Helping Kenyan children be children

Morgan Livingstone, at right, with Kenyan child life staff members Anita, at left, and Phillister, middle, during infant massage training. PHOTO: Morgan Livingstone

Play is a child’s work – it’s how they explore the world they are in.

This well-worn tenet is often cited in the context of early education – Maria Montessori popularized the phrase, although it has early philosophical origins – but the value play provides children goes well beyond the classroom.

Just ask Beacher Morgan Livingstone, a child life specialist whose life’s work has focused on improving the lives of children here in Toronto and also abroad.

She’s currently working with another Beacher and child life specialist, Carolynn Darrell Cheng, to fund raise money for educational, durable toys that can be used as part of a budding child life program at a large public hospital in Kenya.

Livingstone has spent the better part of the last decade building child life programming in Africa – particularly at the Sally Test Pediatric Centre in Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital in Eldoret, Kenya.

That program, which began in 2006 under the Daisy Eye Foundation – now called World Eye Cancer Hope – has grown to include seven child life health workers, teaching staff, infant staff, a librarian, and a seamstress. All of the staff are Kenyan – Livingstone aims to create a sustainable local program that ultimately she can step away from and allow to grow on its own.

The Sally Test Pediatric Centre “is a great place to incubate this brand new profession in Kenya, because we needed to do it the right way, and we needed to do it a sustainable way so that it was local staff and local support.”

Local sustainability is important in global health for a number of reasons, said Livingstone, noting that she learned early on that economically, it makes more sense to set up programs in the patients’ countries that can help a number of children rather than supporting one child’s trip to Canada for treatment.

Livingstone and her team have been offering professional exams in Kenya, with two team members now certified so that they can offer local internships. Research is set to be a part of the program, and the project has an aim to have materials and toys built in Kenya.

That’s where Livingstone and Darrell Cheng’s toy fundraising drive comes in.

When a new pediatric facility was built on the campus, the hospital layout changed. Instead of the former single playroom where all the children would congregate, there are now six separate playrooms, specific to each ward.

It’s a positive development – but challenging in that the team now has to outfit each playroom with similar toys. The toys need to be educational, durable, easy to clean with disinfectant.

Human body and medical play toys are important, because the children are often doing medical play to help put their hospital stay in context.

“In a setting like a hospital, play offers so many different benefits. We want to provide play for catharsis, play for coping, play for distraction, play for normalization,” she said.

“Treatments that tend to be shorter [in Canada] can take a little bit longer there, so these kids are hospitalized a little bit longer than we’d hope. So the provision of child life helps them cope better, being able to play helps them with stress and manage their overall hospital experience and they go home sooner,” she said, noting that in Kenya, children can often wait longer than anticipated for surgery because an adult VIP can be admitted while the child is waiting and take their spot.

“No child can eat before a surgery, so usually for about 12 hours before they aren’t allowed to eat or drink,” she said. “So if you extend [that waiting time] because some VIP comes in, it can be very difficult for little guys.”

Livingstone said it can also sometimes be difficult to sell donors on the need for toys and child life workers.

“Our program is so grassroots, I’m functioning on a teeny tiny budget with very little,” she said.

“Someone would much rather buy a piece of equipment like a new CT scan which costs thousands and thousands of dollars … than provide someone like a child life specialist, who can actually teach the child how to go through that CT scan successfully, quickly, in order to make sure that more people get seen by the CT scan. It’s a challenge.”

But the team is prepared to rise to the challenge and is encouraged by the growth they’ve already experienced.

The hope is that toys created in Canada can be used as prototypes for Kenyan-specific toys.

“I’m really hoping that with these high quality toys that Carolynn and our donors are offering that we’ll be able to get some ideas for the local artisans and local craftsmen to help us,” she said.

“One of the toys is a wonderful cutout of the human body. It’s a layered puzzle where each level has a different part of the body – so the outside is the skin and the hair and the clothes, the next one is the muscles, the next one is the bones, the next one is the organs. It’s a great concept that I know we could do there, but we just need to be able to show them. I can only imagine how beautiful the paintings will be in Kenya.”

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A few people have commented they would like a link to the fundraising campaign. I don’t think they realize it is embedded in the text. Perhaps a special link? Thanks for the wonderful write up Anna Killen!

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