I went from being supported by a play team to joining one

BA (Hons) Childhood Development & Playwork alumni, Gemma, shares her experience with a visual impairment and how that has inspired her career in childhood development and playwork.


Gemma in a hospital play environment wearing a face mask and blue polo shirt.

Tell us about yourself and what you've been doing since you graduated

I was born visually impaired and grew up in a world that wasn’t always accessible to me. I have experienced challenges living with multiple eye conditions affecting my sight in both eyes. 

After graduating from Leeds Beckett, I moved back home and spent the summer as a playworker at a summer camp at Norwood, a charity supporting people with learning disabilities. I facilitated play opportunities for young people (5-18 years) with learning disabilities.

After summer, I created ‘GemCare’: my own business that provides private care and play sessions for children with learning disabilities in my local area. Through this, I learnt to communicate with non-verbal children via Makaton, a language that uses simple signs.

Recently, I have started my first job as a Health Play Leader at Moorfields Eye Hospital. Here, I support children and young people with similar stories to mine, who are visually impaired or have conditions affecting their eyes. I adapt play experiences to be accessible for each child during their time in hospital, according to their needs. I also use play to distract, comfort and prepare children before and during their procedures or operations. I am working towards becoming a Health Play Specialist.

Gemma smiles at the camera while wearing a graduation cap and gown.

Why did you choose to study at Leeds Beckett?

I fell in love with the Child Development and Playwork course at the open day. I was particularly drawn to opportunities for placements in any childhood setting, and this formed a major component of the degree. As someone who struggles in exams, I was attracted to the focus on coursework-based assessments. Plus, I loved how easy it was to navigate around the city. Leeds Beckett has amazing facilities and opportunities to join different societies outside of studying. 

What motivated you to pursue a career in Childhood Development & Play Work?

Throughout my childhood, during hospital appointments and operations, I was supported by play specialists. This helped me through some of the most challenging periods of my life. Experiencing such support through play made me understand how important play is for a child's learning and development. This motivated me to use my personal experiences to support children to have positive experiences whilst in hospital, and ensure they still have play opportunities and feel a sense of normality in the hospital setting.

What skills did you learn on your course that have helped in your career so far?

Throughout the course I learnt different theories and perspectives on childhood development and play.

“Now, I use my detailed understanding of development and play when creating play experiences that are unique to each child’s needs, age, ability, and stage of development.”

Another skill I learnt on the course is public speaking; this has helped me feel confident when talking to new people each day in the hospital.

What was a defining moment for you on your course?

The two most defining experiences for me were my dissertation and my second-year placement at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital (GOSH).

My dissertation explored play experiences for visually impaired (VI) children, identifying factors that impact and influence VI children’s play. This involved interviewing adults who have had visual impairments since childhood. It was empowering for me to connect with young adults who have had similar life experiences to me.

“Undertaking a study on such an under-researched area reinforced the importance of providing play that is accessible to VI people and inspired me to continue advocating for VI children.”

The second defining moment was my placement at GOSH. Having been a patient at GOSH for 17 years, the hospital felt like a second home to me. It was amazing to return to such a special place, and work with the play team who supported me as a child. I shadowed different playworkers and health play specialists on different wards from Oncology to outpatients’ blood clinics. I learnt so much about distraction, preparation, and medical play for children during their time in hospital. I was able to connect with families, and experienced a full circle moment, having gone from being supported by the play team to being a member of it, and myself supporting children during their time at GOSH.

What support did you receive while studying at Leeds Beckett?

I received support from Leeds Beckett’s Disabled Student Services and the library team, who ensured I was given digital books so I could access my reading in formats accessible for me. On my course, my tutors were amazing when giving feedback and extra support outside of lectures. Especially during the COVID lockdown, they would regularly check in to see if we were doing okay. During my degree I had multiple eye surgeries; my tutors were understanding and provided one-to-one meetings to catch up on lectures I missed, and extra time on assignments.

What advice would you give someone looking to study Childhood Development & Play Work?

Don’t be shy to ask questions or ask for help from your tutors and placement supervisors.

“Make the most of your placement and use the time to build connections and learn from the professionals you shadow in your chosen setting.”

Your placements will build your confidence and provide you with the experience and knowledge employers look for when you apply for jobs after university. These opportunities will make you stand out.

What's next for you?

My goal is to undertake the Health Play Specialist degree which will allow me to officially become a Play Specialist. I want to continue advocating for the visually impaired community and use my role and connections at Moorfields to create a more accessible world for VI children. One day I would love to go back to GOSH and join their play team. I want to continue providing positive experiences and play for children in hospital.

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