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Clowns scare children most in hospital

Clowns sent in to children’s hospitals to cheer them up actually scare them more than anything else.

Most children surveyed in a research project funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council said they did not find hospital scary, but even teenagers said creepy clowns should be kept in the circus.

Researcher Dr Penny Curtis of the University of Sheffield said: “Given that children and young people do not find hospitals frightening per se, and only express fear about those spaces associated with needles and procedures, this finding is somewhat ironic.”

Hospitals are not child-friendly enough, particularly for the older age group, who complained that decor and services were aimed at younger children, the research also found.

“Wards don’t meet the needs of adolescents. Even children from the age of seven up say the wards aren’t working for them,” researchers said.

One 14-year-old girl questioned said: “All the decoration and colours are good for the younger kids.”

Dr Curtis believes the solution is a flexible use of space and consultation with children.

“The artwork is very important and the children said it has to have contemporary resonance — so no clowns, which children of all ages disliked, seeing them as not quite human,” she said.

“To adults, clowns are iconic of childhood but it is adults who select them. Adults also make the assumptions on behalf of the children on how space is used in wards.”

The researchers found that children read from a space who should be using it, so the toys, decor and layout all contribute to whether the space will be used.

“Children we spoke to wanted a different emphasis on spatial separation and opportunities to get together with children of their own age. Adolescents want a separate space from babies and young children,” they said.

The findings of the study will be used by hospitals to create a better atmosphere on children’s wards. One of the key changes will be looking at the issue of privacy.

“Privacy is very important to all children. Young children are keen to have privacy and all children want to control it, so things like being able to draw curtains around the bed matter.

“But this conflicts with the need for patient surveillance on the ward.

“What children say they want is a chill-out zone where they can go if they need to be on their own. They should be able to get privacy when they feel they need it.”

Janice Mackenzie, chief nurse of the children’s service of NHS Lothian in Scotland, commented: “This is an issue that children’s hospitals have many years of dealing with.

“Through our play service, our specialists provide stimulation and activities aimed at the correct level for the children and young people we look after.

“We are fortunate to have a recently opened drop-in centre, opened in partnership with our colleagues at the Sick Kids Friends Foundation, which is popular with older children and teenagers.”

Economic and Social Research Council