Meet My Team: For Mayo Clinic’s Child Life staff, play is serious business

Child life specialists care for Mayo Clinic's youngest patients and their families, providing education, support and opportunities to play. Learn what a typical day is like for them, what they look for in new colleagues, and what they'd be called if they were a band.

Sydney Bendtsen always knew she wanted to work with children in "a unique and impactful way."

She found her dream job as a member of the Child Life team at the Mayo Clinic Children's Center.

"Being a child life specialist is a way to help children and families during some of their most difficult and challenging times," Bendtsen says. "The work can be hard, but when you're able to see children and their families successfully navigate a situation they never could have imaged getting through, it's the best feeling ever."

For Bendtsen and her colleagues, balancing the serious and silly sides of life is all in a day's work.

"I can go to my colleagues for professional advice, debriefing and guidance, but also to share jokes, pranks and to simply talk about life," she says.

Child Life staff include, from left, beginning at the top: Emily Weis, Michael Wridt, Hannah Graefe, Julie Peschges, Amy Olson; Row 2, Diana Moll, Maureen Howell, Erin McGrath, Cassie Ricci, Val Stuve, Jessica Koppelman; Row 3, Tammy Lepisto, Anna Kooiman, Abel Abraham, Madeline Geil; Row 4, Haley Wildenberg, Emily Kerska, Allison Brockert, Ashley Preuss, Claire Nameth; Row 5: Sydney Bendtsen, Paula Hampel, Danielle Bjorheim, Kennedy Jay, Mary Olofson; Row 6: Jennifer Rodemeyer, Amy Fabian and Alicia (facility dog), Andy Saunders, Carly Festenstein, Tara Lodermeier, Gracie Fairfax, Paige Dighton, Carli Tourdot, Dagney Willey Adamson, Laura Eid.

The team is full of givers — and takers.

"If you ever have extra treats or snacks to get rid of, bring them on over to the Child Life offices," Bendtsen says. "We'll definitely be able to take care of that problem for you."

The News Center team asked Bendtsen to answer questions about her job and her team.

Tell us about your team. What is it your team does?

We are the Child Life Program that supports the Mayo Clinic Children's Center. Within our team, we have certified child life specialists, child life assistants, music therapists, a schoolteacher and our wonderful facility dog, Alicia.

We are often providing support to patients and families during some of the most difficult times in their lives.

Sydney Bendtsen

Our goal is to work together to enhance the coping of pediatric patients and their families through interventions that empower, educate and guide these young patients and their loved ones during healthcare experiences.

How do you spend most of your day?

I wish I could say that I spend most of my day building Lego kits, making slime and challenging pediatric patients to intense games of UNO, but that typically is not the case. Luckily, there is a part of my day that involves some of these playful activities, but that is in addition to much more.

I try to fill my days with direct patient care, whether that means supporting patients during procedures, providing preparation and education interventions, or engaging in some of those fun activities I noted above. But, to provide well-rounded patient care, I'm also spending time at a computer to review charts, document patient and family interactions, and coordinate care with other interdisciplinary team members.

Then come the tasks beyond patient care, like working on committee duties, helping with the planning of Sibshops programming, and helping orient new members of our team. I also try to squeeze in some bathroom breaks, fuel my body with a snack or two, and spend time with my co-workers.

What might surprise people about the work your team does?

Although we are experts in play and the foundation of our practice is play, our scope of practice greatly expands beyond providing toys and activities. We are often providing support to patients and families during some of the most difficult times in their lives.

This may include providing developmentally appropriate education through medical play to a 5-year-old patient who just received a cancer diagnosis, helping a family create beautiful keepsakes during end-of-life situations, or creating a positive, welcoming and comfortable environment for a patient and family who will spend months in the hospital while awaiting a heart transplant.

We love that we are often referred to as the "fun people," but it may surprise others that the way we play can look very different within the situations we encounter.

We are consistently thinking, 'What can we do to make this experience a little bit easier, less stressful, or more comfortable for this patient and family?

Sydney Bendtsen

Everyone at Mayo contributes to caring for patients. How does your team do that?

My team contributes to patient care by homing in on the emotional and psychosocial aspects of healthcare experiences. Beyond the physical healing, we focus on how patients and families are processing, understanding and coping during these experiences.

We are consistently thinking, "What can we do to make this experience a little bit easier, less stressful, or more comfortable for this patient and family?" Our Child Life team strives to have patients and families feel more prepared and better equipped and to gain a sense of empowerment and capability.

Child Life staff gathered for a social event, where they made macrame coasters.

You're going to hire a new team member. Describe your ideal candidate.

There are definitely some important qualities and skills that are needed to be on our Child Life team. In my opinion, among the most important are having strong communication skills, a playful and go-getter personality, and the ability to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable.

We are often supporting very emotionally charged situations, sometimes with only seconds to process what we are jumping into. This is a reality of our role, and it can be tough, but being comfortable and willing to step into any situation is a huge part of our work.

What is a recent team success that you're proud of?

We had another extremely successful holiday season at the hospital and throughout our clinics. My favorite part of the holiday season was being able to witness all the smiles, laughs and tears of joy within our Snowflake Station, which gives patients and families the opportunity to "shop" for gifts during a very challenging and stressful time in their lives.

I personally received a handful of heartfelt thank-yous and hugs from patients, siblings and caregivers. These are the moments that make me so incredibly proud of my team!

If your team was a band, what would it be called?

This was the hardest question for me to answer because I have so many ideas. Here are a few:

  • The Light Spinners
  • The Playmakers
  • Calm to the Storm

I could go on and on!

If you had to describe your team's work in six words, what would your six-word story be?

Empowering children to navigate challenging situations.