Community Service Ideas for Kids and Families on MLK Day and Beyond

More than ever, many families feel they are living in a fast-paced, stressful and sometimes scary world with seemingly little time to connect with those we care about and with what’s happening around us. Understandably, we can lose sight of communities in need, as well as our ability for compassion and empathy. With Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service approaching on January 15, organizations around the country are planning volunteer activities and events for families and communities. Service projects can take as little as 15 minutes and benefit both the youth volunteer and the cause of their choice.

“The time is always right to do the right thing.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. lived his life serving others and taking action. 50 years after his death, millions of Americans follow his example on Martin Luther King Day. generationOn, the youth division of Points of Light, is one organization that celebrates the day in a big way. Wendy Rhein, the organization’s chief strategy and engagement officer, says, “MLK Day is a Day on, not a day off. There will be service projects all around the country.”

Year round, generationOn, and other organizations, support family volunteerism, as well as a strong service-learning curriculum in schools nationwide. Service learning (SL) is an experiential, interdisciplinary, research-based teaching and learning strategy that engages youth in service to meet learning objectives and address real-world issues. Rhein has observed a significant increase in SL requests from teachers (preschool through collegiate) about how to connect service with education. She describes SL as a style of teaching that is especially engaging for young kids, because it makes school subjects relatable to real life and encourages 21st-century skills of compassion, communication and leadership.

Amy Meuers, CEO for the National Youth Leadership Council, says, “Service-learning connects community and classroom, inspiring students to make positive contributions to the world. If society’s problems are ever to be solved, we must start understanding and respecting our differences and work together as one to make our nation and the world a better place for us, for our children and for generations to come.”

Service learning grows into national movement

Since the turn of the century, the spirit of SL has been explored by many educators and social change pioneers from John Dewey to Mahatma Gandhi. In 1969, following the peak of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the service-learning approach was introduced at a Peace Corp conference as a way to carry forth the student activism of the 1960s. In the nearly 50 years since it was coined, SL has grown into national movement, engaging between 4 million and 5 million students each year. The 1990s saw an increased commitment to SL, primarily due to the passage of the National Community Service Act of 1990, and in 2008, the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) released research-based K-12 Service-Learning Standards.

A 2011 meta-analysis of 62 studies showed that students participating in SL programs demonstrated significant gains in attitudes toward self, school and learning, as well as increased social skills, academic performance and civic engagement. Additional benefits show improvements for the student, school and community. Kids are naturally altruistic, and SL motivates them even more.

Reflection is key

Reflection is a crucial component at the culmination of a service project and may be where children learn the most. Moreover, students see that their actions have made a meaningful community impact and that their voice and input are valuable, giving them a sense of agency. (generationOn, 2015). Rhein adds, “So often children are getting bombarded with difficult images and topics and don’t know what to do with their feelings or fears. Through service learning, we provide a controlled setting where students can talk about it with classmates and teachers, and then use their own age-appropriate skill set to address the social needs. Afterwards, they can process what they did, through journaling, drawing pictures, writing thank-you notes, etc.”

The reflection piece is unique to schools, but parents can use it as a way to fully integrate an experience. You’d be surprised at what your kids may be getting out of a simple hurricane relief bake sale. Fiona, a 10-year-old from Park Slope, Brooklyn, said that her synagogue made sandwiches and cards for homeless people, which made her feel proud. She also notes that although they’re raising money for recent hurricanes, people nearby are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy five years ago, so she’d like to help them too. Her mom, Melissa, says, “I am glad that she’s getting these values at an early age; it’s a part of being a global citizen.” Fiona advises, “If you’re giving something to someone and you’re only thinking about yourself, it won’t be as good. Think about what they need.”

Ways to give back on MLK Day and beyond

  • You can find family-friendly MLK Day events in every major city or create your own projects using these resources year round, to do with kids ages 5–18.
  • 15-minute project ideas:
    • Make “caring cards” to take to a local senior center or fire house.
    • Find all your old T-shirts and towels and bring them to an animal shelter.
    • Have your child pick out one item each time you go to the grocery store; when you’ve collected a bagful, bring it to a local food pantry.
    • Stuff new socks with water bottles and granola bars to give to homeless men and women you pass on the street.
    • Donate gently used books, DVDs or toys to a local children’s hospital.

Be sure to deliver items together so your kids can see their compassion in action. Remember to reflect — talk about what you did, how it felt, and what you learned. Right after, build on your child’s enthusiasm by choosing your next service project together.

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. 

All photos courtesy of Points of Light.

Your Kid Wants a Pet, But the Answer Is “No.” Here’s What to Do Instead.

If your circumstances don’t allow for a “forever” family pet, your kids can still experience connections with animals that produce beneficial effects.

  • Digital pets. Virtual or robotic pets require regular attention (feeding, petting, playing) for survival. Although they know digi-pets aren’t living things, kids still attribute feelings and thoughts to them. Research shows that the lines are increasingly blurring between how kids relate to virtual vs. real animals.
  • Fostering. Temporarily caring for an animal gives kids an opportunity to experience the responsibilities of pet ownership. Contact your local animal shelter or rescue group (sometimes located at pet shops). Kids may also play a rotating role in caring for a classroom pet. Kids can symbolically adopt animals at many animal sanctuaries, as well.
  • Volunteering. Supporting elderly, busy or vacationing neighbors by feeding their pets or walking a dog can really help. It’s something you and your kid can do together and provides many teachable moments. It also give kids a sense of what it might be like to care for a pet on a daily basis. Depending on the child’s age and abilities, there may be other settings (like those below) that allow for light volunteering.
  • Visiting. Seeing environments where animals are being cared for allows your child to learn about nurturing, as well as human-animal relationships. Parents can encourage gentle touch as well as awareness of body language and nonverbal communication for relatedness, respect and safety.

Here are a few places to visit and care for animals (both domestic and wild):

  • Cat cafes. Established in Taiwan and popularized in Japan where most apartments don’t allow cats, cat cafes have popped up around the world with locations in most major U.S. cities.
  • Dog parks. Whether at a dog run or just spotting Spot out and about, it’s important to ask the dog’s owner if it’s OK to pet their pup. Kids also need to be taught how to do it gently and carefully. Also, if the leash has a yellow ribbon, don’t approach — that dog needs space because he’s sick, scared or aggressive.
  • Shelters. Kids can visit an animal shelter to donate old blankets, toys or treats, and say hello to the dogs and cats, but it might be tough telling the kids, “We’re just visiting, not bringing one home.’”
  • Petting zoos. Children can care for animals at fairs, farms and zoos by brushing and feeding them.
  • Animal sanctuaries. Sanctuaries, including some zoos and aquariums, are committed to providing safe and healthy refuge for abused, injured or abandoned wildlife in environments specifically designed for the unique animals they support. Many centers provide educational programs and camps where kids can learn about animal welfare.

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. 

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Kids with Pets Experience Endless Benefits — Here Are a Few to Discover

My nephew Oliver has pet loving parents, so animals have always been a big part of their family. From a young age, Ollie learned how to properly play with his pets and read their signals (scratch or bark = too rough!) As he has grown he has taken on the responsibility of feeding and walking their two dogs. Their cat, Kuni, also joins them for walks on their Hawaii hilltop. His mom, Jennifer, says that growing up in a household with pets has provided Oliver with strong social-emotional skills like empathy, care and mindfulness.

Kids who grow up with pets experience endless benefits ranging from lower blood pressure and fewer allergies to increased physical activity. Along with physiological perks, kids experience less anxiety and depression, improved learning outcomes and social-emotional effects. In a recent review of 22 studies, pet relationships were shown to reduce loneliness and increase self-esteem. Kids also engage in more social play, with greater social competence and larger social networks.

There is growing evidence that children with  special needs, particularly those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), can find a calm, friendly animal to be a compelling focal object. A skilled therapist can use animal interactions as a bridge to human social interaction, which can be challenging for children with ASD. Kids who experience anxiety, depression or histories of abuse can find a small furry animal, such as a guinea pig, comforting to touch and hold. Increasingly, schools, libraries and other settings use trained pet therapy animals to help motivate, calm, de-escalate and teach social-emotional learning (SEL).

Oliver used to get mad that Macky would sleep with me at night and not him,” says his mom, Jennifer. “I told him that he does sleep with him, but that once he is off dreaming Macky would come and sleep with me. Oliver did not believe me until I provided him with evidence.” Photo by Jennifer Veltri Kirsch

Pet relationships can help kids build trusting relationships

Some 75 percent of U.S. households have at least one domestic animal, and pets are seen in school settings, neighbors’ homes and other environments. Kids identify their pets as members of their family as well as loyal friends who provide acceptance, emotional comfort and companionship. Dr. Gail Melson, professor emerita at Purdue University, asked a group of 5-year-old pet owners what they did when they felt sad, angry, afraid or when they had a secret to share. More than 40 percent spontaneously mentioned turning to their pets. Kids know their pet pals don’t literally understand, but they feel understood. These relationships can help build trusting relationships with peers and family members.

Kids identify their pets as members of their family as well as loyal friends who provide acceptance, emotional comfort and companionship.

As young children see that their pets are there for them, they begin to learn how to care for their pets in return. To start with, they learn the basic responsibilities of pet ownership by being helpers. Parents can offer age-appropriate prompts to add a scoop of food, refill water, change puppy bedding, etc. Kids will always need supervision for their safety and the pet’s (to a kid, 10 shakes of fish food are better than one, but that can be most dangerous for the fish. Apologies to my cousin Joel for that time I overfed Freckles).

Kids can learn to read their pets’ signals and needs that may differ from their own, likely contributing to perspective-taking and empathy development (Daly & Morton, 2006). They can also practice turn taking and sharing through play scenarios. These are all great trial runs for sibling and peer interactions. Moreover, “Pets provide a good opportunity for children to practice nurturing, a building block for empathy,” says Dr. Melson. “Nurturance provides an important lesson in caregiving, especially for boys who might otherwise consider it to be ‘girl stuff.’” Because pets are dependent on human care for survival, play scenarios tend to focus on nurturing, just as frequently as playing fetch.

Kids’ social play with animals can be compared to human play patterns

Once safety needs are satisfied, children’s interactions with pets are generally more child-directed with little adult intervention. Kids construct and structure play routines with their pets, since most, with the exception of dogs, can’t fully participate. More than other species, dogs have co-evolved in human environments and can thus interpret human signals and offer them in return, for example, rolling over to get a belly rub. With other animals, children will generally play as a parent might scaffold an infant — petting a gerbil, pausing to observe his response, and saying “You like that, huh? Yes? OK, here’s another pet,” providing both sides of the conversation.

Very young children may use their pets as props in make-believe play (having a tea party with kitty or putting it in the baby carriage). The cat will only briefly allow this, but parental supervision is needed so that the animal doesn’t get too stressed out or injured from enthusiastic dress-up activities or tail pulling. Although they seem to anthropomorphize their stuffed animals or toys, children consider live animals to be like people and treat them as such. In fact, children’s social play with animals can be directly compared to play patterns between children and adults.

Types of social play between younger children and their pets:

  • Play with objects: playing catch or fetch with a ball or dangling a string for a kitten.
  • Animal conversation: kids greet, command and verbally confide in their pets, sometimes offering both sides of the dialogue.
  • Animal embodiment: pretending to be the pet and playing as if the child is a member of that animal’s species.
  • Animal pretend play: several kids pretend to be animals when none are present.

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. 

Get Toca Life: Pets on the App StoreGoogle Play or Amazon Appstore.

Kids Talk: Dog Thoughts, Costumes and Quirks

We visited the 19th Annual Great PUPkin Costume Contest  in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, just before Halloween to speak to kids, who were decking their dogs out in over-the-top outfits. We discovered some fun tidbits about how kids think about their pets! Do these kids and their pets remind you of any you know and love?

Wonder Pup

Maebel, age 7

Costume: Wonder Woman

Dog: Coquita

Costume: Wonder Pup

Why did you choose these costumes today? I had this costume and she had that one and we wanted to be twins.

We wanted to be twins.

Henry the Knight

Max, age 5

Costume: Thor, because he’s stronger than anybody!

Dog: Henry

Costume: a knight, because we couldn’t find a skeleton costume

What is your pet thinking? He’s feeling embarrassed, because we are talking about him.

He’s feeling embarrassed.


10-year-old friends presented “The New & Improved Alexander Hamilton” (which came in third place). Pepe the dog is Hamilton and jumps through a hole in the $10 bill.

Ava as Lafayette

Amelia as John Lawrence

Tallulah as Mulligan

Pepe the dog as Hamilton

What’s special about Pepe? This is Pepe’s third time in the contest; last year he dressed up as a disco ball — “Saturday Night Pepe.” He’s not a perfect dog. He’s really sweet, but he has his personality — like if he sees a squirrel he goes crazy, if he sees a cat he goes crazy; and then other times he’s just really sweet and mellow.

He’s not a perfect dog. He’s really sweet, but he has his personality.

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. All photos by Marj Kleinman.

Get Toca Life: Pets on the App StoreGoogle Play or Amazon Appstore.

Kids Talk: If I Were the Boss

Toca Magazine’s Kid’s-Eye View project helps grown-ups see the world through the eyes of kids. We asked some kids what businesses they’d “boss around” if they had the chance. That said, these kids were more interested in doing a job that matches their interests, and helps others, than merely being in charge. They have a lot to teach us about how to treat each other in a mixed-up world.

If you were the boss, what business would you run?

  • Caroline, 5 1/2: A ballet school.
  • Sissy, 7: Animal doctor in charge of a vet’s office.
  • Kaajal, 7: A pet adoption store. We’d have a bunch of different kinds of animals, even tigers, lions and koalas.
  • Logan, 10 & Navin, 10: Car business with cars that could withstand a giant tsunami or flood.
caroline_ballet_TocaBoca_TocaMagazine_watermarkCaroline: A ballet school.

What would your job be as the person in charge?

  • Caroline, 5 1/2: Teaching the kids ballet … and dancing.
  • Sissy, 7: When animals come in, I would give them a checkup or a shot if they’re hurt.
  • Kaajal, 7: Every day I’d have a telephone that connects to a speaker in everybody’s house who works for me and I’d say “Get up, sleepyheads, get up!” and when they come in, I would give out cards that would say what their job is that day.
  • Logan, 10: My job would be to check on production and give pointers.
  • Navin, 10: I would tell people what cars we’re making, what the designs are, and then answer calls from people who want the cars. If Logan and I are co-bosses, then we would both split the work and split our money.
sissy_TocaBoca_TocaMagazine_watermarkSissy: When animals come in, I would give them a checkup or a shot if they’re hurt.

How would you reward your staff if they do a really good job?

  • Caroline, 5 1/2: Give them candy.
  • Sissy, 7: Give them a vacation to Florida or the water park.
  • Kaajal, 7: If I was a rich lady, I would pay them 500 pounds (British money) and also a thousand million dollars for working for me, once every week. For a special reward, they would pick a place they really want to go and I would give them a gift card so they can go there any time they want.
  • Logan, 10: Give them a paycheck that’s only $60 a week. They have to do super good to get over that (e.g., make 10 car parts in one week).
  • Navin, 10: Regular pay would be $700 per week. For a reward, I would let them stay over for dinner at my house.
kaajal_TocaBoca_TocaMagazine_watermarkKaajal: I would pay them 500 pounds and also a thousand million dollars for working for me, once every week.

How would you help your staff solve problems or fix mistakes?

  • Caroline, 5 1/2: Cancel their show until they learn … or just give them another piece of candy.
  • Sissy, 7: If they make five mistakes, they get fired. If they’re not getting along, I would tell them to go in different rooms.
  • Kaajal, 7: If you make a mistake, you tell me and I say “That’s OK, everyone makes mistakes. We’ll have other people help you.”
  • Logan, 10: No paycheck for five weeks!
  • Navin, 10: I would tell them to take a break, but if they weren’t doing their job right or listening to orders, I would pay them less money. If they already received a reward, they would lose that reward. If me and Logan had trouble getting along, we would just take a break, breathe, then come back in, sit, apologize and keep working.
logan_navin_TocaBoca_TocaMagazineLogan and Navin: If me and Logan had trouble getting along, we would just take a break, breathe, then come back in, sit, apologize and keep working.


Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. All photos by Marj Kleinman.

No Parents Allowed: Kids Explore, Take Risks at Junkyard Playgrounds

We have witnessed a seismic shift over the past few generations — a gradual but dramatic decline in children’s free-play opportunities and an increase in childhood mental and emotional disorders. Play is the crucial childhood goal — it’s how kids develop a sense of self, learn how to make their own decisions, solve problems, regulate emotions, exert control, follow rules, make friends and experience joy (Gray, 2011). Parents who create supportive environments for open-ended, self-directed, creative play also provide opportunities for their kids to gain a sense of mastery and competence in their experiences. That self-efficacy sets the stage for a lifetime of higher self-esteem (Harter, 1988, Coopersmith, 1967) and other health benefits. No pressure.

Developmental psychologist Peter Gray notes the importance of fostering resilience through free-play: “Children are designed by nature to teach themselves emotional resilience by playing in risky, emotion-inducing ways. We deprive children of free, risky play, ostensibly to protect them from danger. In the long run, we endanger them far more by preventing such play than by allowing it. And, we deprive them of fun.”


Adventure playgrounds

In 1931, a Danish landscape architect, Carl Theodor Sørensen, noticed that kids were playing everywhere other than the playgrounds he had designed for them, including construction sites. He proposed the idea to build deliberate “junk playgrounds,” particularly for city kids who have less access to natural outdoor play. His vision came to fruition with the first site in 1943 at Emdrup, Denmark. This playground grew out of the need for a safe place where kids could play freely without inciting the German occupying forces. These dedicated “junkyards,” as they were originally called, were stocked with “loose parts” of discarded wood, containers, fabric, and even old train engines, lifeboats and discarded buses. These elements provided a variety of stimulation to be manipulated, destroyed and rebuilt into new inventions. These junk playgrounds began to spread through Denmark, Europe and North America, taking expansive root in the UK.

Lady Marjory Allen of Hurtwood, a British landscape architect and children’s advocate, had been dismayed by “asphalt square” playgrounds with adult-manufactured rigid mechanical equipment that didn’t allow kids to act on their environment or fully express creative ideas. Many adults at the time also noticed that kids enjoyed playing in the rubble of bombed out buildings after World War II. After seeing the Danish junk playgrounds in 1946, Lady Allen set out to design similar sites with as little adult supervision as possible, and the term “adventure playground” was born.

The idea was that kids should confront risks and then conquer them alone, building resilience, self-confidence and courage. Well-trained adult “playworkers” were provided for supervision and would help when asked or needed, particularly in dealing with tools. However, they did not teach, direct, impose or interfere with creative expression. Today, playwork is a respected and well-paid profession in Europe and Japan. In Europe, it is so highly valued that one can get an undergraduate degree in playwork.

The first U.S. adventure playground, called “The Yard,” opened in 1949 in Minneapolis. The next known site was in New York City in the early 1970s and only lasted a few years. By the late ’70s there were 19 around the country, but they began to disappear due to the lack of public funding, contrary to the belief that their demise was due to Americans’ litigious nature and protective parenting (Bergin Wilson, 2017). There are currently five adventure playgrounds around the country. They have recently been making a comeback and are, once again, becoming quite active in New York City.



Three years ago, a group of artists, educators, parents and activists were dismayed at the lack of free, self-directed play in New York City. They came together to create a series of one-day pop-up play days in the park, which have since evolved into play:groundNYC, one of the newest adventure playgrounds in the U.S. It is situated on Governors Island, a thriving public park five minutes from Manhattan by ferryboat. The site was designed to provide kids (6+) with space and materials for self-directed play, discovery and productive risk-taking. The large variety of materials and tools provided include nails, hammers and saws, paint, tires, wood and fabrics.

“play:groundNYC is 50,000 square feet of magic,” says executive director Rebecca Faulkner. “This is a place where children can choose their own adventures, build their own structures and dream big!” Faulkner’s dad played in the ruins of bombed out buildings in East London after the Blitz. “It’s in my family’s DNA,” she said.

Their website has a message for parents: “Expect your child to get messy! Our junkyard play area is for kids only.” Adults can watch from a lovely patch of grassy shade across the way, but are asked to let the kids play on their own, as playworkers help their children navigate the difference between a risk and a hazard. Faulkner reminds parents who are leaning on the fence, “Your children are having a great time; the grass is right over there; you can keep an eye on them from there.”

“It’s really hard for parents to let their kids just be,” says Jenea Singleton, the lead weekend playworker, “but if the parents are around, the kids are really cautious and they’ll think more about the reaction they’re going to get instead of what they’re actually doing. Sometimes they actually panic and second-guess themselves.” To her point, children can gain a sense of “learned helplessness” when they believe they lack the ability to handle things on their own — they feel frustrated and give up easily (Dweck, 1978).




Andrew Coats, a dad who brought his two girls four times last summer, was back for more after his daughters begged to return every day the next summer: “They absolutely love it,” Coats said. “As a parent, I am cautious and nervous that they’re going to do something to themselves, but it’s not any different than what I did (as a kid) in a less controlled environment.”

Kristin Gorman, a mom who was visiting for the first time said, “I appreciate that they’re letting the kids roam free and figure things out for themselves. I’m not going to tell you that I don’t have any hesitation right now, because I am a little bit nervous, but I’m letting go, letting him explore and letting him enjoy himself.”


Ellen Sandseter, a professor in early childhood education, observed in her adventure playground study that “Children have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk. That scares them, but then they overcome the fear. Children are highly motivated to play in risky ways, but they are also very good at knowing their own capacities and avoiding risks they are not ready to take, either physically or emotionally. Our children know far better than we do what they are ready for.”

A field trip to the junkyard at play:groundNYC


Jaeger, 7 (left) said, “It was my first time here and I think it was really fun! I built a crab fishing boat! It was fun to play with the other kids; I had one other person helping me.”
Playworker Sarah Longwell-Stevens (back, left) observes a boy trying to destroy a boat with scissors. “I walked by and he looked at me like ‘Are you gonna stop me?’” Longwell-Stevens said. “I smiled at him and brought him more tools. Sometimes children need to explore how to be destructive. They don’t have a lot of chances for that. You have to destroy things to learn how they work.”
“The slide was the coolest thing,” Sophie, 8 said, “because it’s kinda like what they have in regular playgrounds, but kids made it.”
“I was in there the whole day!” said Theda, 7. “My friends who built the tiny shed — it was really fun to play with them. The boys stole almost all the stuff from me and my friends’ hideout and we’re having war now!”

A growing movement

Because Governor’s Island is a destination, play:groundNYC is planning to bring this experience into communities across New York City, mainly through mobile trucks. This way they can be more accessible on a consistent basis and let kids take ownership over their creations. Another major goal, currently in the works, is to make the playground more fully accessible for children with disabilities.

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit organization devoted to restoring play to children’s lives, hopes to eventually see an adventure playground in every community across the U.S. Parks, zoos, children’s museums, after-school programs and camps are increasingly interested in playwork, and Pop-Up Adventure Play offers free resources to help parents, educators and communities create local opportunities. Ideally, parents will create mini-junkyards or free-play opportunities in their living rooms, backyards or broom closets … and then step out of the way and let them play.

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. All photos by Marj Kleinman.

Prescription for Play: Beautiful Photos Show a Surprising Side of Kids’ Hospital Lives

Maimonides Infants & Children’s Hospital in Brooklyn, like many children’s hospitals, has an active playroom, where child life specialists provide expressive arts and open-ended play opportunities, as well as board and digital games. Kids play here or take toys, crayons, books, Wii consoles and other activities back to their rooms.

The playroom at Maimonides.
Pessy, 4, and Michelle, 5, play together in the playroom at Maimonides.
Alexis Ellis, child life specialist in the inpatient unit at Maimonides, helps Michelle build magnetic block towers just before she’s discharged. 
child_life_michelle_buildsMichelle’s mom waits for her outside while Michelle continues to build with Alexis. When it’s time to leave, Michelle strongly protests — patients get attached to the playroom.
Pessy, 4, enjoys the playroom with her mom, Esty Zelih, who says, “The atmosphere here is really pleasant; she shouldn’t be afraid of this place.”
 “Playing makes her smile!” Esty says about Pessy. “We noticed that she’s getting more comfortable and happy; more natural, and more herself.”
Peter Gismondi from Kids Kicking Cancer does bedside martial arts and meditation with Krystian, 10.
“When I walk in the room, I’m not going to stick him with a needle or take his temperature,” Peter says. “I’m there purely to have fun with him and let him get a little frustration out. It’s a way of empowering kids when they feel helpless and powerless.”
Aileen, age 8, gets a bedside surprise from Yana Babaev, AKA “Freckle Speckle the Clown” from enCourage Kids Foundation.
Aileen says, “I would tell other kids coming into the hospital to not worry, because there are many kids that come here and the doctors help make them feel better. Freckles played with me; I wonder how she does the magic.”
Olivia, 5, is in and out of the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) with chronic asthma. Child life intern Madeha Ayub helped her make lungs out of a bottle, tape, two balloons and two straws. Using Sculpey clay, Olivia learns how her lungs can get clogged, making it harder to breathe.
Daniela Bauer, child life specialist and music therapist at Maimonides Cancer Center, co-creates a syringe painting with Maleha, 12. “Maleha is nonverbal, but very expressive through body language and she LOVES to color. In an environment where so many choices are taken from young patients, giving creative choices to empower patients and giving them a voice beyond speaking can be very therapeutic. She held my hand and directed it; she smiled more and held eye contact with me longer.”

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. All photos by Marj Kleinman.

Prescription for Play: How Pediatric Play Promotes Health and Healing

When I tell someone that I volunteer in pediatric hospitals, I usually spot a sad face across from me. That response is understandable, given that hospitals can be scary and sometimes painful and upsetting. But in fact, there’s no greater place to see joy and resilience on display, all through kids’ natural passion for play.

Whether at their doctor’s office or in the ER, kids find a way to play, particularly with encouragement. Most children’s hospitals today come equipped with a playroom and a bevy of materials and activities, so kids can be kids while hospitalized. Once they see a playroom full of toys, messy finger paints and a silly guy blowing bubbles, they know this place is made for them and they will probably feel safe there. There’s even a team of people whose job is to play with your child: the child life specialists. They become parents’ partners in health and healing.

Meet the child life team: Your play partners

Many parents are surprised to learn that there’s a person solely focused on your child’s emotional health during a hospital stay — and they do it mainly through play. Child life specialists (CLSs) help kids and families adapt to the hospital environment and support them in understanding what’s taking place, thereby reducing the stress of a hospitalization. CLSs are trained in child development and play theory, as well anatomy, research methodology, sociocultural issues, ethics, family systems and bereavement, among other things. They also act as a bridge and advocate with your medical team. Child life departments often include art and music therapists, and are visited by yoga and mindfulness teachers, clowns and other practitioners.

Language of play

Play is the universal language of childhood — in fact, when CLSs assess their patients, they’re watching how kids communicate via play. I spoke to Deborah B. Vilas, a CLS and social worker who teaches child life graduate students at Bank Street College of Education. Vilas says, “Young children won’t sit down and say, ‘I felt sad today and I think I’m anxious about the medical treatment I’m getting.’ When children are playing, they act out scenarios and show us what they’re feeling; they show us what they understand, what they’re capable of and what their coping mechanisms are.” This may seem obvious, but in some hospitals, there’s a misconception that play is frivolous or low on the priority totem pole.

Young children won’t sit down and say, ‘I felt sad today and I think I’m anxious about the medical treatment I’m getting.’

Vilas reminds us, “It’s been proven that when children have play opportunities that they need less medicine, less anesthesia, are more compliant and get better faster. The benefits of play reach beyond the child to assist medical personnel and influence the hospital’s bottom line.”

Benefits of play

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.” Why would all that stop at the hospital? The AAP goes on to state that hospital play is a necessity that helps kids cope with treatment and stay on track, developmentally. The uses and benefits of play in medical settings are varied and significant.

At its essence, play provides a safe space for kids to experiment with unfamiliar and often scary experiences. Through open-ended play, kids can take in new information at their own pace, re-create situations and play out fears until they are familiar enough to gain a sense of mastery over the situation. When supported by an empathetic parent or CLS, this process is deepened and they can better process and release feelings.

At its essence, play provides a safe space for kids to experiment with unfamiliar and often scary experiences.

Open-ended and child-centered play, in particular, are highly beneficial, as they provide opportunities for kids to immerse themselves more deeply in play and lead from a sense of agency. Unfortunately, free play has been on the decline due to our hurried and jam-packed, overscheduled and tech-filled lifestyles, yet it is necessary for skill development, self-regulation, independent thinking and creative problem solving. In the hospital, where kids lack choices, it’s even more crucial to let kids be in charge.

Medical play

One of the roles of the CLS is to normalize the hospital experience through play. They might do familiarization activities, for example, building a robot using a bedpan, tongue depressors and IV tubing, all taped together with bandages. Suddenly medical supplies aren’t scary, cold, weird objects that only doctors and nurses use, and kids can “hack” the hospital.

Going a step further, medical play with a toy doctor’s kit and/or real medical supplies can 1.) educate children about an upcoming procedure, 2.) let them process their experience, before, during or after a procedure, and 3.) put the child back in the driver’s seat.


Meghan Amorosa, CLS, engages Jan, age 4, in medical play at Brooklyn Hospital Center, Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo by Marj Kleinman.

Children experience a strong sense of helplessness, vulnerability and anxiety when faced with uncertainty and misconceptions (let’s face it, so do grownups). Procedural support helps educate, greatly reducing feelings of unpredictability, and increases a level of mastery.

Meghan Amorosa, child life specialist at Brooklyn Hospital Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., says, “A really big part of medical play is about giving patients choice and control over their own hospital experience. Instead of being the patient, they become the doctor and play on their own little patient.” She observed that Jan (pictured above) gave the doll a lot of shots, which is typical in patients who’ve been poked a lot. In fact, “If a kid gives a doll a million shots, they’re showing you how painful that was for him,” says Vilas.

A really big part of medical play is about giving patients choice and control over their own hospital experience.

Movement plays a key role in healing.

Movement plays a key role in healing. Jaiyana, 4, rides her IV pole. Photo by Marj Kleinman.

Movement also plays a key role in healing, which is why doctors want patients up and walking almost right after surgery. If kids can get out of bed and step on bubble wrap or a floor piano, ride a hospital wagon around the unit, or skate down the hallway on their IV pole, they get the blood circulating, feel more energized and also empowered at the same time.

Play is powerful and can be tailored towards your child’s individual age, temperament and tastes. Read on to find out 10 ways to support kids going to the hospital, as patients or visitors.

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology.

Prescription for Play: 10 Tips for Taking Kids to the Hospital

Whether your child is hospitalized with an acute or chronic condition, or you’re bringing a healthy child to visit an ill parent or sibling, the hospital can be intimidating and stressful for you as a parent. Here are some coping strategies to support the entire family:

  • 1. Call ahead. In preparing for a hospital visit, call and ask if you can speak to a child life specialist. The CLS can describe what to expect at the hospital so that you understand it and then help you get more comfortable when preparing your child. If the hospital doesn’t have a CLS, there may be one in private practice or in your community.
  • 2. Be honest. If a child is going to be hospitalized or visiting someone in the hospital, it’s important to be honest about what’s going to happen, always reassuring the child that you will be there. Parents are the child’s strongest comfort, and the trust that a child feels in their parent is a foundation for them throughout their lives.
  • 3. Validate feelings. Keep in mind that a certain amount of sadness, crying and anger are all normal; it doesn’t mean the kid isn’t coping well or that you did anything wrong as a parent. You can do a lot just by validating those feelings.
  • 4. Focus on the five senses. Use gentle, age-appropriate language in describing what’s about to happen, focusing on the five senses: “You’re going to see this, you’re gonna hear this, you’re gonna feel this…”
  • 5. Provide props for pretend play. For younger kids who are still engaged in imaginative play, purchase a toy doctor kit and/or a bunch of supplies for kids to free play with (e.g., bandages, tongue depressors, gauze, tape). It’s also helpful to let them play out their experiences after they leave the ER, a longer hospital stay or even a well-visit. Deborah B. Vilas, a CLS and social worker, says, “Providing a kid with this tells them it’s OK to play about this.” Learning will also be deeper when it’s hands-on.
  • 6. Ask questions. Once at the hospital, if there’s anything you don’t understand, ask. Lenia Batas, director of child life at Maimonides Infants & Children’s Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., says, “There’s no shame in asking questions. It’s our job to make sure that we educate and inform families and if we’re not doing that, it’s important that you have a voice and advocate for your needs.”
  • 7. Support siblings. If you have other children at home, they may be feeling overlooked, fearful or confused. They will need explanations and comfort just like their sibling does, as well as opportunities for creative self-expression and play. Some hospitals and camps have programs for siblings, and a CLS can also help a child get ready to visit a sibling or parent in the hospital.
  • 8. Seek help in working with school. CLSs can help schools understand the needs of children facing chronic illness when they return to the classroom and support their classmates in understanding and coping with their fears.
  • 9. If you don’t see a CLS, ask. If you don’t see or interact with a CLS during your child’s hospital stay, make sure to ask for these services in each department you encounter. Note their lack (or their value) in your post-discharge questionnaire; hospitals care very much about what their patients want.
  • 10. Take care of yourself. Your own self-care is essential so that you can best support your child and family. Make sure to take breaks, eat nutritious meals, get plenty of rest and don’t forget to PLAY. Yes, you too get a prescription for play!

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. Photo by Marj Kleinman.

Prescription for Play: Resources for Supporting Kids and Families

  • Child Life Council — parenting resources from the main CL organization (scroll down for downloadable tip sheets on supporting each age group from infants to teens)
  • Kids Health — medical information individually curated for parents, kids and teens
  • One Voice 4 Kids — how to create a less-threatening environment for children undergoing medical procedures
  • Art with Heart — nonprofit helping children overcome trauma through creative expression


  • Child’s Play —a game industry charity providing kids with toys and games in over 100 hospitals worldwide
  • Hole in the Wall Gang Camp free summer and winter camps for kids facing serious illnesses with a special week for siblings; they also bring the magic of camp to hospitals


  • Project Sunshine — NYC-based nonprofit providing free educational, recreational, and social programs to children and families living with medical challenges

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. Header photo by Marj Kleinman.