Calm in the midst of the storm

Imagination Station

Multisensory therapy offers tranquility in face of uncertainty.

Child life specialists use age-appropriate education, preparation, and supportive activities to help normalize the hospital experience for children. Throughout the month of March we’ll be examining the science behind multisensory therapy, medical play, and other services child life specialists offer to kiddos at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.

Kristen Beckler knows her way around the emergency department. Her wavy hair pulled back in a tight ponytail and a look of determination on her face–she’s all about business. As a child life specialist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, working in the emergency department, a.k.a. the “ED,” requires an intense ability to function well in a high-stress environment. Beckler is skilled at reading the needs of the hospital’s most important visitors, children, who come to her in what can sometimes be a state of fear and uncertainty.

“To me it’s like a puzzle,” says Beckler. “I walk into a room and I have to think for a minute, ‘What am I going to do to make this work for this child?’ Sometimes it’s to bring the in the Imagination Station.”

Imagination Station

Beckler is referring to the Southpaw machine, a new therapy tool used by child life specialists to to help children and their families cope positively during their time at the hospital. As Beckler plugs in the curious-looking unit, a tall glass column begins to bubble like an aquarium, transitioning in color from blue, to green, to purple. Two small doors open to reveal mirrors which cast a mesmerizingly beautiful light scene around the room. A jellyfish-style fiber optic tail drapes around the machine, the strings of LED lights pulsing gently to the sound of soothing music. Beckler turns on a projector, and fish appear to swim across the walls.

“In an environment where this is a lot of control and choices being taken away from them, this is an opportunity for children to choose” says Beckler. “‘Do they want the fish or the kaleidoscope?’ ‘Do they want the fiber optics to be yellow or pink?’ It provides a lot of choice given back to the patient.”

Since the early 1970s, researchers have studied the benefits of multisensory therapy, with initial interventions focused on alleviating stress and promoting self-regulation among patients with autism spectrum disorders and those with special needs. Multisensory therapy also has ready application for patients in hospital settings as a way to help children cope with stress in a new and unpredictable situation.

“If you think about it, we all experience things through our senses,” says Beckler. “So you come into the ED with all of the noise and all of the commotion…you walk in all of those rooms and there’s everything going on. So a lot of what the Imagination Station can do is close out the periphery in this environment, and it makes it a more controlled, calm, sensory experience.”

The Imagination Station is just one of many tools in a child life specialist’s tool box. The innovative therapies used by Beckler and her child life colleagues help patients acclimate as part of the normalization process.

“As technology advances, our ability to reach kids in different ways advances also,” says Beckler. “The Imagination Station to me enables us to do our service in a different modality. It just offers a new tool for child life services to be effective.”


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