The Pro

When play is therapy

Senior child life specialist Fadzilah Kamsin tells Joan Chew why she plays with children in the hospital

National University Hospital senior child life specialist Fadzilah Kamsin, 35, focuses on the psycho-social needs of children who require medical treatment.
National University Hospital senior child life specialist Fadzilah Kamsin, 35, focuses on the psycho-social needs of children who require medical treatment.PHOTO: TIFFANY GOH FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Q I specialise in providing support to children and teenagers who require medical treatment because...

A I have always been intrigued by the complexity of human psychology, especially that of young people.

What they experience during their younger years will have an impact on their adult life, so it is essential that they receive support in building their resilience while coping with illness or a loved one's death.

Q One little-known fact about traumatic life experiences is...

A Their effects are long-lasting and will have an impact on how children view the world.

Those who have been traumatised see the world as a frightening and dangerous place. If this sense of helplessness carries over into adulthood, it will set the stage for further trauma.

That is why we need to help children build positive relationships or let them receive treatment so they can heal and feel safe again.

  • Bio Box


    Age: 35

    Occupation: Senior child life specialist at National University Hospital Ms Fadzilah worked as a special  education teacher for five years before she considered switching to art therapy.

    She was intrigued by the approach of integrating psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process to improve a person's mental health and well-being.

    She jumped at the opportunity to be a child life specialist at the National University Hospital in 2005 and is the only such allied health professional at the hospital now.

    Through a series of planned activities involving different types of play, education or creative self-expression, she guides young patients and their families through the process of coping with chronic illnesses, hospitalisation and even the loss of a loved one.

    She also educates caregivers on how to help children cope with potentially stressful life situations.

    Ms Fadzilah, who is single, has a Bachelor of Special Education from The Flinders University of South Australia and a Master of Health Science (Child and Adolescent Health) from the University of Sydney.

    Joan Chew

Q What I do is like being...

A A vacation planner.

I help patients escape from their life stressors and be immersed in playful and creative activities that allow them to experience what they choose to.

I take them through an experience that will make them feel relaxed, happy and rejuvenated.

Q There is no typical day for me because...

A I attend to diverse cases. Each day is filled with new challenges.

Work starts at 8.30am and ends at 6pm. I spend 30 minutes to an hour with each patient, with shorter sessions for the younger ones.

Outside of work, I spend time with my infant niece, attend classes such as Braille, develop my interest in graphic design by creating wedding cards or sell the tote bags I have designed to raise funds for charity.

I enjoy travelling solo and will seek opportunities to volunteer while abroad. I have volunteered at an orphanage in South Korea for children and adults with special needs.

Q I come across all types of cases...

A With some children having been traumatised, either by medical experience - especially from invasive procedures such as blood-taking - or abuse.

Others are coping with various types of pain; having low self-esteem and poor emotional health as a result of their illnesses; or undergoing grief and bereavement because of their regressive condition or a sibling's poor health.

I work with babies less than a year old to adolescents up to 18 years old.

I also help their parents better understand their stressors so they can manage these positively to promote their children's resilience.

Q I love patients who are...

A Still able to smile, laugh and have a positive outlook on life although they have to experience painful and challenging situations when coping with their illnesses or during hospitalisation.

Q Patients who get my goat are...

A Non-existent. Some may appear unapproachable or difficult, but I take it as a challenge to build rapport and develop therapeutic relationships with them.

Q Things that put a smile on my face are...

A When patients and their parents are able to smile again.

With the stress of managing their children's illness, parents sometimes forget to smile or have forgotten how their children look when they are smiling.

Q It breaks my heart when...

A Sick children are unable to be caressed and touched by their parents because they are placed in incubators and are attached to machines and tubes.

At their age, they yearn to be soothed and calmed through touch. This lack of touch or attachment may delay their development.

Also, I feel sad when I see parents unable to embrace the joyful experience of parenthood. Their only hope may be for their little one to survive to see the light of day.

Q I wouldn't trade places for the world because...

A I feel that I am in a fun profession as my work is to provide playful treatment - that is, to utilise play as a medium to help children address their fears and concerns.

Q My best tip...

A For parents of children with chronic illnesses is that your positivity in coping with this challenge will give strength to your children to bounce back to good heath.

As they seek treatment to heal the physical pain, their emotional pain should not be overlooked. During treatment, let them embrace their childhood through play as it will help in their emotional healing.

Correction note: An earlier version of this story said that Ms Fadzilah worked as a special  education teacher for five years before she delved into art therapy. This is incorrect.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 08, 2015, with the headline 'When play is therapy'. Print Edition | Subscribe