There are very few examples of nurses featured in young children’s books and toys. Even Barbie is guilty: nurse Barbie is an old-fashioned collector’s item, while doctor Barbie can be found at any toy store! This doesn’t take into account the lack of diversity among these dolls, either.

Nurses are a fleeting presence in the lives of children, seen during visits to the pediatrician doling out immunization shots and taking blood pressure. True, children may know their school nurse, a distinct and often misunderstood specialty within nursing, but the industry reaches much farther.

I received a lot of support from other nurses throughout my nearly 40-year career, and they’ve inspired me to encourage children and adults to pursue nursing. I firmly believe it is our professional responsibility to try to recruit future nurses, and that effort needs to begin during the elementary school years. We can’t assume children know nursing is a viable profession otherwise.

Addressing a need

The need to recruit new nurses has never been more apparent. The nursing shortage, continuing at its current rate, is nearing a crisis in health care. Figures released in the past three years by the American Health Care Association and the American Hospital Association show more than 135,000 vacancies. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing estimates that U.S. colleges and universities must graduate 30% more nurses (about 30,000 individuals) every year to fill the coming void. The aging work force and stark nursing faculty shortfall contribute greatly to the shortage.

Fellow nurses may be aware of impending crisis, but the next generation may not realize the need, nor see the disparities in the number of minority nurses. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, African Americans and Hispanics represent 4.2% and 3.1% of nurses, respectively, while the numbers of Asians, Native Americans, and American Eskimos are considerably lower. Only 5.8% of nurses are men. We must promote nursing to underrepresented populations, particularly children, to jumpstart them on this career path.

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In July 2009, I presented my research regarding implementing strategies to promote nursing as a career to Hispanic children at the 35th annual conference of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses in San Antonio, Texas. We need to reach African American, Asian, Native American, and Pacific Islander children as well!

Little is done to promote nursing among these populations. If they don’t see examples of nurses, including role models in their families and communities, they won’t see themselves as nurses. We can make an immediate impact by talking to children about nursing in our homes and schools.

“It’s important to plant seeds, appropriate seeds, in children’s minds that this is a career they can pursue,” says Maggie Thurmond Dorsey, R.N., Ed.D., an associate professor of nursing at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. She is the author of a series of children’s books centered on a young boy named Michael David Daniels who wants to be a nurse—just like his father.

Dorsey’s first book, My Hero, My Dad the Nurse, grew out of her dissertation, concerned with the recruitment and retention of African American men in nursing. My Hero, My Dad the Nurse Played Football, the sequel, continued that theme. Dorsey’s writing shows how nurses are just regular people with varied interests; their lives are not confined to a hospital. Her third and final book is scheduled to come out in June 2010.

Dorsey stresses the importance of exposing young children to different jobs, including nursing. “You can’t wait until they’re in high school,” she says. Discussing careers in fun, playful, and inquisitive ways lets children know that someday, when they’re grown up, they have innumerable options. Dorsey reads her book in elementary school classrooms with her stethoscope in tow so she can explain what it does and what she does as a nurse. Other volunteers also use her books to reach out to children, including soldier nurses at Fort Gordon in Georgia, who read it during a visit to an elementary school on the base. One man read it to his son’s class. “He was able to show his son and his son’s classmates: he was in his army fatigues, but he’s also a nurse, and he’s proud of it,” she says.

The student nurse association at USC Aiken adopted her book as a teaching tool as well, reading it to children at local elementary schools. “They’re in nursing school and [showing] it’s something these children can also accomplish,” Dorsey says.

For years, I also wanted to write a children’s book about nursing specialties that would appeal to both boys and girls. With a grant from the Indiana Organization of Nurse Executives, I recently self-published Jill Learns About Nurses Around the Town, which describes a day spent between a little girl and her favorite aunt, a nurse. They visit other nurses in hospitals, clinics, and retirement homes, among other locales.

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While writing my book, I began studying strategies for connecting nurses with young school children. The boys and girls I spoke with seemed to have a narrow view of what nursing encompasses: hospitals are nurses’ houses, nurses work for doctors, and only women can be nurses. We can counter these stereotypes by advocating for nursing and acting as community resources, representing all cultures and both sexes.

Part of my research included sending 12 RNs into schools, churches, and homes to meet with children aged five to 10 years old. The nurses wore their uniforms, read my book, and explained their fi eld. The book served as the main teaching strategy, but the nurses used other tools to introduce nursing as a career. We got an overwhelmingly positive response, and not surprisingly, the nurses really enjoyed themselves too! I also visited my granddaughter’s class with board games, Band-Aids, and other “props” from work, and the kids were very enthusiastic to learn more.

Playing to learn

While nurses like volunteering in classrooms, I’ve found they don’t necessarily want to do it on their own. I recommend enlisting one or two of your peers, pooling your ideas and resources, and visiting classrooms or community events together. The activities outlined here are things any nurse can do, in any classroom, and half of it is just being there!

Word searches are easy to do, as are word scrambles (teosescotph, anyone?), and they’re easily adapted to any age group, all the way up to junior high and beyond. Try making your own connect the- dots picture or jigsaw puzzle. You can find puzzle makers online or make one yourself using thick card stock paper. If the kids are old enough, try having them make their own puzzles. (For help with puzzles and ideas, check out or I’ve also led children in nursing bingo, matching games, and decorating t-shirts and bookmarks. You can even bring in fruit snacks in the shape of body parts—anything to engage the children and get them excited about nursing.

For older students, try presenting during a career day or fair or mentoring teens volunteering in your hospital, clinic, or nursing facility. A presentation of different practice settings or a breakdown of nursing pathways might demystify the career for older children who aren’t aware of the differences between R.N.s, L.P.N.s, M.S.N.s, and D.N.P.s.

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I find many nurses don’t encourage their family members to consider nursing. Perhaps the star of your next bedtime story could be a nurse who has a busy day at a hospital, a nursing home, or while visiting patients where they live. Dorsey incorporates spirituality in her stories, which she says speaks to the holistic care nurses provide. If you choose to give a presentation about nursing in a community church setting, why not tie in the spiritual aspect of the work?

I hope others will write children’s books about nursing. With the exception of Nurse Nancy, a book first published in 1952 about a young white girl who pretends she’s a nurse, examples of similar stories are hard to come by. “Nursing includes a lot of people who look differently,” Dorsey says. She has yet to find another book encouraging boys or ethnic minorities to pursue the profession. People want caregivers they can relate to, Dorsey says, and sometimes that can mean having a nurse who comes from a similar background or ethnicity. “We can provide quality care to patients regardless of ethnicity,” she notes, but don’t diverse patients necessitate diverse nurses?

Most nurses, including myself, know the job does not allow for much leisure time (let alone time to campaign on behalf of nursing!). We may feel that we don’t have much more to give. Just remember: you are the best person to talk about nursing. If we can find a place in our schedules to volunteer with the children in our communities, I think the benefits will be immeasurable.

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