Carolyn O'Grady reports on a hospital's innovative use of children's furniture to brighten the stay of young patients
As you enter Treasure Island Ward at Barnet General Hospital, a sign cautions that this is "a white-coat-free area". It is, as the name suggests, a children's ward and white coats can be intimidating. The sign is just one indication of the care and sensitivity that has gone into the design, equipping and staffing of this ward.
Treasure Island Ward is housed in a new block that was completed this April, the first phase in a major building programme that will significantly enlarge the hospital. Made up of rooms including small children's wards, a playroom and an intensive care unit for babies, it is a bright, colourful area.
A sea theme dominates - fish, seahorses and seaweed are painted on the walls or hang from mobiles from the ceiling. The playroom is called Palm Beach and the small wards are called "bays", - Seal Bay, Dolphin Bay and Turtle Bay. The area allocated to teenagers is named Atlantis.
The furniture, equipment and toys are new, bought with money raised by a benefactor of the hospital. The person charged with buying and designing it was Olwyn Evanson, the hospital's play specialist.
It was very different to equipping a nursery, she emphasises. "I didn't want it to look pre-school. The age of the children that come here ranges from birth to 16, and I wanted the room to appeal to older children as well."
Few manufacturers produce equipment and furniture that meet this demand, she adds - especially as she also wanted a lot of storage space and for everything to be accessible, so children could help themselves to toys, stationery and equipment, either to take back to their bays or to play with in the room.
The playroom is open all the time and is sometimes unsupervised, so safety was important. Flexibility and mobility were other considerations because staff often have to move furniture around to make way for beds. Furniture also sometimes has to be moved to other areas. Ms Evanson's job entails providing play areas for those other parts of the hospital accommodating children, such as the children's outpatients, day surgery, antenatal section, where pregnant women are often waiting with children, and the waiting area for the the babies' intensive care unit.
Previously, the most many of these different sections of the hospital would have had to offer by way of distraction for children was a cardboard box full of toys. Now in clearly demarcated areas, there is a range of toys and furniture including shelving for books and magazines, child-size sofas decorated with butterflies, activity mats, wooden cars to climb in and on and kitchen areas. There are also cupboards containing paper and coloured pens and soft toys.
On first sight the Palm Beach playroom looks like a well-equipped nursery school room - most of the equipment is from the Galt catalogue, which caters for playgroups, nurseries and primary schools - but on inspection it can be seen that it offers a wider range of activities than most nurseries, some of which are suitable for older children.
So, there is a cosy, bean-bag and cushion-filled corner with soft toys for young children, and, dominating the centre of the room, a play cube, a square wooden box with activities on all side including metal spines along which balls and cubes can be pushed, as well as a magnetic game. A kitchen area contains a small oven, cooking pots, table, chair and sink.
But there is also a reading area which has book shelves containing books for older children as well as toddlers, and tables with puzzles for all ages, printing equipment (ink pads and printing stamps) and a painting area with easel.
Displayed on the child-height shelves, which also serve to demarcate areas, are a multitude of toys and games, including musical instruments such as maracas and handbells, toy telephones and construction equipment such as Lego.
Although the toys are in bright primary colours, the furniture is all natural wood. "I didn't want everything too brightly coloured because of the the risk of inducing hyperactivity," says Ms Evanson. One of her main objectives was to make the room as tranquil as possible.
A hospital playroom, she emphasises, is an important place. "Hospital can be strange and frightening to a child. For many children it is the playroom and schoolroom (which is located elsewhere in the building) that bring normality. We don't just cater to the play needs of children but also to their emotional needs and those of their parents."
Much of her work in the playroom involves preparing children for surgery or other procedures. So, for example, a child who is going to be put in traction may be prepared by play with a teddy, which, first, the staff and then the child bandages and applies plaster of Paris to.
"Many children have odd ideas about how the plaster of Paris gets on them, " says Ms Evanson "It allays fears if you show them and discuss it."
It is early days and the play staff are still experimenting with what works best and where. But when the new areas are working well, Ms Evanson intends to turn her attention to the flat roof area outside the playroom. She hopes eventually that a fund-raising effort will enable the hospital to adapt it, to make an imaginatively designed area to meet the needs of children in hospital for outside play.
For details about the Galt range of furniture and equipment, contact Galt, Culvert Street, Oldham, Lancashire OL4 2ST. Tel: 0161 627 5086