| Ryota Akatsu |
TOKYO (The Yomiuri Shimbun) — Playtime for children is not only fun, it also helps advance children’s growth both physically and mentally.
For children who suffer from severe diseases or disabilities and are hospitalised for a long time, volunteers take on the special and important role of playing with them.
“Let’s move on to the next game. Are you not going to join?” The bright, loud voice of a six-year-old boy rang out in a sterilised room at the National Center for Global Health and Medicine in Tokyo on December 6.
He was playing with a volunteer from Volunteers Network of Play Activities for Sick Children. After making Christmas decorations, the boy began to play a card game.
When there was only 30 minutes left to play with the volunteer, the boy began to rush to play more, teaching the game’s rules to the volunteer he met on the day for the first time.
Then the boy shouted, “I won!” with a broad smile.
The nonprofit organisation dispatches its members to bedrooms and a play room at the paediatric ward of the centre for 90 minutes beginning at 2pm every Saturday.
For children who are hospitalised for a long time, the group sends volunteers on weekdays.
About 60 members — including child care workers, school teachers and students — are currently registered as volunteers, and they play with an average of 600 children on about 50 occasions on Saturdays throughout the year.
The group was established in 1991, and was approved as an NPO corporation in May 2006.
“I was prompted to start the activities when I visited a facility to provide nursing care for children who need advanced medical care and saw one child crying alone,” said Kazuko Sakaue, a child care worker and the group’s head. “Parents attending to them seemed to be exhausted. I thought those parents and children need support.”
Yukiko Kato, 42, saw her son hospitalised for about seven months since he was 11 months old as he suffered from acute myeloid leukaemia. While the boy was treated with anticancer drugs, Kato stayed at the hospital and tended to the child everyday.
Kato felt mentally exhausted after three months passed, and she asked the group to dispatch a volunteer on weekdays, too.
Per the request, several volunteers took turns visiting the boy for 90 minutes twice a week. One of them was an experienced child care worker and brought toys suitable for the boy’s age, such as a toy that makes sounds when the boy touches it, or one the boy could play by using his fingers.
Another volunteer suggested Kato go out for a change, saying, “Please go to cafe and have a cup of tea while I play with your boy.”
It has been about a year since the boy left the hospital.
“I saw such a drastic change in my son through playing (with volunteers) and saw how he began to smile more often. He could not pull himself up to standing when he turned one year old, but when I followed the advice I received, he became able to do it,” Kato recalled. “I experienced raising a child and his hospitalisation simultaneously for the first time, so I was overwhelmed. I cannot thank the volunteers enough.”
Junko Yamanaka, a paediatrician at the centre, witnessed the group’s activities for about 15 years.
“I heard many people say they could endure a long stay at the hospital with the help of the volunteers,” Yamanaka said. “They are absolutely indispensable in the paediatric ward.”
The volunteers, including Sakaue, write down how they play and how the children do at each visit, and then hand the records to nurses or other hospital staff.
Some hospitals generally take a cautious stance to accepting those volunteers, weighing the risks of unexpected accidents or infectious diseases.
However, this NPO has gradually won confidence through its steady efforts.
“Children need to play in whatever the situation they are,” Sakaue said. “We hope to have more people understand what we do.”