Today's guest bloggers are Sherry Polise, MS, CCLS and Rachael Szewczyk, CCLS, Certified Child Life Specialists at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. March is Child Life Month.
Many children love to play pretend: they cook in play kitchens, they dress up as princesses and pirates, and they make giant pretend dinosaurs roar. It serves a great purpose in helping children learn and develop. Medical play is one type of pretend play that has many added benefits in helping children explore to understand and process potentially stressful interactions associated with going to the doctor or the hospital.
Medical play is a broad term for describing when children use play or real medical equipment to "be the doctor" and can involve acting out medical experiences on a doll or stuffed animal. It gives children a chance to step out of the patient role and have an opportunity to master those situations through play. Children learn through exploration and process stressful events through play. Certified Child Life Specialists are trained to use medical play to help facilitate a safe environment for children with medical or hospital settings. Parents and caregivers can also help support this vital process in several ways.
Provide opportunity. Provide your child access to a play doctor's kit and a doll or stuffed animal and let them know they can be the doctor now. Along with pretend play items, it can be helpful to allow children to utilize real medical items such as Band-Aids, gauze, or cotton balls. Children can engage in this type of play anytime, but having an adult present to help listen, engage, and observe provides the maximum benefit.
Be a reflective listener. One of the most therapeutic aspects of medical play is the fact that the child is in charge. Allow your child to be empowered as the doctor or nurse by allowing them to control the start, flow, and end of the play. It is important to take on the role of the observer during this play, not asking too many questions or attempting to guide the child's play (i.e. "why is your dolly at the hospital" "should the Band-Aid go here?"). Instead simply be there to listen and take directives from your child to engage in play with him or her. Letting the child control the play allows them to process experiences, concerns, or fears at a speed they are ready for.
Maintain safety. Children can often find medical play to be a wonderful outlet. Although it is important to maintain a child directed medical play session, it is equally important to maintain safety of the child both emotionally and physically. Children may experience a range of emotions during medical play including anger, sadness, or excitement. Creating an open, safe environment to allow your child to express any and all emotions without being corrected is important to this process. Likewise, utilizing a doll or stuffed animal rather than a person can help with maintaining physical safety.
If you have questions about how you can best support your child in understanding the doctor and hospital through medical play and other ways check out the Child Life, Education and Creative Arts Therapy department at Children's. Child life specialists are trained to help children of all ages cope with the healthcare experience and are available to speak with if you have additional questions.