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Child Life Specialist

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Field description

The profession of child life specialist was created to help children and their families navigate the emotionally and physically demanding process of coping with hospitalization. Child life specialists use their knowledge of child development and developmentally appropriate interventions to educate, prepare and support children through difficult tests, procedures, and the sometimes drastic changes that happen within their families due to chronic or acute illness, treatment, and recovery.

As part of the health care team, child life professionals advocate for the special needs of children and their families. Child life programs provide children with opportunities to engage in normal play and recreational activities that promote growth, development, and feelings of success and fulfillment. Child life professionals promote the role of parents and other family members as full partners on the health care team and promote the philosophy of patient- and family-centered care.

Characteristics of a typical child life specialist:

  • Enjoys working with children and parents
  • Has excellent written and verbal communication skills
  • Can adjust language and demeanor to the developmental and emotional state of the child
  • Works well with a variety of health care professionals and other support people
  • Can manage the emotional stress inherent in working with children who have life-threatening diseases
  • Can manage a variety of tasks simultaneously
  • Is able to explain complex medical procedures and information to all ages

More about child life

The field of child life began to flourish in the United States and Canada in the early 1960s through the pioneering work of Emma Plank (and others), who trained with Maria Montessori and used the principles of child development to promote appropriate care for this special population in the hospital. Prior to this time, it was not uncommon for parents to be excluded from the pediatric wards of hospitals except for brief visitation hours, sometimes just on weekends.

Today, we acknowledge the special emotional and educational needs of children by providing an environment and programs that facilitate the primary role of family and support, which encourages adjustment to the hospital and to health care through the growing years.

Most, but certainly not all, child life specialists work in hospitals. Typically, the work centers on helping children and their families adjust to and cope with the hospital environment and the many events that happen during an admission. Child life specialists facilitate adjustment and coping through play, education and other activities that allow for mastery of the sometimes difficult procedures and changes happening in the patient's and family's lives.

Some child life specialists work in outpatient settings such as clinics, dental offices, hospice, camps or community intervention programs for children with special health care needs. Since the professional skills of child life specialists involve helping children and families under stress, their skills have applications in many other situations.


Many colleges and universities have a child life specialist program that awards a bachelor's degree. If the chosen school does not have a specific curriculum in child life, a student must complete a bachelor's degree in a related field. Some students major in child development, child and family studies, psychology, early childhood education, or a similar area.

In any case, course work is required in certain areas to be eligible for the current certification process, which virtually all child life specialists pursue.

The certification process also requires an internship of at least 480 hours. Many child life programs in hospitals have internship programs. Following the completion of the degree program and the internship, assuming the required number of eligible courses has been completed, the candidate is then eligible to take the certification exam.


The certification exam is offered through the Child Life Council (CLC), the only international professional organization for the child life profession. For complete information about the certification process, see the Certification section of the Child Life Council website.

Career opportunities

The number of child life jobs continues to rise. Virtually every children's hospital across North America has child life staff. Most children's hospitals are in large urban areas. The CLC posts job opportunities to members on its website. To find a job in child life, it might be necessary to relocate to a different state.

Earnings potential

Results from a child life salary survey in 2012 indicated that, on average, entry-level child life professionals earned $39,263, but this varied based on the region of the country, position held, number of years of experience in the field, education level, certification status and size of the child life program.

Professional organization

  • Feb 25, 2015
  • ART544409