Making Christmas memories on the children’s ward

Maxine Ovens image
By Maxine Ovens     24/12/2018

In the days leading up to 25th December, some departments start to wind down for the Christmas break.

The hospital play team – there are eight of us in all – is an exception.  We ramp up!

The ward is decorated and we’ve been running different activities throughout December.

We have entertainers, balloon artists, face painters and, of course, our ward party. This year, one of our young patients who’s been on the ward a long time, turned on the lights in the hospital’s main courtyard, to a huge cheer.

Another year, we had a little girl who desperately wanted to see the Christmas lights in central London but wouldn’t have been well enough to go without a member of the team.

I don’t like being defeated, so we arranged for my brother, who is a police officer, one of our nurses and the patient’s parents to go down Regent Street in a police car. That was magical.

Father Christmas visits

And of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Santa Claus. He doesn’t just come onto the ward, he has his own grotto!

If children are unable to visit father Christmas in the playroom, he will go bed to bed and cot to cot, including the tiny babies in intensive care. Some people don’t understand this, after all will a baby remember it ever happened?

But that’s missing the point – it’s about making memories for families, a chance to bring Christmas onto the ward, breaking down those barriers between hospital and ‘normal life’. Some of the children have been in hospital ever since they were born, they’ve never been home. When you really stop to imagine what that’s like, you go all out to make Christmas extra special for them.


For children who are going to be in hospital on Christmas day, we make sure they have a sack of presents.

These are bespoke – carefully chosen for each child. The Brompton Fountain charity and other generous donors provide the presents, something we never take for granted. They are incredible. We are so grateful to them.

If you think hiding and wrapping presents at home is a challenge, try finding room for 300! It’s a joy though, and the team works late on Christmas Eve to make sure any children admitted to the ward late that day get their presents too.

We leave it to the nurses to deliver the sacks of presents to the children on Christmas morning. Needless to say, it’s the one job everyone wants!

Back to the day job

Of course, just because it’s the Christmas season, that doesn’t mean our everyday work stops. We do our normal job, only festooned with tinsel! We meet everyone who is admitted – including babies – because it is about supporting the parents too.

For children older than a year we’re there for distractions with medical tests. That’s not just about blowing bubbles, it’s about helping holistically: we’re often a helpful
go-between – an advocate for the child and to help the medical professionals do their jobs.

At the end of the day, we’re here to give children the best possible experience of being in hospital. We help children with their fears, like practising putting on an anaesthetic mask, or helping if they’re afraid of needles, using a whole range of play techniques to allay their fears. 

We do have many children who are quite poorly with very complex conditions, who are often in hospital for long periods, so we get to build real relationships with them.

It’s not just about the little ones, either. Obviously, as children get older, you need a different approach. One teenage girl came in for cardiac surgery – she’d always known she’d need surgery but then had a quick call.

She was petrified. She sat on her bed and said: “I can’t do it.”

We sat and talked and broke it down into the various parts – talking about each one in detail, from the pre-op tests to the surgery, to what to expect afterwards.  We worked out what she was afraid of, and I think just being a listener helped. She went and had the surgery and I was able to see her afterwards. Things like that are why we do what we do.

Why be a play specialist?

I’ve been doing the job for 20 years – most of which have been spent at Royal Brompton. I became a play specialist for a mixture of reasons.

A friend of mine who had a son who was born with a rare syndrome. He had lots of issues and was in Great Ormond Street Hospital for treatment for nine months. Her family lives hundreds of miles away, so I would pop in two or three times a week after work. I met a play specialist there and got talking about the job.

I also have an understanding of what it’s like to be in hospital as a child, as I had to be in for quite a few operations.

It was a generation when parents didn’t stay with their kids, so I was on my own a lot in hospital.

As a child I had recurring nightmares, which I later realised was as a result of these experiences.

My daughter has also spent time in hospital. So I know just how hard it can be when your child is in hospital and needs surgery.

This does help me in my work because I get it from all perspectives – the child’s, the parents’ and the professionals’.

It’s lovely hearing feedback from parents and children. Mums and dads tell us: “You’ve made our child’s stay as good as it could possibly be.” A teenage patient wrote to me and said, ‘I’ve been saying since I left that Rose Ward never felt like a hospital. It was a very difficult time for me but the fact that all of you knew my name made it easier.’

We’re here to make the best possible memories for families that we can all-year round.

But Christmas should be an extra-special time for children. We aim to make it a joyous time for our families.