Hospitals of the past, with their flickering fluorescent lights and beige walls, were depressing enough for adults. But for children—especially children who weren’t feeling well—these cold, sterile environments could be terrifying.
So design for children’s hospitals overcorrected, becoming a cacophony of bright colors, bold patterns, cartoon characters, and frenetic design that could, quite frankly, be overstimulating and even anxiety-inducing.
These visually loud environments didn’t take into account children with special needs such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), teenagers who found themselves in spaces designed for toddlers, or worried parents seeking reassurance and calm.
Modern children’s hospitals now seek to create spaces that include young patients of all ages and abilities, as well as their parents and siblings. To engage but not overwhelm.
And evidence-based design has proven that the clinical environment – if thoughtfully considered – can actively assist in prevention, compassionate care, and healing.
Here are eight promising trends in pediatric health care design that dial down the flash and ramp up wellness and inclusivity:
Toning it Down
Plenty of evidence now exists that the right pediatric design elements can be therapeutic and even actively promote healing, from the use of natural materials and views of greenery to calming, subdued colors. “There’s been a real change from the time when health care environments for kids were just primary colors because people thought that’s what pediatric design was all about,” says Kimberly Stanley, senior principal and health sector leader, EYP Atlanta. “There’s been a movement away from that approach. Certainly, there’s still color, but it’s much more restrained, with pops of color, child-friendly features, and more emphasis on natural materials. This quieter aesthetic keeps families less stressed and helps calm the child.”
Safety in children’s hospitals extends well beyond rounded corners, soft furniture, and safe play spaces to the integration of technologies that keep patients secure. “Many children’s hospitals now have Vegas-type security—behind the scenes but always monitoring, using pre-screenings, video, background checks,” says Mezio Zangirolami, senior designer, EYP Houston. Children are natural wanderers and good hiders, so cameras track every possible pathway inside and around the hospital and parking garage. “Design can be used to limit entries and guide flow,” adds Mezio, “without creating an unwelcome experience or an intimidating security presence.”
Enhancing Family Support
Allowing families to stay close to their inpatient child, whether during an overnight stay or an extended visit, has long been the standard at children’s hospitals (although this was sometimes limited to one parent during COVID surges). But parents who stayed weren’t always provided with a comfortable night’s rest.
“More often, parents had to try to sleep on a really uncomfortable recliner,” says Kimberly. More and more, hospitals are taking the whole family and their wellbeing into account. Healthy food or snacks are available 24/7—often with room service. Patient rooms have fold-out sleepers for one or both parents.
Child care is available for siblings. And accommodations are made for parents who need to keep up with their jobs, from in-room WiFi and private working nooks to the kind of business centers you might find in a hotel. “In the past, not enough attention was paid to parents’ lives outside of the hospital,” Kimberly says. “Now, we are seeing a full recognition of the family and their needs.”
Advocating for Health and Wellness
Children’s hospitals are no longer intended to be solely clinical facilities where sick kids go to get better. They’ve also embraced health outreach and education, with wellness resources for patients and visitors. “There’s a lot more attention paid to nutrition, dining areas, and kid-friendly but healthy foods,” Kimberly says. Medical planners routinely include demonstration kitchens, activity areas, and meeting rooms.
Outreach classes, such as yoga Saturdays, healthy meal prep, Walk with a Doc, and teaching gardens make the hospital part of the community. “Outdoor spaces are designed to be part of the healthy environment,” says Mezio, “with access to walking and jogging paths, inclusive play areas, and water features, as well as outdoor event space for donor or community events.”
Designing for All Abilities
Activity areas for children of all physical and developmental abilities are essential. All-abilities playgrounds would not present obstacles for any child who wishes to engage. “There is not a thing that any child couldn’t do in that playground,” says Kimberly. “From the beginning, these spaces are designed for children with a lot of different conditions.” Outdoor spaces can also be sites for active learning and rehabilitation. “You can leverage exterior playgrounds for therapy spaces,” says Mezio. “For example, children with differing abilities could learn how to navigate various surfaces and gradient changes.”
Engaging Young Minds
Need to find a kid-friendly explanation of a tonsillectomy performed by Muppets? Stream songs from Hamilton for a history sing-along? Virtually meet the animals at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo? So much quality edutainment is available online to keep young minds engaged and, if necessary, distracted from boredom or discomfort. “The effect of visual and performing arts on children in hospitals, and keeping them entertained, can actually reduce the perception of pain – and some medications,” Kimberly says. And the more control young patients can have over their inpatient surroundings, the better. “Anxiety can be reduced through environments that kids and their families can control, including lighting, sound, and privacy,” says Mezio. “A reduction of anesthesia has been achieved through technologies that can customize the ambient experience, allowing patients to create their own scenes and environments in spaces such as MRI rooms.”
Building Corporate and Community Partnerships
Specialty programs, such as the Ryan Seacrest Foundation’s Seacrest Studios media centers in pediatric hospitals, help to alleviate the isolation young patients might feel. “They can meet celebrity guests and patients of similar ages at other studios across the country and record music and videos,” says Mezio. This community support and engagement can occur on a smaller scale with named meeting and event rooms, outdoor stage and gathering areas, walking trails and healing gardens with donor walls, and other creative partnerships.
Providing Employer-Sponsored Child Care
Family life today is complex, and working parents are the norm. Affordable, convenient child care has long been an urgent need for essential health care workers, as well as families with a child in the hospital and siblings in tow. Some children’s hospitals are making it a priority to provide quality child care centers on site for employees. “This benefit generates a level of goodwill and loyalty that’s hard to quantify for a nurse on the night shift,” says Kimberly. “And it’s an organizational choice that speaks volumes to health care workers and to the families who visit the hospital.”