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"After 3 1/2 days of intense workshops, this presentation was immense fun - great way to end a conference!"
- Linda DeBanis, Staten Island, NY

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This article was written by Bonnie Akerson and BJ Hickman and was published in The Dental Assistant, the Journal of The American Dental Assistants Association.

Relaxing Child Patients is a
Tricky Business

The use of Humor to ease stress and to address illness was first documented in Biblical times and has been periodically used by healthcare professionals periodically for centuries. Most parents understand the importance of humor in the lives of children and encourage them to partake in various activities bringing more of it into their lives. These activities include attending carnivals, hiring clowns and magicians for parties, watching silly cartoons, or reading books that put smiles on a child's face. On the medical front, since the 1930s, hospitals have been inviting clowns and other performers to children's wards, bringing needed smiles and joy to the ill. The gift of humor doesn't have to end there. In fact, it should become a regular part of the treatment of children by healthcare professionals.

The reasons to bring humor into the healthcare profession are unlimited, but below are a few documented reasons.

1) When it comes to children, humor is also a powerful tool. It relieves tension and fear of doctors, and it gives children a feeling of control over their environment [1]. Acts as simple as providing small toys for them, tickling them, or playing peek-a-boo can reduce children's uncertainty about the doctor visit and their own vulnerability to disease or pain. Older children like slapstick humor such as running into curtains or playing around with medical tools [1].

2) Humor helps to distract the patient from physical pain, if even for a brief period of time [3]. But humor should never be forced onto the patient [3]. Moreover, patients themselves also use humor to ease their situations. By making fun of doctors and their own conditions, they "transform individual complaints into group pleasure," and create a more enjoyable social atmosphere in which healing is better supported [1].

3) Thirdly humor is thought to enhance health is by reducing stress [2]. This mechanism thus presents humor as an indirect means of improving one's health. Because stress has been shown to produce adverse effects on the body, such as increasing one's risk of infectious disease, anything that can work to reduce it, like humor, will work to counteract these negative effects [2,3].

Magic tricks, puzzles, and other diversions have been effectively used by adults who want to improve communication with children for many years. Magic is fascinating for young and old and a simple magic trick will demand young patients' attention, relax them, and capture their imagination. The effectiveness of magical diversions has withstood the test of time and has been used successfully by a countless number of inventive teachers, productive pediatricians, clever cruise ship staff, and professional entertainers. Although I have been using the tricks I share for years in my magic shows, school enrichment programs, workshops, and speaking engagements, they are far from "trade secrets." As you study the magic trick described here you might want to keep in mind a few magicians' rules that make magic more enjoyable and effective. Here are five principles:

1. Can you keep a secret? Where there's magic involved, please don't make it too easy for your spectator to know how it worked. Keep them guessing. It's more enjoyable for everyone that way. They will find out on their own if they are interested enough.

2. Practice, practice, practice. If you read the instructions to a magic trick and go right out and show someone, chances are it won't work, you'll forget something, or you will get caught. That's a quick way to lose interest. Try it a few times so you remember what to do, what to say, and the angles to watch out for. You can always practice in front of a mirror to see yourself as others do.

3. Once is enough. There are exceptions, but generally it's best not to repeat a trick right away to the same audience. If they see it again, they will know what to look for and be more likely to figure out the method. Also, don't tell them what is going to happen. Instead, add the element of surprise.

4. Pitter-patter. Magicians call their stories or what they say while they are doing a trick their "patter." Your patter when showing young children these tricks and diversions can make all the difference. You can change lives! If you are believable and original with your patter, you can create wonder, put a child on the right track, divert his or her attention, make them laugh, or put them at ease. You can easily draw out their wishes and dreams, and then reinforce or motivate them immediately. It will give you a power you never knew you had.

5. Consider your audience and involve them in your effects. Allow them to participate by shuffling the deck or examining props. Use your talent to interact with people, not just display your cleverness without warmth.

A good place to start is with a magic wand. Hand a magic wand to a child and they go to work. They know what to do. They wave it, gently touch things with it, and slowly iterate a magic word. Their imagination goes wild. It makes no difference that the wand doesn't seem to do anything. It's magic. Now put that same wand in the hands of an adult. A child can't wait to see what is going to happen. They think you must know magic. They wonder! Just the sight of the magic wand wins their attention. Now you go to work. You show them a trick or two and they want to see it again. They want to hold it. They want to try it.

Your wand can be a traditional store bought black wand with white tips (available from the author), home-made from a cardboard tube from a coat hanger, a wooden dowel, or your own magical hand crafted contraption. Health care professionals, how about a hand painted tongue depressor? Now what do you do with it?

Elementary school teachers can use it to have a child point to states on a map. Pre-school teachers can use it to point to colors in a room. Doctors and nurses can use it to have the child show where it hurts. Anyone can use it to entertain or divert the attention of a child.

Here is a magic trick that children love. They will want to see you "do it again," and they will want to try it. This trick is truly basic. Unlike most magic tricks, this can be eventually taught to the child. They will be so proud of themselves when they make it work. Then they can't wait to show it to somebody.

Wand Suspension

This is the "wand suspension" in which the wand seems to cling to your hand as if by magic. You can suggest that it's "static cling," magical magnetism, or merely unexplainable. Hold the wand in your left clenched fist with the back of your hand toward your audience. Your right hand holds your left wrist to "steady your arm." You slowly open the clenched fist, spread your fingers, and the wand seems to cling to your hand without any visible support. The photos below show the secret. It's the right hand forefinger that secretly holds the wand in place.


Try your new magic trick. You'll be amazed at the magical power it has on a child.

1. Bennett HJ. Humor in Medicine. Southern Medical Journal. December, 2003;96(12):1257-1261.
2. Martin RA. Humor, Laughter, and Physical Health: Methodological Issues and Research Findings. Psychological Bulletin. July, 2001;127(4):504-519.
3. Seaward, LB. Humor's Healing Potential: Laughter Provides Emotional and Physiological Benefits to Patients and Care Givers Alike. Health Progress. April, 1992;73(3):66-70.

More Tips
In addition to the tips and magic trick in the "Relaxing Child Patients" article, BJ Hickman recommends several other tricks, curiosities and diversions in his PediaTRICKS program.

Diversion ideas can come from:

  • Your own "trinket" collection.
  • A magic or joke shop.
  • Old fashioned toy store.
  • Science store.
  • Dollar store.
  • Second hand shop.

Children love stories. Imagine their curiosity if you show them your first toy, a piece of jewelry, puzzle, or puppet while you explain your twist as to what makes it special.

BJ Hickman Options
Keynotes, breakout-sessions, spouses and family entertainment, and a visit to cheer up everyone in the children's ward. Photos and option details on the "Programs" page.
Additional Topics

In addition to PediaTRICKS for healthcare professionals, topics include Who Says Tricks Are For Kids?, Kids DO Say The Darndest Things!, Magic Speaks Louder Than Words, Magic Is A Tricky Business, Magical History Tour, and The Magical Motivator.