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"Even after 20 years as Dr Spritely, every day still feels new and exciting"

Working to help vulnerable people overcome feelings of powerlessness, anxiety and isolation, Edinburgh-based charity Hearts & Minds delivers therapeutic clowning sessions across a range of settings, from paediatric healthcare units and respite centres to schools for pupils with complex needs.

The charity’s dedicated team of professional arts practitioners use a variety of playful techniques to help children and young people find the confidence to smile and laugh again, donning bright yellow coats and squishy red noses as they transform into their fun, friendly and engaging ‘clowndoctor’ alter egos during visits to hospital wards and classrooms.

As the charity celebrates its 25th anniversary, here, co-interim Artistic Lead Fiona Ferrier – aka Dr Spritely – shares how the Hearts & Minds clowndoctor programme is proving laughter is the best medicine.

Working as a clowndoctor, no two days are ever the same – and that’s because the children and young people we work with are all unique.

When we visit hospitals, hospices, respite care settings and schools, we arrive with a lot of artistic tools in our bag, including improvisation, music and songs, dances, magic, puppetry, games and storytelling, which we use to help form genuine connections with often scared, anxious and worried young people.

And while we have extensive training and expert techniques ready at hand, it’s always the children who inform our play, as every visit is a co-creation between us and them. As soon as we enter the room – be in a classroom or hospital ward – we take the children’s lead, sitting with them at their level to let them know we are creating a safe space to explore their feelings and emotions.

For example, we might go into a room and the child is just sitting quietly, not quite ready to engage, so we sit there quietly with them. Then, after a few moments, they might catch our eye, and we look back at them or our fellow clowndoctor and let out a playful, ‘Whoa!’ to catch their attention. From there, we build and build the interactions until, by the end of the visit, we’re all playing a silly game with everybody in the room saying ‘Whoa!’ every time they make eye contact.

Other games we play can be as simple as knocking on the door and telling the children we have a delivery, before proceeding to push a giant invisible box into the room – and we never know what will be inside. We ask the kids to ‘open’ the box and sometimes it’s a fish that we throw around the room, while on other occasions we’ve ‘found’ giraffes, sharks, robots, an Xbox… anything they could possibly imagine.

It may sound simple, but encountering the child exactly where they are in that present moment lets them know we’re going on an adventure together, and they are leading the way. It’s all about giving young people agency in an environment where they might have lost self-confidence or faced powerlessness, anxiety, isolation and boredom as they go through painful, distressing or confusing treatments and procedures.

One of the most powerful things about the clowndoctors programme is that it's inclusive for everybody. It doesn't matter about age or ability, whether the child is verbal, non-verbal or has complex needs, every individual can have a participatory play session where they are at the heart of the fun – even if it’s just a wink or smile – and we know playing with us can help reduce stress and anxiety, while improving communication and social skills.

We've worked with children who, teachers tell us, never speak outside of the home, but while playing with the clowndoctors – who, of course, are very silly and can’t remember the words for things – start talking away. And because they are playing, they often do things without realising, like physiotherapy exercises or school work, too.

I’ve been Dr Spritely for 20 years now, and I can honestly say every day still feels new and exciting. It's wonderful to feel that you are making a difference to children’s lives and, ultimately, it’s such a joyous privilege to meet so many wonderful young people and be a part of helping them feel better.

Joy and laughter are powerful tools, and when I put on my red nose, switching from being Fiona to becoming Dr Spritely, I know something special is about to happen.

For more information about the work of Hearts & Minds, including the clowndoctors programme, visit

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