Children's hospital therapists heal through humor

Laughter is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.

Clown therapists from the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization ClownZero are healing through humor by clowning around in the pediatric ward at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.

Yes, they are professional performing artists, but clown therapists are not just everyday circus clowns; they all have a background in therapeutic healing.

“We train all the clowns to be super sensitive because the scale of play is much smaller in a hospital room; it’s like an exclusive performance for the person in the hospital bed,” ClownZero Director Dan Griffiths said. “All our clowns work with children and have a lot of experience in knowing how to govern oneself accordingly.”

To ensure they do not scare the children, ClownZero therapists wear minimal make-up and removable red noses, looking more like goofy regular people than circus performers. They also take their cues from the patients and staff, transforming themselves into the objects of play.

“When we go into a room, we have the kids orchestrate what we do; we’re never doing something to them, we’re always playing with them,” said Griffiths, aka Dr. Schnozensoop.

When ClownZero began in March 2009, goofing-off was limited to the child-life playroom, but now clown therapists make their own rounds, visiting both in and out-patient wards, playrooms and even individual hospital rooms.

“[UCSF] has slowly opened up more of the hospital to us once they saw the benefits of clowning,” Griffiths said.

Humor can have a strong effect on the well-being of ill children, even aiding in their recovery. Medical studies show that laughter can help reduce stress, decrease pain through the release of endorphins, and help patients and families cope with illness.

“By getting everyone to laugh and play a little bit, it helps make a serious situation a little less serious,” Griffiths said. “We play with patients and staff to kind of draw them out of themselves and empower them.”

While the Healing Through Humor Program at UCSF is ClownZero’s main initiative, it also has a Response Team that brings humanitarian clowning to both local and global communities in need.

Following the San Bruno fire this summer, response team members brought humor to children and families while they waited for services at an emergency center. On Thanksgiving, ClownZero partnered with Catholic Charities to entertain homeless families at the Saint Joseph’s Center for Families while they had Thanksgiving dinner.

In January, the ClownZero response team will travel to orphanages and refugee camps in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to work with the Panya Project and the Lotus Flower Foundation — a local organization dedicated to ending child abuse.

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