What is medical play?
Medical play is playing with real and pretend medical items. It can help your child express feelings and concerns about medical care. Some parts of coming to the hospital might be new or scary for your child. But playing is familiar and comforting in new situations.
Your child can act out health care experiences with a doll, toy, or stuffed animal. Medical play can fit your child’s age, ability, and the way she learns. Your child may start the medical play and do most of it. Or a Child Life specialist or caregiver might start the play experience and ask your child to play. You, another caregiver, or a Child Life specialist should be with your child during medical play.
How can medical play help my child?
Medical play can help your child in several different ways. Goals for your child might be:
- To become familiar with medical items in a non-threatening setting,
- To learn about the purpose of medical items,
- To get ready for medical procedures through play,
- To practice coping with hospital stays or procedures,
- To help children feel in control in a pretend medical setting, and
- To let your child express feelings about health care experiences with an adult.
Learning about health care
Children learn best through play. Medical play gives your child a chance to touch and pretend to use medical items in a safe place, like a playroom or at home. Research shows that medical play can help your child feel more comfortable in the hospital. It can also help your child cope with health care in the future.
Coping with treatment
Medical play can help your child cope with the hard parts of treatment, such as needles, medicines, or bandage changes. Your child can use medical play to learn and practice coping skills. These include taking deep breaths, holding still, or using a caregiver or comfort item for support.
How to do medical play with your child
A Child Life specialist, parent, or caregiver should be with your child during medical play. Your child might act out what she thinks about medical treatments. For example, she might pretend her doll is afraid of a medical object or act nervous when shown a new medical item. If your child shows fear, aggression, or any behaviors that concern you during medical play, it is important to talk about these feelings with your child. Here are some things you can say:
- Tell me how your patient is feeling.
- I see your patient looks (sad, scared, excited, frustrated, etc.). Is she ________?
- How do you feel when this happens to you?
- Let’s talk about some things we can do to help your patient when she is at the hospital.
Letting your child pretend to be a doctor or nurse might help her feel powerful and safe during play. You can ask your child if she wants to be the “doctor,” the “patient,” or the “mommy or daddy.” Asking questions such as “What is that?” and “What is that for?” will give you a better idea of what your child knows about a medical procedure. It can help you learn your child’s fears about a specific health care experience. You can also explain things that seem confusing to her.
Many children have never seen or been taught about medical items they see at the hospital. So they might think some items are scarier than they actually are. If your child pretends to use a medical item in an unusual way, calmly tell her how it is really used and can help her body. Your Child Life specialist can help with any questions about your child’s behavior.
If you have questions or want to schedule medical play with a Child Life specialist, please call that specialist directly. If you are away from the hospital, please call the Child Life department. Locally, dial 901-595-3020. If you are outside of the Memphis area, call toll-free 1-866-2STJUDE (1-866-278-5833), extension 3020.
This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.
St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.
ATTENTION: If you speak another language, assistance services, free of charge, are available to you. Call 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).
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