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Seriously Foolish and Foolishly Serious: The Art and Practice of Clowning in Children’s Rehabilitation

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This paper interrogates and reclaims clown practices in children’s rehabilitation as ‘foolish.’ Attempts to legitimize and ‘take seriously’ clown practices in the health sciences frame the work of clowns as secondary to the ‘real’ work of medical professionals and diminish the ways clowns support emotional vulnerability and bravery with a willingness to fail and be ridiculous as fundamental to their work. Narrow conceptualizations of clown practices in hospitals as only happy and funny overlook the ways clowns also routinely engage with sadness, despair, discomfort and many other ways of being and doing. Our exploration of clown practices as foolish exposes the ways children’s rehabilitation upholds particular neoliberal models of success and invites a re-centring of rehabilitation and health care research and practice towards relationship building, supporting meaningful projects and a continued nurturing of aesthetic and pleasurable ways of being-in-the-world in the present moment as valuable unto themselves.

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Julia Gray is supported by a Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship; Matching funds are from The Kimel Family Opportunities Fund through the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation.

Barbara Gibson holds the Bloorview Kids Foundation Chair in Childhood Disability Studies.

We would also like to recognize friend and colleague Jamie Burnett, who was Holland Bloorview’s first therapeutic clown practitioner, was author Helen Donnelly’s clown partner for three years, and who died in 2011 at age 33. Jamie practiced as a truly foolish clown: his work inspired his colleagues and stretched the field of therapeutic clowning. We are forever in awe of his commitment and passion.


1 We use the term ‘disabled children’ rather than ‘children with disabilities’ in keeping with current usage in critical disability scholarship. Disability is not considered a condition of individuals as is implied by the phrase ‘with disabilities’ but rather something experienced as a result of prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion.

2 Throughout this paper, we will refer to both ‘clown practitioner’ and ‘clown persona.’ As a general note, a ‘clown practitioner’ refers to the practitioner/performer who embodies the clown persona as the character on the unit; the clown practitioner takes on a ‘character/clown’ name and persona.

3 Donnelly’s clown persona is named Dr. Flap.

4 As part of this example, we will use the clown persona name (e.g. Ricky or Dr. Flap), when referring to the clown character in the story, and we will use both clown persona name and practitioner last name when referring to the clown practitioner as health care practitioner (e.g. Ricky/Burnett or Dr. Flap/Donnelly).

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Gray, J., Donnelly, H. & Gibson, B.E. Seriously Foolish and Foolishly Serious: The Art and Practice of Clowning in Children’s Rehabilitation. J Med Humanit 42, 453–469 (2021).

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