We made our way down an alley and up a narrow staircase to a dark room that contained twenty small children and their mothers.  A sister-nurse working in the room who spoke a few words of English explained that I was in a malnutrition hospital room and that these children and their mothers were there to be fed for ten days to try to fight malnutrition and starvation. I looked around the tiny room and immediately felt all the curious eyes upon me. Each mother sat on a small cot with her child in her arms. The room was completely silent, except for a background television playing an Indian soap opera. Many of the children looked extremely tiny. There was a sadness in the room that I could feel in my core. Most of the mothers looked down whenever I tried to make eye contact. None of the children interacted.

I was in this sad room, thousands of miles from home, because I had chosen to accompany a team of medical professionals from UCLA on a mission trip to provide medical care at a small clinic in Sarsa, India. Sarsa is such a small village, you cannot even find it on the map. I was the only Child Life Specialist on the trip and most definitely the only person working on my Playmaker Certification. I spent most of my time supporting children during clinic exams. I also set up a playroom to care for children while their parents underwent treatment.

It was on the 3rd day of the clinic that one of the “Sisters”, an Indian nurse whom I christened “Nurse Happy” because she was always smiling, began speaking to me in the village language of Gutrati. I had no idea what she was saying, but I did make out the English words, “bring play.” She was so passionate and convincing I probably would have followed her anywhere, but of course her specific words made this Playmaker spring into action. I quickly grabbed my Playmaker parachute, along with a few balls and some giant bubbles – my go-to Child Life tools for distraction. I had no idea where we were going, but I gained a small sense of what to expect when I managed to understand the words “malnutrition” and “lots of children.”

This was how I had arrived in this room of quiet despair. After a few minutes of awkward silence, the nutrition nurse explained that many of the mothers and children were extremely poor, that they may have been starving for several days before coming to the clinic, and that they were on day six of their treatment. She also explained that they might not want to interact since they might be tired. Yet this made me determined to try. I was nervous, feeling the complete language and cultural barrier strongly, but stronger than that fear was my belief that this room needed some “play healing” and joy. As a Playmaker, I knew how to bring that. I told myself “This is what you are here to do!”

I decided to start off slowly and brought out some of my giant bubbles. The bubbles elicited a few guarded smiles. Then one little girl in all pink abruptly reached out and let out a loud scream of laughter as a bubble popped in her hands. It was as though she had been holding it in for a long time and just needed an excuse to let it burst out of her. Her outburst broke the tension and more children and their mothers leaned closer to catch the bubbles. During this time, no one actually said words to each other. They just played and giggled in the silence.

When I brought out my Playmaker parachute, the real transformation began. I motioned to make a circle and guided many of the mothers and their children, showing them how to grab an end. Then we began to shake it.  Everyone followed my lead. We shook it fast, then slow, high and low. Suddenly, the same little one in pink spied some of the balls I had left on the floor in the corner of the room. She ran over, picked them up and began throwing them on top of the chute. That’s when the fun mounted as we began a game of bouncing balls off the parachute. Several of the children assigned themselves to be retrievers, running around the room, collecting the balls and tossing them in the middle as the rest of us worked together to shake them off.

After a few blissful moments of playing this improvised game of “Bonk the Balls,” I slowed down the shaking of the chute and had everyone follow me in deep breathing. We breathed in as we raised the parachute up and breathed out as we lowered it. While I gathered up the chute to put it away, all the children and their mothers, their faces lit with smiles, gathered around me. I could feel them silently but intently asking for more, so I reintroduced the bubbles and the entire room erupted in laughter and joy as mothers and children ran and jumped to pop each bubble. I stood amazed: a room heavy with quiet despair had completely transformed into a space of pure laughter, joy and connection.

The power of play! Here I had been led to an unknown place. Once in that room, I had felt terrified, not knowing how to communicate with people whose lives were so clearly filled with great difficulty and sorrow. But somehow I trusted my belief that they were not only hungry for food, but also hungry for laughter, connection, and a moment of happiness. Play was the way to bring them that. No words even needed to be spoken or understood. Play was enough!

During the next few days, I continued to visit the malnutrition hospital room and each time I brought the parachute and we played on. As I would enter the room, the children and mothers would instantly make a circle, reaching their hands out to grab the parachute and begin playing. When our trip was coming to an end, I left the parachute and balls in the room with the nutritionist nurse for future play. I was lucky to have my husband with me on the trip and I am grateful that his camera could capture some of those wonderful moments we shared when playful engagement overcame all boundaries.

Clarissa Byrd is a Certified Playmaker and Emergency Room Child Life Specialist at Mattel Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, CA.

For more inspiring stories from frontline Playmakers, visit our blog HERE.

All photos courtesy of Paul Byrd