Play and Hands-On Fun…In a Hospital?

Posted by Sasha on Thursday, February 19th, 2015

This month the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco opened to reveal 16 Exploratorium-designed exhibits and interactive experiences throughout the hospital.

Shadow Play

Build a sculpture from everyday objects, then shine colored lights to project ever-changing, multi-colored shadows.

Children’s hospitals often incorporate colorful, fun elements to make their patients feel at ease, but the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital will take it to a new level, offering playful discovery and self-expression with the help of the world’s top designers of hands-on experiences. The goal of this collaboration between the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital and the Exploratorium is to provide “inquiry-based learning for well-being”: essentially, escape and wonderment for hospital patients. EntertainmentDesigner had the opportunity to learn more about this new addition to the San Francisco community from Project Lead Danielle Wong in the Exploratorium’s Global Studios division.

Wong’s role as Project Lead is to act as an overall project manager, overseeing a wide scope of moving parts which include design, master planning, and concepting. Over the past months, she has worked closely with doctors and hospital executives, Child Life Specialists, and even patients to identify what kind of exhibits would work best in a hospital setting. Her team has adapted original Exploratorium designs and has also created a number of brand new concepts.

This type of “upstream thinking” is still new for the Exploratorium. In the early days of the science museum, the design team was only responsible for creating in-house exhibits for their own guests. Eventually, these exhibits became prototypes for other science institutions. With the Global Studios division, the designers have gone beyond fabricating exhibits for other venues and are now in the role of actively collaborating with clients and facilities as part of an overall development process.

For the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, the Exploratorium is designing experiences as small as lap-sized mobile exhibits for patient rooms and as large as a 27-foot long lobby display. In patient rooms, kids will have the opportunity to draw, play with light, or make stop motion animations with the mobile exhibits. Kids will even be able to share their animations with friends and family, keeping them connected to the world beyond the hospital. Each mobile exhibit will be easy to use, but will also offer longer explorations for varying levels of engagement.

Animation Station

Jump in the director’s seat to create your own animated movie using stop-motion animation techniques

Interactive Wall

See-through panels decorated with clear plastic tape interact with polarized light to reveal multi-colored patterns that look like stained glass. The panels are created by UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital patients .

Invisible Stained Glass Windows

Another feature that will help connect patients and their families to the world outside the hospital walls is a time-lapse camera facing the San Francisco Bay. The camera will look out on a nearby shipyard and the bay, continuously capturing footage of changing weather and passing boats. When viewers turn the knob on a display, they can see back through time. Other signs of the Exploratorium touch can be found in the surgical waiting area, an effort to help to make the atmosphere less tense and intimidating, and in an upcoming elevator made just for kids. All of the exhibits in the hospital are geared towards positive distraction, emotional support, and exploration.

Animal Accessories

Step in front of a mural full of creatures, then pose for a photo wearing a pair of wings or beautiful feathers.

For the Exploratorium team, the most challenging aspect of this project has been understanding the unique requirements of a hospital setting. All interactives have to be safe (minimal seams or hard corners, adherent to strict seismic regulations), easy to use for all physical and cognitive abilities, and engaging for all ages. Moreover, everything needs to be very cleanable, which means that materials have to withstand frequent exposure to harsh cleaning chemicals. Finally, each interactive experience needs to make sense. For the mobile exhibits, there won’t be any Exploratorium “Explainers” on-staff to show patients how to engage; each will come with a series of instructional graphic cards.

Take a Closer Look

Ordinary things appear strange when viewed up close. Use a microscope to look at your clothes, your hair, your food, and whatever else you can find.

In order to achieve the best results, Wong’s team has prototyped exhibits for testing on the Exploratorium floor and their Tinkering Studio. They also brought mobile mock-ups to UCSF’s Parnassus Hospital to get some patient feedback. This experience taught the team just how small their users might be and more about the physical limitations they need to keep in mind.

The UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital is a role model for the medical world, proving that it’s possible to incorporate play and fun early in the planning process of an institution. Integrating more play and wonder into healthcare is a giant leap for both entertainment designers and hospitals: designers face the challenge of strict safety and health guidelines, and institutions have to overcome resistance, utilitarian tendencies, and centuries of medical seriousness to consciously incorporate play. Hopefully, UCSF Benioff will serve as a precedent and experiential design will eventually become commonplace in hospitals, where people probably need it the most.


Images credit: Amy Snyder © Exploratorium, All rights reserved

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