Many of the children who are receiving treatment in the behavioral health unit at WellSpan Philhaven in Mt. Gretna already have experienced trauma in their short lives. They may struggle with social skills, have acted aggressively toward their family members or other kids, or have had problems regulating their feelings.
The staff works on teaching coping skills to these children, to help them get stabilized and so they can be discharged from the inpatient unit. It can be challenging work.
Ashley Nole, a WellSpan psychiatric technician, discovered a colorful, interactive way to teach those skills to the 4- to 12-year-old patients by designing a life-sized version of Candy Land – a board game whose 1948 origins share some striking similarities to its 2021 use at WellSpan Philhaven.
The kids had a simple reaction.
“I had them wait in their rooms with the doors closed while I set it up,” said Nole, a WellSpan Philhaven psychiatric technician. “The biggest thing I remember was when they came out, they had big smiles on their faces and were super excited, saying, ‘Oh my gosh! It’s Candy Land!’ Group things can be hard for them to do. A lot of them are in emotional support classes. It’s hard for them to sit still and listen. With this, they can be up and moving and also learning at the same time.”
Nole helps to oversee activities in the evenings on the children’s unit at the Mt. Gretna, including group sessions where kids learn social skills, emotional skills and wellness. Sometimes the kids play games, sometimes they discuss issues, sometimes they do exercise or yoga, sometimes they relax and watch a movie.
The idea for teaching skills through a life-sized board game came from one of Nole’s co-workers, Emmett Boyanowski. Nole, who studied art in college, took the idea and ran with it, with the help from three other co-workers: Allison Engle, Megan Breckinridge and Mikayla Vicente.
Thus was born a simple game with a tongue twisty name: PhilSpan CandyHaven Race to Mt. Wellness.
Just like in the original Candy Land board game, players of the Philhaven version pick a card with a colored square on it and then move to a corresponding space, which in this case is one of about 100 of laminated colored squares that Nole places on a path that winds through the unit.
But while in the regular game it’s a race to the final rainbow square, and players only need to draw a card to see where to go next, Philhaven players must answer a question to advance. Questions focus on one of three topics: social skills, emotional intelligence, or wellness. A player might be asked: What is your greatest strength? Or, if a friend is struggling to make new friends, what advice could you give them?
“This game was amazing!” said one patient. “I learned how to share my feelings and thoughts out loud. It helped me get to know myself and the other kids too.”
Nole added another dimension to the game, to make it more interesting to the kids. She made up a back story for the game, featuring staff members going on an adventure. Kids can follow along and read the story as they walk through the game, stopping at poster boards that feature silly images of staff members as Candy Land characters, sometimes plopped down in funny places, such as “Mr. Emmett’s Chocolate Swamp.” She also added motivational messages such as “The most important relationship is the one you have with yourself” and “Only surround yourself with people who will lift you higher” to the boards.
“They all loved it. It’s very visual. There’s a lot to look at it,” Nole said, noting that the kids had to wait, listen, take turns and communicate with each other during the game, all important skills.
Saritha Petthongpoon, WellSpan Philhaven manager of the inpatient child and adolescent units, said the game is just what kids and staff need right now. She said Nole’s devotion and creativity shone through the game.
“It’s really been a hit and it’s brought so much joy to our unit,” she said. “Patients really love it and our staff does too. It makes them laugh. During this pandemic I think a little bit of joy goes a long way for patients and staff both.”
Here’s the kicker about Candy Land. It was designed in 1948 by a woman named Eleanor Abbott for children in a polio hospital in California. Abbott had contracted polio herself and recuperated in a ward with children who often had to spend days lying with their body enclosed in an iron lung, a large, metal machine that helped them to breathe. Abbott designed the game to entertain the children and allow them to go on an adventure. This was also during a time when many other children were confined, quarantined and kept inside by their parents, to protect them from contracting polio.
Nole was delighted to discover the connections between the game’s origins and PhilSpan CandyHaven’s use during a modern-day pandemic.
“It was designed for exactly what I’m using it for – to bring a smile to these kids who are struggling at this time,” she said. “I love that. It’s amazing!”