| Last updated on November 3, 2023
In the world of pediatric healthcare, one approach to care stands out - not just for its simplicity, but for its profound impact: medical play.
Medical play isn’t just child’s play. It’s a therapeutic strategy designed to gently guide children through the complexities of their medical experiences. Medical play is a powerful vehicle for clarity and comfort.
Through the lens of medical play, intimidating hospital procedures and medical devices become relatable and more familiar experiences. By weaving in the warmth of beloved toys and imaginative scenarios, we can give children more control in a space where they often feel powerless.
Giving children a voice recognizes their need for autonomy – and helping them to understand what to expect from a medical procedure can help reduce stress and anxiety for all involved..
Whether you're a healthcare provider or a parent, scroll down to discover how medical play can transform a child’s healthcare journey below.
In this article learn:
- What is medical play?
- How does medical play help children?
- Ways to facilitate medical play
- Medical play by age and stage
- What is a child life specialist?
- What do child life specialists do?
- Using medical play for common care touchpoints like IV treatment
What is medical play?
Medical play is a practice used to help children come to terms with medical procedures and treatments they require due to various medical conditions they may be managing.
Whether it be a short outpatient procedure like diagnostic imaging tests or helping a child cope with a lengthy inpatient stay, medical play is a model used to help children develop medical or health literacy in child-friendly, age-appropriate ways.
Children develop and learn through play, using imagination and role-playing to experiment with big feelings that arise from complicated events or experiences. Play-based learning allows a child to express emotions and test new actions through the familiar comfort of playing.
Medical play, which involves children playing with real or pretend medical items pertaining to upcoming medical procedures they may face, can help children express their feelings about being admitted to the hospital. It’s a strategic way to empower children to “play out” their anxious feelings about their medical experiences.
Medical play is often child-directed, which means that the child plays one-on-one with a parent or specialist.
Child-directed medical play allows children to interact safely with medical tools such as stethoscopes , IV lines, bandages, and other common medical devices that a child may come into contact with during their stay in the hospital.
This helps children to become more comfortable with the items, and more confident about their ability to cope with medical procedures that are upcoming. This in turn, contributes to more efficient and compassionate care - a win-win for both healthcare providers and their young patients.
What is health literacy?
The CDC defines health literacy as:
- The degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to make decisions regarding their personal health.
In the case of children, medical diagnoses, treatment procedures, and common medical interventions (such as the regular insertion of IV lines) can be overwhelming, confusing, and frightening.
Medical play is a tool to bridge this gap. While very young children may not come to completely comprehend their current health status, health literacy can begin at an early age and it ultimately leads to more empowerment as children navigate their healthcare journey.
How does medical play help children?
Medical play has the benefit of educating children and growing their confidence with medical equipment in age-appropriate ways.
- Demystify Procedures: Turns unfamiliar medical events into understandable experiences.
- Feel Empowered: Provides children with a sense of control over their healthcare journey.
- Have Enhanced Emotional Well-being: Reduces fear and anxiety associated with medical treatments.
- Improve Cooperation: Increases a child's willingness to participate in necessary procedures.
- Boost Communication: Encourages children to express feelings and ask questions about their care.
- Experience Strengthened Resilience: Helps children build coping mechanisms for future medical encounters.
Ways to facilitate medical play
Medical play can occur both in the hospital and at home.
From storytelling to hands-on simulations, there are many ways to guide children through their medical journey.
If young children are just learning about medical experiences and medical equipment, they may benefit from some guidance or modeling from a caregiver or child life specialist.
For example, a caregiver might demonstrate applying an IV dressing to the arm of a beloved teddy bear, or inserting an IV line into the arm of a doll.
Below are some expert medical play tips provided by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia:
- Allow medical play to be child-led. This will really help children become comfortable with medical tools and grow confidence.
- Avoid asking too many questions. Listen to what the child is saying about their feelings and the questions they are asking. This will help you understand what the child is worrying about, allowing you to simply support his or her exploration.
- Use stuffies as patients rather than people. This allows the child maximum freedom, since teddy bears can’t be accidentally injured in the process of medical play (whereas siblings and caregivers can – and accidental injuries during play may not help your child’s confidence with medical equipment).
- Distract or comfort when things get hard. If children have big fears or worries during medical play, or are accidentally causing harm to unwilling human (or pet) patients, comfort your child, and distract them from medical play rather than making sharp commands to stop (this avoids creating a negative association with medical play and ‘getting in trouble’).
Also read: What is patient centered care?
Does medical play change based on the child’s age?
Yes – in many cases, the medical play that would be engaging for an infant is not going to hit the same for a school-aged child.
Here are some examples of medical play based on age, provided by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. (Bonus: these can be used at home with caregivers, or in a hospital setting with a specialist).
Age Appropriate Medical Play Ideas
What is a child life specialist?
A certified child life specialist is a professional clinically trained to understand the developmental impact of illness and injury on children.
The role of a child life specialist is to improve the overall experience of children and their families in the hospital through gentle, guided play.
Medical events like surgeries or a life-changing diagnosis of chronic health conditions can be stressful and traumatic to children and their families.
A child life specialist’s role is to reduce the negative impact of these life changes, using play as a form of therapy and healing to educate and reassure parents and children.
When available, child life specialists can also help during more routine and outpatient procedures.
What do child life specialists do?
A child life specialist may provide many interventions for children to help strengthen their understanding and coping skills for an upcoming medical procedure.
For instance, take a look at this list of interventions provided by child life specialists, as prepared by the Children’s Hospital of Michigan:
- Preparation for tests, surgery, and procedures
- Procedural support and distracting during procedures
- Non-pharmacological pain management
- Education regarding new or existing diagnoses
- Medical play
- Developmental play
- Emotional support
- Sibling and family support
- Bereavement support
- Preoperative tours in medical facilities
- Patient advocacy
Does medical play look the same for each child?
In many ways, the overarching approach of medical play looks similar for each child, however each child may be exposed to different tools depending on their diagnosis or upcoming medical procedure.
For example, for children who are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, a child life specialist may bring needles or pods to a session, which these children will need to become very familiar with in order to understand management of the symptoms of their diagnosis.
For other children, a more general approach may be needed to help prepare a child for a specific procedure or a hospital stay.
In many cases, medical play can include play with IV lines.
The placement of peripheral IV lines is one of the most common medical interventions used today, and is one of the most commonly faced medical interventions for children undergoing surgery, receiving medication or needing hydration.
The CDC estimates that 2 in 3 children have strong fears around needles.
As such, getting an IV line inserted can be really frightening and distressing for kids. Let’s face it, most adults don’t like getting poked either!
Fortunately, there are ways to make getting an IV less painful AND less frightening for children.
Medical play for IV procedures
IV therapy is a common method of providing fluids, medicine, nutrition or blood directly into the bloodstream through a vein.
IV lines are inserted in people who are: sick, injured, dehydrated from exercise or heat, or undergoing surgery.
If your child is facing a planned medical procedure, they may be scared, confused, or overwhelmed when it comes to needles or IVs.
A child life specialist will be able to provide pediatric-friendly IV care and support to young patients who require an IV.
With medical play and the dedicated support of child life specialists, we can transform IV care from a source of fear to one of empowerment. This ensures that even in the sterile world of medicine, children can find comfort and care.
Using simple play tools and techniques, medical play can foster a sense of confidence in children and bring more normalcy to having an IV.
Pediatric friendly IV care
In the world of healthcare, the needs of pediatric patients are distinct from adults.
Children aren't just smaller adults – their bodies, including their vascular system, are still developing. As such, medical interventions, especially something as routine as IV care, need a different approach when it comes to kids.
Below are three important considerations when it comes to offering pediatric friendly IV care:
Understanding Young Skin: Children's skin is more delicate and sensitive. The epidermis, or outer layer, of a child's skin is thinner compared to adults. This makes it more vulnerable to trauma from medical adhesives and other interventions. Skin-sensitive dressings designed for young patients help to maintain their skin integrity and skin health while in hospital.
IV Care Tailored to Kids: Pediatric-friendly IV care should focus on minimizing discomfort and stress. From the design of the IV to the dressing usedto protect it, every aspect is created with a child's well-being in mind. The goal is not just effective treatment but ensuring the overall experience is as positive as possible.
Engaging Children in Their Care: Pediatric-friendly IV solutions often incorporate elements of medical play. By familiarizing children with the procedure in a playful and engaging manner, their anxiety is reduced. Download Covalon’s Ultimate IV Care Kit for Kids for expert tips on how to make getting an IV more comfortable for kids.
At the heart of pediatric-friendly IV care is a respect for the unique challenges children face in medical settings. Through innovation, education, and compassion, healthcare providers can ensure that every IV placement is as comfortable and stress-free as possible for our youngest patients.
Also read: How to make getting an IV less painful
Medical play: in summary
- Medical play is a therapeutic approach that uses play tools and techniques to help children understand, process and cope with their medical experiences.
- By integrating familiar toys and play scenarios, children can explore and demystify the unknown elements of their healthcare journey, such as IV care.
- Giving children a voice and semblance of control recognizes their need for autonomy.
- With medical play and the dedicated support of child life specialists, we can transform routine treatment like IV care from a source of fear to one of empowerment. This ensures that even in the sterile world of medicine, children can find comfort and care.
- The benefits of medical play include: reduced anticipatory fear, lower stress during procedures, decreased pain and trauma, strengthened coping skills, and better outcomes.
- At the end of the day, kids just want to be kids. They should be able to play freely without the fear of infection, pain or distractions from medical devices like an uncomfortable IV dressing.
- Gentle IV protection during IV nutrition therapy is essential for children’s emotional health and medical outcomes – especially for children who may face hospitalization throughout their lives due to chronic health conditions.