The power of pinball: Charity works to bring games to children’s hospitals

Medical Watch

Pinball machines are making a comeback. And now they’re making their way into hospitals thanks to a charity dedicated to helping ease the stress of young patients undergoing treatment.

Dan Spolar is the senior director and founder of Project Pinball. He said he still loves the game he grew up playing.

“As soon as you plunge the ball it’s a world underneath the glass. It just comes alive,” he said. “There is nothing else that exists while you are playing pinball.”

He’s making sure the machines are in children’s hospitals.

“It just has a great therapeutic benefit,” he said.

The idea for Project Pinball, the charity he founded 10 years ago, was born out of personal experience. During a tour of a local hospital, Spolar noticed a broken pinball machine off in the corner. He made it his mission to get it back up and running. 

“By us finding that machine in the children’s hospital, we were introduced to the power that a machine like this could give to the patients, the siblings, the families, doctors, nurses, child life specialists administrators,” he said. “We’d seen everybody gathered around this machine.”

There have been 55 donations and counting. He’s still on a roll. Chicago is the first stop on a five-city tour to deliver the units, free of charge, to children’s hospitals and Ronald McDonald Houses. 

 Jennie Ott is the Director of Child Life and Education at Comer Children’s Hospital.

“We know that kids need more than the medical treatment,” she said. “We know they need it now in a pandemic even more so. … I’ve seen kids who have come down in their wheelchairs and will see the pinball machine and kind of light up.”

For years, it was an Elvis-themed pinball machine that entertained patients at the South Side hospital. Now, thanks to Project Pinball, it’s the Beatles taking a spin in the teen lounge.

“Play is the cornerstone of kids’ development and their growth and it’s how kids experience the world,” Ott said. “And I think that is the beauty of the new pinball machine.”

“You cannot sit on a sofa and play a pinball machine,” Spolar said. “You have to stand up get in front of the machine. And it’s very physical. It has great real-time, hand-eye coordination going on. … Just the benefit we know these machines bring it just brings joy to my heart.”

Project Pinball not only purchases the machines, the organization provides lifelong maintenance on each unit.

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