Science activity visits in hospitals

Project aims:

W5’s stated aim is to “fire the spirit of discovery whilst unlocking the scientist and creativity in everyone” that means all members of society, especially children and young adults. W5 endeavours to actively engage with those who, for reasons beyond their control, may be excluded from normal activities. So, W5 undertakes numerous outreach programmes to spread that spirit to those for whom it is not possible (or convenient) to visit W5 itself. Those who are unfortunate enough to have been hospitalised are unable to visit W5, so W5 targets such areas specifically as prospects for outreach programmes.

In addition to the physical stresses of illness and surgical procedures, long-term hospitalisation can have serious psychological effects on patients and their families. Boredom and lack of stimuli can both cause serious difficulties, not only for the children and young adults, but also for parents and families. W5’s aims for this programme were to offer a break from routine, some fun interaction with different people and a chance to learn something new.

Whilst the parents and families commonly join in with the activities, for some W5’s visit is a valuable opportunity to get some respite, a breath of fresh air or just a coffee to recharge their batteries. Once the visit is over there is then an opportunity for the child to pass on their own new-found knowledge to their families and carers; this in itself is furtherance of W5’s stated aim.

Summary of activity:

W5’s education staff visit the RVHSC in periods when the hospital’s own education staff are unavailable (such as during the summer and Easter holidays). Unless fewer are specifically requested by the hospital [staff], 2 members of W5 staff attend the RVHSC on each visit.
On most occasions the W5 staff separate and visit different wards under the supervision of a RVHSC Play Specialist. They meet with patients on a 1-on-1 or small-group basis and present a short demonstration or hands-on activity based on simple science concepts. The activities are all related to the Northern Ireland Curriculum and have a focus on learning through fun. They are designed such that the patients produce something reflecting the science concept which they can keep once the visit has been completed. An example includes making borax-slime to investigate the properties of solids, liquids & gases and some very basic chemistry – with the young patients able to keep their own slime at the end of the demonstration to continue to have fun with.
On other occasions the W5 staff put-on a 50-minute show in the RVHSC foyer to larger audiences – these shows were composed of a series of linked demonstrations based around Newton’s laws of motion and had a focus on fun and interactivity.
The programme was delivered by the education team from W5 and Play Specialists from the Royal Victoria Hospital for Sick Children (RVHSC) in Belfast, Northern Ireland. During the course of the project more than a dozen members of W5’s education team and numerous play specialists have been involved. The visits have reached over 1,000 children over the course of the programme so far. These are children who have been in the Royal Victoria for Sick Children.

We have fully realised the importance of the visit to the patients and in some circumstances this is very humbling. W5’s team really value this programme as being worthwhile and are very grateful both to Children in Need that help fund the work and the staff at the Royal Victoria Hospital for their advice and support.

Evaluation approach:

Formal evaluation was not deemed appropriate for this project, however testimonies from the RVHSC Play Specialists have been collected each year as part of the reports made to Children in Need (who have sponsored the programme).

For example ‘Just a quick note to let you know how beneficial I believe the visits to the ward are. You and your staff have a great rapport with all the children you work with, you see past the tubes, wise, disfigurements etc and treat every child with respect; you don’t focus on their illness but see them as the child they are. You bring laughter and enjoyment to their lives, you bring your experiments that fascinate them, particularly useful for the child who has been in for some time and has exhausted all we as play specialists have to offer.’ Hospital Play Specialist.

What went well:

The 1-to-1 nature of the visits has proven very popular with the patients, who appreciate treatment as individuals. Likewise, that the choice of activity is to some extent “up to them” rather than prescribed is welcomed.

More involved activities can seem daunting so several simple activities are preferable to a single complicated one. Something as simple as learning to make a paper aeroplane and adjusting it to display different flight characteristics can be immensely rewarding.

The practice of having the two W5 staff split-up and visit separate wards allows more patients to receive a visit and increases awareness of the project in general.

Having the RVHSC Play department staff accompany the W5 staff has also worked well. Not only are the Play staff familiar with the patients, they are also able to liaise with the RVHSC staff around them.

What was learned:

We have learned that although the larger-scale shows are well-received, the individual 1-on-1 sessions are more effective and appreciated. It was also noted that the limitations of some patients’ treatment regimes meant that they were unable to attend the shows, making the shows somewhat counter-productive. Initially it was envisaged that the shows would comprise approximately half of the visits, but over the course of the programme these have been scaled-back in favour of the bedside visits.

We have also learned to theme several of our demonstrations and activities similarly. This facilitates preparation and delivery of a range of activities to suit all ages and forms a series of linked activities when more time is available to spend with a single patient.

We have also realised the importance of the visit to the patients and the flexibility in relation to arrangements. W5’s team really value this programme as being worthwhile and value it as much as the patients do.

Top tips and advice for others

- Formation of a good working relationship between the RVHSC Play department and W5’s education department is key to the success of this programme. The participation of the RVHSC’s Play staff and their comfort in working with the W5 staff has been essential. The enthusiasm of the Play staff regularly overcomes any trepidation some patients may have, resulting in a much more positive and enjoyable experience for all.

- Maintaining the number of delivery staff at a low level (in the case of this project the delivery staff have typically numbered only 5 at a time) has fostered this relationship and also has allowed W5 staff to build a rapport with long-term patients that they have met during visits over a series of weeks.

- Remember that in projects like this you are interacting with individuals, each with their own different and very special requirements. Remembering to treat each patient as an individual and being prepared to be flexible is crucial.

- When emotionally difficult circumstances arise it’s key to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing.

- Those that find the project emotionally difficult should try to avoid focussing on that aspect in anticipation of an upcoming visit. Emotionally difficult instances do occur, but individuals remain individuals regardless of the circumstances. Our experience has taught us that the patients at the RVHSC are very often delightful company - far more often than not, in fact.

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