Oncology Child Life Services

The goal of Child Life Services at CHOP's Cancer Center is to help children and families cope with the emotional stress and anxiety associated with cancer diagnosis and treatment.

The program is staffed by child life specialists, creative arts therapists and teachers experienced in child development, behavior, education and family systems.

Child life specialists

A cancer diagnosis may cause children of all ages to experience emotions such as fear, shame, confusion and loneliness which can inhibit their normal development. Child life specialists collaborate with hospital team members and parents to encourage understanding and provide education. Through therapeutic play, patients can creatively express their feelings about the treatments and procedures they receive, providing an outlet for common stressors and misconceptions associated with medical procedures.

During supervised medical play sessions, patients may use real medical equipment on dolls, allowing them to express anger and other feelings related to their diagnosis and treatment. In addition, child life specialists prepare children for medical procedures to help decrease anxiety and enhance coping. 

Because a child’s well-being depends on the support of the entire family, child life specialists also provide education, support, guidance and activities to siblings. Siblings are given the opportunity to address any feelings of guilt, fear and lack of attention. We also invite siblings to participate in various sibling workshops throughout the year including hospital-wide Sibshops (offered to all siblings of any unit throughout the hospital during the year) and sibling groups specifically for the oncology population.

Art therapists

Art therapists use the creative process of art-making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. Trained in counseling psychology, art therapists utilize art to help children develop coping skills, promote relaxation and express difficult thoughts and feelings.

While surgery, chemotherapy and other medical interventions place children in a passive role in their treatment, making art requires that they become active participants in their healthcare. Art therapy provides an opportunity for control in appropriate situations and promotes communication with others.

When patients struggle to find the right words, art therapists assess and create developmentally appropriate, non-threatening ways to help process feelings without relying on verbalizations.

Art therapy groups are extremely helpful for children and adolescents to make stronger interpersonal connections with each other in the context of illness. Groups are offered several times weekly in the playroom on the oncology unit and referrals are made by members of the treatment team for individual art therapy sessions.

Music therapists

Our music therapists know that music is good medicine. Music has been shown to help kids with health or educational problems by improving their psychological, physical, cognitive or social functioning. Ongoing research shows that music therapy has multiple benefits for pediatric cancer patients including:

  • Reduces anxiety and stress
  • Provides a space for the expression of feelings
  • Reduces experiences of pain and discomfort
  • Improves mood
  • Returns a sense of control to the patient
  • Supports cognitive and physical development
  • Provides positive environmental stimulation and comfort

Music therapy is offered in a group setting weekly for patients who are able to leave their rooms, as well as at the bedside for individual sessions. Referrals for music therapy are made by members of the treatment team.


School is an important part of every child's life. By participating in the Hospital School Program, school-age children can continue to achieve academic goals and interact with peers. The Hospital School program is staffed by certified teachers who collaborate with the student's classroom or homebound teacher and other healthcare professionals involved with the patient's care to provide appropriate educational services. Educational sessions are provided in a group setting or at bedside, as medically appropriate.

In addition to providing instruction during an inpatient stay, hospital schoolteachers also assist families in the following areas:

Child activity coordinators

Special activities and programming are an exciting part of a visit to the hospital, both on the inpatient unit in the Cancer Center and the outpatient clinic and Day Hospital. The child life specialists and child activity coordinators work together daily in order to offer normalizing activities for patients and family members. These may include seasonal craft projects, special visitors, magic shows and interactive events such as face painting and “Spa Day."

The Cancer Center also partners with various community and nonprofit organizations to offer special programs and events at the hospital, including Beads of Courage, Artlings, Flashes of Hope, Little Smiles, the annual hospital prom and many more.