What is medical play therapy?

Play therapy is helpful for children who have an illness or must have surgery that requires hospitalization. Hospitalizations are stressful for children and their families. Young children often feel frightened, confused, and out of control. Play therapy is used to help children understand and cope with illness, surgery, hospitalization, and medical procedures.

Play allows children to express their thoughts and feelings using their most comfortable method. Medical play gives children a chance to process (or “play” out) their worries about doctor’s procedures, and their illness. Angry or aggressive feelings and behaviors may come out during the play, which is a normal response. Unless their behavior puts someone at risk, it should they should be allowed to explore and play out angry and aggressive feelings.

Medical play is exactly what it sounds like: play with real medical equipment and often dolls, which allows children a non-threatening way to learn about and familiarize themselves with medical procedures, equipment, hospitals, doctors and nurses. Play is one way children can work through fears and anxieties.

Through medical play, children can give voice to fears and misconceptions about their hospital or illness experience that they may be unable to express verbally.

What is the goal of medical play therapy?

  • Play  to prepare child for medical procedures or to learn about his/her surgery.
  • Teach relaxation and pain management skills.
  • Give time  for child to express his/her feelings through normal play.
  • Sibling needs:Preparing children for visits to the hospital, helping them understand child’s illness and procedures

How is medical play therapy done?

Infants

  • Will look at, handle, mouth, and generally become familiar with medical equipment.

Toddlers

  • Continue to handle, explore and play with equipment.
  • Will use medical tools in normal toddler play.
  • Might begin to get nervous when medical equipment is introduced.
  • Are able to act out experiences by playing “doctor”.

Preschoolers

  • Will re-enact medical events on dolls or stuffed animals.
  • Might engage in fantasy play with medical themes and actual equipment.
  • May play aggressively or as a catharsis. Medical play is most effective when children direct and control the play.

Ideas for Parents

Infants

  • Playing peek-a-boo with doctor hats and masks
  • Watching an adult play with medical equipment and dolls
  • Exploring and playing with medical equipment
  • Mask play

Toddlers

  • Playing with toy doctor’s kits with added items such as BAND-AIDS and cotton balls
  • Playing doctor with dolls or stuffed animals
  • Playing peek-a-boo with doctor hats and masks
  • Creating art collages with BAND-AIDS, tongue depressors, and gauze
  • Exploring and playing with medical equipment
  • Reading books about doctor’s visits and the hospital
  • Painting with pudding using syringes, mouth sponges, gauze

Preschoolers

  • Playing with doctor kits and dolls
  • Collage making — collect Band-Aids, gauze, IV tubing, thermometers, cotton balls and / or tongue depressors to create a picture
  • Painting with syringes
  • Exploring and playing with medical equipment
  • Reading books about doctor’s visits and the hospital

Books and resources for preschoolers

Going to the Hospital, Anne Civardi and Stephen Cartwright

A Visit to the Sesame Street Hospital, Random House/Children’s Television Workshop

Pooh Plays Doctor, K.W. Zoehfeld

One Bear in the Hospital, C. Bucknall

Going to the Hospital, Fred Rodgers

Franklin Goes to the Hospital, Sharon Jennings

Corduroy Goes to the Doctor, L. McCue