Clowning Program

Sometimes a little clowning around is just what the doctor ordered.

San Francisco-based nonprofit ClownZero has brought its Healing Through Humor Program — and some infectious smiles and laughter — to UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital. The group of professional performers and therapists work alongside Child Life Specialists and other hospital staff to bring humor to patients as a form of healing.

Based on the idea that laughter is a good form of medicine, the clown therapists use their acts of humor to combat the stress of hospitalization. They aim to reduce patients' pain by releasing endorphins that come from laughter. Their jokes and gags promote a positive outlook, helping patients and their families cope with the difficulties of their illness. And laughter even promotes deep breathing, while also developing social bonds in what can be an isolating setting.

The clown therapists are experienced performers with backgrounds in Child Life, drama and behavior therapy. They are trained to work in sensitive medical situations and respond appropriately in order to ease tension.

The clowns stop by individual patient rooms, perform in the playroom and entertain patients who are waiting for appointments. They dress as doctors and nurses in brightly colored clothes and wear minimal makeup and removable noses (sensitive to the fact that not all patients are comfortable with costumes).

Their comic humor can best be described as slapstick, where the typical set up is one doctor is the rule follower while the other is naughty. Since hospitals are usually all about structure and following prescribed rules, being silly and breaking the rules is a way to loosen things up and break down the barriers of doctor authority.

Trained as comics, but sensitive to children's moods and fears, the clowns adapt their act to the children's responses. Timing and finding a way to harness their playfulness is key to their success.

One sure sign of success: Laughter coming from a young boy recovery from surgery who hadn't yet cracked a smile since the day he was admitted. Blowing bubbles and silly banter was just the medicine he needed.

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Child Life Department
UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital San Francisco
1975 4th Street
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 353-1203