building bricks toysIf your child is medically complex or struggles with a serious illness, he or she may need things to do other than joining sports teams or playing with neighborhood friends. Maybe a special toy would do he trick? The thing is, an expensive, hi-tech toy with buttons and blinking lights can be a wonderful distraction, but when it comes to dealing with the emotions associated with a medical condition, sometimes less is more – sometimes a simple toy can help your child express and eventually work through difficult feelings. Here are some reasons you might consider basic toys rather than a giant robot:

1. It’s All About the Relationship

Healing doesn’t necessarily happen between a child and a toy; it happens between a child and another person. If a toy gives itself up too easily to independent entertainment, it can distract from the opportunity for you to use a toy as a reason to interact with your child. A basic toy may force you to do more work, but it also provides the chance to join your child in play.

child blowing bubbles2. Emotional Challenge

Your medically complex child may mask his or her emotions. But only by removing this mask can you help your child work through challenging feelings. Sometimes intentionally creating difficult emotions in a safe and controlled environment allows you to guide your child through the experience of dysregulation. When a child feels challenging emotions, you can work through them in the moment – but this ability to work through tough feelings is something your child can apply to other situations, maybe to situations surrounding his or her illness. With simple toys, it may not be immediately obvious what to do with a stack of popsicle sticks, or a pile of sycamore balls, or even a blank canvas. These simple, open-ended experiences can be very dysregulating for a child! They also set the stage to work through challenging emotions in a very real way. Eventually at school or at home or at the doctor’s office or at their afterschool activity, we hope that kids will learn to recognize and regulate these emotions, using the same skills you practice together while playing with simple toys.

adult and kid playing with kite3. Skill Transfer

Your child probably can’t take that awesome toy to school or to their other activities. By helping your child learn to use simple toys, you can teach the skill of play itself – how to imagine entertainment from simple materials. Learning to play with simple toys is a skill your child can take with them wherever they go.

4. Interpretation

There is no question what that amazing toy is supposed to be – its use is obvious and there’s likely only one use. Toys that are carefully crafted to be something may leave little room for interpretation. But play can be an avenue not just for entertainment, but also for growth. Through play, your child can express and interpret his or her experiences. One of the most important avenues for growth through play is the ability for children to express complex emotions and memories through the materials of their play. Simple toys allow you to watch for his expression.

Of course, there is absolutely a role for distraction and for that purpose, maybe the biggest most awesome toy is best. But when your goal is to help your child process the emotions associated with a medical condition, keep it simple. Working together with basic materials can be a window into your child’s world.

Kristi Pikiewicz
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.
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