Campus News

UK launches 1st child life certificate program in Kentucky

CCLS and patient inside KCH
CCLS and patient inside KCH
CCLS and patient inside KCH

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 30, 2022) — Certified child life specialists (CCLS) help to minimize negative hospital experiences by shepherding children and families through the process of illness, hospitalization and oftentimes, trauma.

Although many college students and community members may not be familiar with child life specialists, these small but mighty teams contribute greatly to the larger patchwork of our hospital teams.

Recognizing the importance of and growing popularity in the field, a child life certificate program was launched at the University of Kentucky this fall by the Department of Family Sciences in collaboration with Kentucky Children’s Hospital (KCH).

The first cohort consists of four students, with the goal of admitting five additional students each year going forward, aligning with the current capacity in practicum at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

Although seemingly straightforward, the work of a CCLS consists of very nuanced and multifaceted methods.

“Using their expertise in child development and family systems, they help pediatric patients and their families cope with hospitalization and medical care through therapeutic play, education, psychosocial support and advocacy,” explains Emily Bollinger, a CCLS at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

Knowing the value this child life certificate would bring to UK students, a team of faculty in the family sciences department and the Child Life team at KCH have worked hard for close to a decade to make this opportunity a reality. Bollinger designed these missing pieces in concert with certification requirements from the Association of Child Life Professionals and with the support of department chair Jason Hans, Ph.D., and former department chair Ron Werner-Wilson, Ph.D.

“We have already seen the benefit of UK graduates coming back to join the Child Life department at KCH and are excited for this trend to continue in the coming years as we add more child life specialist positions,” Bollinger said. “Our students receive excellent education and training that allows them to quickly become skillful practitioners who directly benefit our pediatric patients and families.”

Hans explains that the Department of Family Sciences is always looking for ways to tie the major to career paths in order to better prepare students for future careers.

“We knew child life to be an appealing career path for many students with interests in child and family well-being, and several family science departments at universities around the country offer an academic program in child life, but no academic program in child life existed in Kentucky," Hans said. "With the Child Life program at Kentucky Children’s Hospital a short walk away from the Department of Family Sciences, we saw an opportunity to form a partnership that benefits the hospital, the department and students alike — and that ultimately benefits hospitalized Kentucky children and their families as well."

The ability to complete a practicum at the undergraduate level is rare and will benefit students down the road upon applying for graduate programs. Freshman student Grace Flynn, a native of Lockport, Illinois, knows firsthand the impact that CCLS have on patients.

“I genuinely am just excited to get out there and help make a difference in children/families lives because I had a certified child life specialist when I was in the hospital for an extended period where I learned about the field, and it really made an impact in my life,” she shared.

In touring college campuses, Flynn visited 25, choosing UK because of this opportunity.

UK graduates Grace Krah and Taylor Donzelli both completed all the components of what is now the child life certificate, and are ecstatic for current and future UK students to seize the opportunity.

Krah is currently attending graduate school for child life and her coursework and experience with the UK family sciences team prepared her for the next step in her career journey.

“I had access to superiors and staff all throughout the process that were willing and excited participants in their students’ growth," Krah said. "Coming into this experience, there were a lot of personal and professional aspects that I needed to learn about the realities of becoming a certified child life specialist, but my preceptors, supervisor, teacher and all the other welcoming Child Life staff were extremely available, understanding and supportive in my learning process in every way. I was challenged while being encouraged to follow my instinct.”

Krah felt confident and prepared to take the next step toward becoming a CCLS. The hands-on experience she gained while at UK helped to solidify her decision that she was on the right track.

Donzelli, also currently attending graduate school for child life, is excited for students to take advantage of this new certificate program.

“Students should take advantage of this certificate program because it could expand your practicum/internship opportunities," Donzelli said. "The child life practicum at KCH is highly competitive due to a set number of spots available, therefore this certificate will help you stand out! Additionally, this program is beneficial when it comes to obtaining an internship after graduation or attending graduate school to earn a master’s in child life."

Emily Bollinger, Jason Hans, Pamela McFarland, Ron Werner-Wilson and Amy Kostelic have been heavily involved in the fruition of this certificate, with numerous other individuals and campus departments lending support.

Although this certificate is designed for future child life specialists, they are not the only students that can benefit from the coursework.

“While the certificate itself is designed to prepare students to become child life specialists, most of the courses are also available to students with different career goals, and the content is highly applicable to those pursuing careers in social work, counseling, health care and education,” Bollinger said.

The certificate formally requires nine credit hours of prerequisites prior to applying for admission to the certificate program in May, with limited enrollment ensuring that all students admitted into the certificate program will have a slot in the child life practicum at Kentucky Children’s Hospital upon completion of the pre-practicum coursework. The certificate program itself requires 22 credit hours, with a grade of B or higher. For more details on coursework and becoming a certified child life specialist after completion of the Child Life Certificate program, please visit

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

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