate the effectiveness of the play interventions and review their programme of care accordingly
  • share your assessments and observations with other members of the health team, including speech therapists, doctors, nurses and physiotherapists, to support their long-term care plan
  • liaise with health play specialists in the community and in hospices to ensure continuity of play interventions
  • support families under stress and advise them on how they can use play with their children to help them cope with their diagnosis and treatment
  • promote the importance of play and awareness of children's emotional needs during their illness
  • ensure all toys and other play facilities are cleaned, maintained and stored safely.

In senior roles, you may need to:

  • oversee the planning, evaluation and audit of practice
  • manage junior staff, such as health play assistants
  • manage the department's budget, selecting and purchasing a range of appropriate toys for the ward/department
  • supervise health play specialist students on placements.

Salary

Salaries for health play assistants working in the NHS range from £17,787 to £20,448 (band 3 of the NHS Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates).

  • Once qualified as a health play specialist, you can earn between £20,150 and £23,363 (band 4), rising to between £23,023 and £29,608 for more senior roles (band 5).
  • Team leads and professional leads can earn between £28,050 and £36,644 (band 6). Salaries for play service managers and clinical specialists can be in excess of this.

Salaries and conditions for jobs outside the NHS may vary.

Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll usually work a 37.5 hour week. Some posts include weekend and bank holiday working.

Part-time jobs are available.

What to expect

  • You'll form part of a multidisciplinary team that includes doctors, nurses, psychologists, speech and language therapists and occupational therapists.
  • Health play specialism is a relatively small profession compared with other allied health professions and the job market reflects this. The majority of job opportunities are available in large towns and cities in the UK where there are children's hospitals or larger teaching hospitals with teams of more than 20 health play specialists. In smaller towns and rural areas, there may just be one or two posts in local hospitals.
  • You'll need to be emotionally resilient as you'll be dealing with children in great distress and often great pain, as well as their families who may also be finding it difficult to cope. However, the job can be rewarding, as you'll use your knowledge, skills and creativity to create a safe and caring atmosphere for children and their families in hospital.
  • The work can be quite physical as you'll need to arrange, move and put away play equipment.
  • You're unlikely to travel as part of the job unless it's to attend conferences and other training.

Qualifications

You'll need a foundation degree in health play specialism and registration with the Healthcare Play Specialist Education Trust (HPSET) to work as a health play specialist. This part-time, two-year course, validated by the University of London, is available at:

Courses combine theory with practice and you'll attend college one day a week, whilst developing the practical skills and knowledge in your workplace for the rest of the week.

To get a place on a course, you'll need:

  • a level 3 qualification (minimum) in childcare or a related field
  • a minimum of two years' post-qualification experience working with children
  • GCSE maths and English at grade 4 or above, or equivalent Level 2 in literacy and numeracy
  • evidence of current, regular and relevant employment in the sector - either paid or voluntary.

If you're not already working in health play, you'll need to complete a 200-hour hospital placement during the course, which you'll need to arrange before it starts.

You'll also need an experienced registered play specialist who is willing to act as your work-based mentor. Contact course providers for full details on entry requirements.

It's possible to become a health play specialist as a second career, moving from areas such as education, nursing and social work.

Currently there is no fast-track route for graduates with relevant degree subjects, so you'll need to do the foundation degree regardless of your previous qualifications and experience.

HPSET registration is an essential requirement for most health play specialist jobs. In some areas of the UK there is competition for jobs, whilst in others there are low numbers of registered practitioners and employers struggle to recruit suitably qualified staff. Most graduates do, however, find employment in a hospital or other relevant setting.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • the ability to build a rapport and develop relationships with children and their families
  • empathy, patience and tact
  • verbal and written communication skills, including skills in listening, observing, taking notes and record keeping
  • teamworking skills and the ability to work as part of a large multidisciplinary team
  • the ability to work independently and to prioritise your workload
  • organisation skills to plan and deliver play activities
  • general IT skills, including use of Word
  • creativity, energy and enthusiasm
  • cultural awareness and respect for the religious and cultural diversity of children and their families
  • a flexible approach to work in order to adapt to children's different needs
  • an understanding of confidentiality and safeguarding issues
  • health, safety and risk awareness.

You'll also need to undertake an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check.

Work experience

Relevant work experience in childcare is essential. You'll need two years' experience working with children at level 3, before you can apply to train as a health play specialist. This can be either voluntary or paid. You could get employment as a health play assistant in a hospital or clinic with a relevant childcare qualification at level 3. Experience as a nursery nurse, teaching assistant, learning mentor or youth worker may also be useful.

A background in social work, teaching or children's nursing is helpful in developing your skills. Experience of working with children and young people in art, drama music or occupational therapy is also relevant.

If you're interested in the role and want to find out more, you could try and arrange some voluntary work in a hospital alongside a registered health play specialist or ask if you can work shadow them. This will help show your commitment to the work and give you an insight into the role.

Employers

Most health play specialists are employed by the NHS. You'll typically work in a hospital in any department that has children receiving treatment. You could be based in a large play department in a children's hospital, such as Great Ormond Street Hospital or Alder Hey. Here, there are opportunities to work on children's wards covering departments such as:

  • adolescent health
  • cardiac care
  • day and short stay units
  • general medicine
  • infection, cancer and immunity (ICI)
  • intensive care
  • neonates
  • outpatients
  • pre-admissions
  • radiology
  • respiratory care
  • surgery.

Alternatively, you could be based on the ward or department of a general hospital that admits children. In these cases you're likely to work in a smaller team in children's units, intensive care units, neonatal units or outpatient clinics.

There are also opportunities to work in private hospitals, hospices, community health teams and community paediatric teams, or even with children in their homes.

Look for job vacancies at:

You can also search for jobs on the websites of individual hospital trusts.

Professional development

Although registration with HPSET is currently voluntary, you're encouraged to register and renew your registration every two years. This shows that you adhere to a code of conduct and are committed to continuing professional development (CPD). HPSET and NAHPS have applied to join the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) to achieve professional recognition and mandatory registration.

As part of your continued registration you'll need to keep your knowledge and skills up to date. You can do this through a range of activities including:

  • getting involved with the activities of a professional body such as NAHPS
  • peer discussion
  • attending and presenting at conferences
  • undertaking research
  • attending events and seminars
  • reading journals and articles and reviewing books
  • doing related voluntary work.

NAHPS runs a range of conferences and events for members which provide the opportunity to network with other professionals and find regional networking groups.

Your skills and knowledge will be enhanced through practice and team working in all areas of specialist health, for example oncology. Each area will cover many different diseases and treatment plans and you'll need to learn about how they impact on the child or young person's life and how best to meet their needs. You'll work with the multidisciplinary team and senior health colleagues to develop these skills and knowledge.

Once you have two years' post-qualifying experience, you can act as a mentor or supervisor for students training to become health play specialists.

Career prospects

Career progression is typically based on gaining experience and carrying out CPD, although some health play specialists will choose to pursue management or leadership training.

With experience, you can progress to a senior health play specialist role and then on to more senior positions such as team leader and then play service manager. You'll need to be flexible in terms of where you work and prepared to change settings to take advantage of promotion opportunities.

As you gain seniority, you're likely to have more involvement in strategic planning for the whole department and have responsibility for managing staff and budgets.

With experience and further training, there are some opportunities to move into lecturing or teaching. You could also apply to train in a related role such as a nurse, occupational therapist or speech and language therapist.