Play is a very important part of life for children; it allows them to use their imaginations, express themselves and provides opportunities to learn, explore and better understand their feelings and the environment around them. Medical play allows children to have hands-on play experiences using real or pretend medical equipment and supplies, and it is a key component of the work done by the child life specialists at CHOC Children’s.
Through the guidance of our child life specialists, medical play allows patients of all ages to become familiar and more comfortable with the hospital and their illness. It allows children to prepare for and understand tests, treatments and surgical procedures. Playing with the equipment also allows children a way to express their feelings, fears and anxieties about the hospital and in doing so, learn ways to cope with the things they find stressful or upsetting in a calm, comfortable environment.
Many parents are surprised to learn that children of all ages can engage in and benefit from medical play.
Medical treatments and hospitalization can be stressful can be stressful for all children, including infants. Unlike older children, families and child life specialists cannot fully explain to an infant what will be and is happening to them. Medical play provides infants the opportunity to become familiar with objects commonly found in the hospital environment and can be as simple as allowing the child to play peek-a-boo with hats and masks worn by doctors and nurses or allowing babies to explore and play with medical equipment like stethoscopes, blood pressure cuffs and bandages.
Toddlers and Preschool-aged Children
Toddlers and preschoolers are very aware of the things going on around them. While some children at the younger end of the spectrum may not be able to express themselves through words and sentences, medical play can provide all young children with invaluable opportunities to express themselves, learn about the hospital environment and understand and cope with the feelings they are having about their treatment.
Child life specialists provide toddlers and preschoolers some similar experiences to those infants engage in—like playing with medical equipment and playing peek-a-boo with the hats and masks worn by doctors and nurses. They, however, are also provided with opportunities to take medical play to the next level and engage in role playing. Role playing allows toddlers and preschoolers to tend to a doll, stuffed animal, family member or friend much like the doctors and nurses take care of them using medical equipment like bandages and cotton balls or a child’s doctor’s kit. The role playing, also seen in some cases as parallel play in which the child plays and tends to his or her patient while the doctor or nurse tends to the child, allows the child to learn about and explore the hospital environment while expressing his or her feelings, fears or frustrations through the act of caring for his or her “patient.”
Young children also engage in medical play through books and art. They can benefit from being read developmentally appropriate books on healthcare experiences and create collages with bandages and other medical equipment. Preschoolers can take the art to the next level by using paint and other mediums and even paint with syringes.
Although most school-aged children can easily speak and express their feelings and emotions, dealing with illness, tests, treatments and hospitalization can be extremely overwhelming. Medical play allows school-aged children to express their feelings and emotions and learn the vocabulary they encounter throughout treatment. Having a greater understanding of their treatments, bodies and the hospital allows them to feel more secure with their experiences.
School-aged children can engage in medical play through art, role playing and teaching, active play, and through books.
- Art is a wonderful way for school-aged children to express their feelings about their treatments and become familiar with handling medical equipment like cotton balls, bandages and the like by making collages or sculptures.
- While explaining information to children is important, what is also important is a child’s ability to convey the information back to someone else. Role playing with medical equipment or a play doctor’s kit allows children to be able to process what they have learned and then find ways to verbalize their understanding. Children often pretend to be a child life specialist, nurse or doctor explaining or “teaching” their dolls, stuffed animals, family members or friends what to expect in the hospital or with a procedure or treatment. The ability to teach what they have learned to a friend—or even a stuffed animal—can help the child feel more like an expert and more in control.
- Children can engage with medical equipment in “active play” thus making the equipment less about painful procedures and more about fun. Children can balance cotton balls and other small items on tongue despressers or can use syringes for squirting water or blowing cotton balls across a flat surface.
- Reading books about healthcare experiences can provide school-aged children with more information and vocabulary related to their hospital experience or illness, thus providing insight on what other children have experienced.
Teenagers and Young Adults
While teens and young adults do not engage in medical play the same as young children, they still greatly benefit from handling medical equipment, learning about the hospital experience and expressing themselves through art, music and words. Although adolescents may seem like adults, they often have many of the same fears as young children, plus deal with the anxieties and pressures of high school and college.
Although they are no longer young children, teens are given the opportunity to explore and handle real medical equipment both from the standpoint of learning and to use it for sculpting, collages and the like. They are also encouraged to write stories or poems about their healthcare experiences or keep a hospital scrapbook.