Fort Worth, TX,
10:40 AM

A Look Back: Celebrating 45 Years of Cook Children's Child Life Department

By Ashley Pagenkopf, MS, CCLS, Child Life Specialist at Cook Children's

March is Child Life Month! This year, we are celebrating 45 years of Cook Children’s Child Life Department. I can’t imagine Cook Children’s or any pediatric facility without child life, but nine times out of 10 when I tell people what I do, they immediately ask, “So what exactly does a child life specialist do?” I have to wonder if there is a blessing in people not knowing exactly what child life specialists are. It most likely means they or someone they know has not ever had to spend time at the hospital with a child. Yet, child life is so vital to the care pediatric facilities provide patients and families.

History of Child Life 

Child life services, or some version of play in the pediatric setting, dates back to the 1920s. Michigan and New York both had pediatric hospitals developing play programs for their patients in the early 20s. Play is essential to children’s development, so it is not surprising that it became clear that even hospitalized children still needed play interactions. Emma Plank, known as the mother of child life, was asked by Dr. Fred Robbins – a Nobel Prize-winning pediatrician – to create a program to “address the social, emotional, and educational needs of hospitalized children” (ACLP, 2023) at the Cleveland City Hospital in 1955. 

Plank went on to be the director of that child life program until 1972, and in 1962, she authored a book titled Working with Children in Hospitals. At the same time in 1965, a group of child life pioneers met in Boston to discuss child and family-friendly hospital settings. This meeting led to a professional organization that became the Association for the Care of Children in Hospitals (ACCH) in 1967. This group was made up of doctors, nurses, child life specialists, other professionals, and parents.

The 1970s was a time of growth in the field of child life. A group of child life professionals met to establish the theoretical framework of the profession and begin to establish educational requirements for becoming a child life specialist. The number of child life programs increased during this time, including Cook Children’s own child life program. Lisa Pool graduated from Texas Woman’s University as a recreational therapist. Upon completing her residency required for her degree in a child life program, she changed her profession and became Cook Children’s first-ever child life specialist in 1978. In 1979, Cook Children’s had an official Child Life Department, which is celebrating 45 years this year!

In 1982, the Child Life Council was established. It is now known as the Association of Child Life Professionals (2016). They began a national conference for child life professionals and requirements for professional certification were also established. Much work was done in the 1980s and 1990s to support the child life profession by creating and upholding standards for child life programs and individuals in the field of child life. 

Now, child life specialists must complete certain coursework in play, child development, grief and bereavement, and other related courses along with a bachelor’s degree and a minimum of 600-hour internship under a certified child life specialist to be eligible to sit for the Child Life Certification Exam. To maintain their certification, child life specialists must continue their education or take the exam every five years.

Child Life Today

There are over 5,500 child life professionals in the world today. Cook Children’s has over 89 individuals in the child life department including Certified Child Life Specialists, activity coordinators, music therapists, art therapists, recording and broadcast producers in the Child Life Zone and many other individuals who are a part of our Sit, Stay, and Play and CARP programs, Sibling Center staff, experience ambassadors and community program coordinator.

When I think of how far child life has come as a profession, I am so proud to be a part of not only apart of this profession, but specifically the Child Life Department here at Cook Children’s. Jill Koss, Director of Family Support Services, has been at Cook Children’s for 33 years and has served as a pillar of the child life profession becoming the 2023 ACLP Distinguished Service Award recipient. She values serving patients and families above all, and she continues to empower our department to remain true to the practice of helping children through hospitalization even though the world of healthcare is constantly changing.

Today, all over the world, you will find child life specialists impacting children who are experiencing hospitalization. Child life specialists meet children and families to support their continued development and emotional safety. Child life specialists do this by promoting play and normalization, preparing and supporting patients through painful procedures, teaching children coping skills, supporting patients and families through grief and bereavement and providing patients and families with creative outlets through art, music, broadcasting and much more!

Child life specialists have become an essential part of the pediatric health care team and are honored to advocate for patients and families throughout their hospital journeys. While the child life profession is fairly young compared to others, it is safe to say that child life professionals have impacted children and families well beyond their years. Happy Child Life Month and Happy 45 Years of Cook Children’s Child Life Department!

If you would like to learn more about what Child Life Specialist do each day, you can check out the following articles:

Get to know Ashley Pagenkopf   

Ashley PagenkopfAshley Pagenkopf is a Child Life Specialist in the Emergency Department at Cook Children's Medical Center. The Child Life program at Cook Children's offers a variety of services, all designed to make your experience at Cook Children's the best it can be. Our services include educating, preparing and supporting your child through tests and procedures, as well as coping with any life challenges you and your child may face. Child Life specialists work with kids and families to make their visit to the medical center easier and more comfortable. We offer your child and your family an opportunity to express and work through any fears and concerns you may have. We'll also provide an explanation about what's going to happen during your visit and work with parents, brothers and sisters and other family members who may be involved in your child's daily care.