Earlier this month, Dr. Toy wrote about the power of play. Through play, children learn about themselves, their environment, their relationships, and the world around them. While at play, children communicate their fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams. They grant and fulfill wishes. Play is the language of children, whether healthy or ill, at home or in the hospital.
I have worked as a Certified Child Life Specialist since 1994 with hundreds of children in clinics and in the hospital with all kinds of injuries and illnesses. Play works magically to alleviate stress, normalize the hospital experience, and help children and families cope and express themselves. Play is used to prepare, explain, and educate children about a new diagnosis, medical procedures, and surgery.
For an ill or hospitalized child, play can:
- help normalize their experience and support their continued growth and development
- facilitate the expression of feelings and assist in coping
- be used as a teaching tool about medical procedures
- help master experiences
“The playroom is open!” are often magical words to a child in the hospital. Children love routine, and daily trips to the hospital playroom can be a part of this. In the playroom, children can meet other children, enjoy some social time and have fun. Some children might be resistant to leaving their room, feeling scared or self-conscious. Encourage your child to go for 5-10 minutes even if they don’t feel like going at first. Often, once they are there and realize other patients have on silly pajamas and are hooked up to an IV pole, they feel better—more connected to others and less isolated in their experience.
But playing in the hospital goes beyond entertainment and distraction and actually has therapeutic purposes. Child Life Specialists, Creative Arts Therapists, and other professionals use play and art to encourage children to express their feelings. There is nothing as cathartic as pounding play dough or clay or crashing down some blocks when you are feeling frustrated and angry. How about painting a picture of the family or school friends that you miss? Or it could be as simple as playing Uno with a child at the bedside, while he or she chats away, giving you a window into their thoughts and feelings.
In addition to using play as a means of expression and coping, play can be used to help children understand their diagnosis, procedures, and surgery. Early in my career, I worked with Kara, a 6-year-old girl, who was scheduled to have yet another surgery (her 8th). In the weeks leading up to her surgery, Kara requested medical play multiple times. Kara happily took on the role of doctor or nurse, “Okay, hold still, we need to take a little blood, you will only feel a pinch…” Kara tied the tourniquet on her stuffed bear like a pro, swabbed his furry arm with an alcohol wipe and then very carefully and gently used a butterfly needle to take some bear blood. Afterward she covered the boo-boo with a Bandaid. This routine was something that Kara had been through on the receiving end hundreds of times. She took great joy in our play, joy in having the opportunity to be the one in control versus the passive recipient. She was eager to show what she knew and enjoyed this medical role-play again and again.
Play with your children, encourage them to play with other children in the clinic or hospital, and to spend time with the professionals whose job it is to play—they are good at it! These experiences will no doubt support and teach.
Here are my tips for Therapeutic Medical Play:
- allow the child to lead
- address any misconceptions (provide accurate information as needed)
- validate any feelings or emotions
- make observations about the play
- give the doll or bear (patient) a voice
- speak the language of children in order for them to relate and understand