‘Play Is the Primary Work’

Sometimes, she kneads a mix of glue, baking soda, water and food coloring to help a child concoct slime at a science station. Other times, she plays rounds of Uno or bounces a baby doll on her knee in a pretend session of “family.” Whatever the scenario, Jacquelyn French spends her weekly four-hour shift at the Children’s Center doing largely one thing: playing.

“Play is the primary work of children,” says French, a second-year graduate student working on a master’s degree in child life, administration and family collaboration at Towson University. French once considered pursuing a doctorate in child development, but she realized how much she enjoys the one-on-one interaction — including playing — with kids. “I’m really a hands-on person,” she says. “I enjoy the theory behind the work, but it’s the applied part, and seeing the smiles on kids’ faces, that I like most.”

But, French can readily talk theory. “Being in the hospital and undergoing medical procedures are scary experiences for most kids,” she says. “Plus, it’s easy, as a child, to feel like the adults in the room — the parents and doctors — are the ones making the decisions.” Self-assurance, French goes on to explain, come from having some degree of ownership and autonomy over one’s life. So French makes a point to weave elements of choice into her weekly play sessions with kids.

Instead of saying, “Hey, let’s play X or Y,” French asks the open-ended question: “What would you like to play?” And she lets the child take the lead throughout the entire session. For example, if a patient chooses to paint a tree purple or use LEGOs to make pretend soup, she goes along. “My job is really to nurture and comfort,” she says, and to help kids escape or cope with the severity of their circumstances — a process known as “normalizing.”

French’s experience at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center reaffirms her decision to devote her career to helping kids through tough situations. She says she hopes to land a job after she graduates as “a child life specialist with a nonprofit organization that provides disaster relief, where I would get deployed in the aftermath of a disaster like an earthquake or flood.” French would enter the scene with her gentle nature and, likely, a bagful of toys, empowering kids to cope — without foregoing play.