Fort Worth hospital gives children a place for fun amid the sickness

FORT WORTH -- It was a big day for Hayden Singleton Head.

He got his first peek at the Child Life Zone, the new play and educational center unveiled Tuesday at Cook Children's Medical Center, where the 8-year-old Cresson boy has been treated for neuroblastoma, a form of cancer.

Then he lived a broadcast news reporter's dream by posing questions to VIP guests, Dallas Cowboys legend Troy Aikman and country music star Garth Brooks.

In a blue blazer, necktie and khaki pants, Hayden conducted interviews at the center's interactive broadcast studio, where children can create programs to be broadcast to patients isolated in their hospital rooms. Hospital officials called the studio a trailblazing element of the new center.

What is your favorite video game? Hayden asked, pointing a microphone at Aikman.

"You know, I think I am the only person in America to never play Madden Football," Aikman said, before recommending Guitar Hero.

What songs do you think we should have on our jukebox? he asked Brooks.

"I think you should have a lot of Garth Brooks on there," Brooks said. "And a lot of Trisha Yearwood. ... And I think you're good."

The Child Life Zone will give children a place free of needles, medical procedures and other sources of anxiety encountered during hospital stays. They can play video games, pool or foosball, use a kitchen or enjoy a therapeutic craft and play center.

"This is their place to come have creative expression and nothing but fun," hospital President Nancy Cychol said. "A place to be comfortable."

The center is about 4,000 square feet, making it the third-largest life zone in the nation, hospital officials said. It includes a teen room for older patients, a performance stage, a new library and family resource center. Computers with e-mail access let parents keep up with family and friends.

Cook Children's is still putting the finishing touches on the center, which will open to patients June 11 and replace a smaller life zone.

The Child Life Zone concept was formed when Aikman and others started working to build relaxing, interactive centers in children's hospitals, according to hospital officials. In spring 2011, Brooks' Teammates for Kids Foundation joined the effort.

Aikman recalled opening the original Cook Children's Child Life Zone in 1996, one year after opening one in Dallas.

He said the idea then was to build havens so children could get out of their hospital rooms, but he never imagined how popular the concept would become.

"When it began, I really kind of thought we would stay here in the Metroplex," Aikman said. "Then we did Oklahoma City, Houston, New York, Denver and Atlanta. It's grown and hospitals have gotten behind it."

The feel of home

A council of young hospital patients helped design the new center at Cook Children's. Briggs Berry, a 16-year-old council member from Granbury, said his group came up with ideas for furniture and wall color. He predicted that children would like the comfortable green chairs in front of the televisions, as well as the pool table.

Berry said an immune deficiency forced him into several prolonged hospital stays. Before the unveiling ceremony Tuesday, he shot pool with Brooks and Aikman.

"When you're in the hospital, you don't get to do all the things you'd like to do when you're at home," he said. "For me, I have a pool table at my house, so coming here and still being able to play pool kind of makes it a little more like I'm at home."

Hayden Head, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at age 4, has been cancer-free for 27 months, said his mother, Lizzie Head. Before his interview with Aikman and Brooks, he reviewed his questions written on notecards and checked out the Child Life Zone.

His one-sentence assessment: "I love it."

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689

Twitter: @albranch1