January 11, 2024 Students Design Healing Playroom for East Tennessee Children’s Hospital

The playrooms at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital (ETCH) serve as an oasis for patients and families during their visits. The hematology and oncology playroom has a dual purpose of creating a comforting and uplifting environment during treatments.

After a recent visit to one of the hospital’s playrooms, Assistant Professor Kimberly Mitchell saw an opportunity for students in her Design for Health course to reimagine the spaces using design as a catalyst for healing. Mitchell connected with Megan Debolt, manager of Patient Experience and Child Life at ETCH, to learn more about health requirements and storage needs of the space.

“Our goal is to create a space that promotes normal growth and development and to meet children’s needs through play,” said Debolt. “We do a lot to prepare children for procedures to help them cope with being in the hospital. We are thinking about how to encourage children to get up and out of bed, how do we comfort them, and how do we make this a less scary place.”

A handful of students from the Design for Health course during a visit to the MUSE to learn about children’s play.

Mitchell’s interdisciplinary studio broke into two groups to develop proposals offering different budgetary design driven solutions for the hospital. Students toured different various healthcare facilities for perspectives on the patient experience, and the Muse Knoxville and Zoo Knoxville to learn more about children’s interactive and imaginative play.

“We gained so much insight into the importance of interactive and immersive elements in both of the locations,” said Ella Hosse, a fourth-year graphic design student. “One of the biggest takeaways included the element of Montessori-inspired play, which fosters both healing and growth. Overall, this discovery became the pivotal aspect within our proposal to ETCH.”

Rendering of the ETCH hematology and oncology playroom with cloud-like ceiling lights, light blue walls and tree-like wall cut outs.
“The Tree Room” rendering of the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital hematology and oncology play and infusion room.

Hosse’s group, the Tree Room, envisioned two themes that transformed the space into a fantasy escape for patients. Debolt was thrilled to see murals and space dividers that enchant patients, as well as Montessori principles, a style of play that encourages natural interests and activities.

Andrew North, a first-year architecture graduate student and architecture intern at BWBR, a Minnesota commercial design firm, applied his current work experience on healthcare projects to his group’s proposal, tHe pOp.

“I was able to bring elements and ideas I was learning on projects, primarily in the realm of safe and easy to clean materials, as well as how to construct such spaces,” he said. “Our team’s approach heavily focused on the interdisciplinary nature of the course. While I know a lot about architecture, I knew very little about graphic design and vice versa for my teammates. We took it upon ourselves to ask all sorts of questions about the other’s design directly pertaining to the project and design and experiences beyond.

Rendering of the ETCH hematology and oncology playroom with bright pops of color.
“tHe pOp” rendering of the East Tennessee Children’s Hospital hematology and oncology play and infusion room.

To enhance the environment, tHe pOp—which offered a fun alternative name to the hematology and oncology playroom— utilized vibrant colors and geometric graphics to suit toddlers to teenagers. Their vision of a welcoming and inclusive environment took advantage of the existing space’s natural light and incorporated colored glass and custom furniture to encourage play.

The students presented their reimagined designs to the hospitals’ patient experience and advancement staff. Design boards and materials were left with the ETCH personnel to share with potential donors who could fund the development of the playroom.

“I’m so impressed by the students’ diligence and care in the way that they thoughtfully designed that space both to modernize but also to provide the details that we need as a medical organization,” said Debolt. “We are grateful that the students, as well as Kimberly, chose us for their course. There’s a lot of choices in the Knoxville area that they could have worked with, and I think we feel honored that they chose to highlight us and to put this much thought and care into East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.”