Photo By Steve Truesdell
Post By Audrey “Pepper” Crabtree, “Clowns on Call” Principal Performer & Program Coordinator

“Hospital clowning?! What’s that?” . . . is often the first response when I tell people about my job. So, let me tell you a little bit about our “Clowns on Call” program and our work with our primary partner, SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.

Two days a week, Pepper (that’s me) and Too-me head into the hospital and get our clown gear on. We gather our props, load up our wagon, and head out on Clown Rounds. After checking in with the Child Life staff, we get our list of kids to see for the day. We walk, dance, and sing down the hallways, going room-to-room asking patients if they would like a visit.

When we visit with children, they realize quickly they are the boss of the clowns. We give them the power to say no, and we guide our play with them based on where they are both emotionally and physically. Our work can range from rambunctious play, slapstick comedy, and boisterous singing to quiet puppet play, gentle bubbles, and a soft lullaby (and everything in between). We bring the circus into their rooms through our clown characters who juggle, play music, spin plates, perform magic, dance, and balance objects. We use a combination of improvisational play and rehearsed routines.   When appropriate, we teach circus skills, offer clown noses, and invite the kids to create a clown name. (Currently the most popular ones are Cupcake, Buttons, Flash, and Sparkle, to name a few.)

Our primary objective is the physical and mental health of the patient. To support their physical health, we follow all hospital guidelines, as well as our own stringent hygiene guidelines regarding our props and costumes. We err on the side of caution when entering areas or making any physical contact, and we follow HIPAA rules.

In support of patient’s emotional well-being, we are there to provide comfort, friendship, distraction, belly laughs, amusement, and the wonder of circus. We make connections with the patients by focusing on the present moment and making subtle observations of the space, the patient and his or her family, everyone’s body language and tone of voice – and we always trust our instincts.

None of our work would be possible without the support of the outstanding staff and medical teams at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital. For the past five years, “Clowns on Call” have been doing Clown Rounds. We currently visit two days a week, seeing on average 16 children and 25 parents or other adult family members.

To reach out to the 40% of the hospital population that is out-patient, last fall we began a new initiative: the “Circus Playday,” one day each month in the Atrium. We set up in the main lobby and play and engage with children and families as they come and go to appointments, clinics, and visits.

So, if you are ever visiting Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, keep your eyes out for a couple of playful clowns!