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Designed to heal

Recognizing that kids need to move around, University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital sometimes allows patients in its mental health wing to glide down the hallways on scooters. (Photos: Brady Willette)

Renovated behavioral health unit fosters recovery

They knew some of their ideas would raise eyebrows. But the clinicians who got together two years ago to plan renovations for the two-floor Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Intensive Treatment Center at University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital felt that a big change just might make a big difference for kids.

“There isn’t much medical literature about pediatric psychiatric environments, but our thinking was that the design could really contribute to care,” says program director Karen Wendt, M.A., R.N., P.H.N.

They suggested creating special rooms where kids could be active—for instance, swing in a hammock if they wanted to, or even wing across a room on a zip line. And they wanted to bring back the hospital building’s basement swimming pool that had fallen out of use because it needed expensive repairs.

The hospital administration got right on board, and ultimately, the carefully planned renovation was much more than a face-lift. New colors, attractively redesigned areas, and a range of child-empowering touches have enhanced care—while at the same time addressing children’s need to move around and interact with their environment.

“We’re still discovering all the ways children are benefiting from the space,” Wendt says.

Amplatz Children’s Hospital is home to the largest pediatric mental health program in the Midwest and is the state’s only children’s hospital with a psychiatric inpatient facility for just children and teenagers. It serves nearly 90 percent of Minnesota teens who require inpatient care.

And thanks to an $11.2 million gift from that allowed for the renovation, the space now matches the high caliber of care offered there.

Developed with kids in mind

The young people who come to Amplatz Children’s Hospital for behavioral care have a wide array of mental health issues, explains S. Charles Schulz, M.D., head of the Department of Psychiatry in the University of Minnesota Medical School. Some have severe anxiety caused by abuse. Some are adolescents who are clinically depressed and have tried harming themselves, or who are showing first signs of psychosis. Some are struggling with substance abuse. Others are children with autism who have outbursts so severe that they have trouble functioning at school and at home.

One of the critical concerns throughout the architectural planning of the unit, Schulz emphasizes, was maintaining children’s safety.

But there was also berth for new concepts in the 20-bed mental health unit and 12-bed intensive treatment center. The design, developed in concert with the architectural firm BWBR, eliminated harsh corners and incorporated soft angles, curved walls, and semicircle motifs. Large windows at the end of each hall and in every child’s room provide plentiful natural light.

“A lot of times kids find it helpful just to sit and look out the window,” Wendt says.

Children are empowered by interactive features, like switches that alter the colors of lit panels on the walls of the common room. They can turn on music or dim the lighting in their bedrooms.

The opportunity to play was built into the space as well. The unit has a dedicated sensory room equipped with weighted blankets, soft lights, and a water-filled column with bubbles to help agitated children calm down. Children can seek respite in the room, nestling into a hammock, or find pleasure in swinging across the room on a 10-foot zip line.

“Different things work for different children, and some need motion to calm themselves,” says occupational therapist Lynne Bradbury. “They come in and gravitate to whatever activity they need. It’s cozy, and they feel safe here.”

Swinging across the room on a zip line can help children relax when they're agitated.

Better space, better attitudes

Several signs suggest the renovation already has affected care. The staff has noted that the children have been more responsive and more respectful while on the unit.

“The new space gives a whole different message to kids,” says Melissa Peterson, whose daughter has spent time on the unit during a mental health crisis. “The openness of the space, even the color and the light, have a playfulness, which is great to help kids feel safer. It speaks to their dignity and says this is a place for healing.”

In fact, the incidents requiring restraints and periods of seclusion—used when children get uncontrollably agitated—have dropped precipitously, Wendt notes.

The environment has made an impression on clinicians, too. “People are really happy to come to work,” Wendt says. “That’s critical in caring for kids, because kids are quick to sense tension if it’s there.”

The hope is that the attractive, aesthetic space will also help recruit talented staff, including pediatric psychiatrists, who are in demand throughout the country.

The hospital's rehabbed swimming pool gives children a chance to let off steam and simply play like kids.

One of the greatest successes of the renovation has been the rehabbed pool in the lower floor of the hospital. Children who meet behavior evaluations can swim daily, and many are quick to grab the opportunity.

“A pool is not a typical feature for a child-adolescent psychiatric setting, but it’s a health necessity,” Wendt says. “Many of the medications cause weight gain. Kids may be on the unit for a few days to weeks, and the pool gives them the chance to exercise.”

A group laughing and splashing in the water, however, makes it clear that it’s also a place to feel at ease, let off steam, and just play like kids.

To learn how you can help, contact Courtney Billing at 612-626-1931 or

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