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The Benefits of Medical Play

What is medical play?

Female child patient conducts medical play with child life specialist on dummy doll.

Medical play can help your child express feelings and concerns about their care.

Medical play happens when kids play with real or pretend medical items. Medical play can help your child express feelings and concerns about their care. Coming to the hospital might be new or scary for a child, but playing is familiar and comforting.

Medical play can fit any child’s age, ability, and learning style. Your child can act out care experiences with a doll or toy. Sometimes, your child may start medical play on their own. Other times, 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 medical play can help my child

Medical play can help in several ways. Goals for your child might be to:

  • Learn about medical items in a non-scary way
  • Learn what different medical items do
  • Feel ready for medical procedures
  • Cope better with hospital stays
  • Feel more in control
  • Express feelings about their care

Learning about health care

Children learn best through play. Medical play lets your child 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 more easily with future care.

Coping with treatment

Medical play can help your child handle the hard parts of treatment, such as:

  • Needles
  • Medicines
  • Bandage changes

Your child can use medical play to learn and practice coping skills. These may include:

  • Taking deep breaths
  • Holding still
  • 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 may act out feelings about medical treatments. For example, they might pretend a doll is afraid of a medical item or procedure.

If your child shows fear, anger, or any behavior that concerns you during medical play, it is important to talk to your child about these feelings. Here are some things you can say:

  • Tell me how you are feeling.
  • I see that you look (sad, scared, excited, mad, etc.). Are you _____?
  • How do you feel when this happens to you?
  • What do you think we can do to help you?

Letting your child pretend to be a doctor or nurse might help them feel powerful and safe during play. You can ask your child if they want to be the “doctor,” the “patient,” or the “mommy or daddy.”

Asking questions such as “What is that?” and “What is that for?” can help you learn what your child knows or fears about a medical procedure. It also gives you a chance to explain things that seem confusing to your child.

Many kids have never seen or learned about items in a hospital. They might think some items are scarier than they really are. If your child pretends to use a medical item in an unusual way, explain how it is used and how it can help their body. A child life specialist can answer questions about your child’s behavior.

Key points

  • Medical play can help children learn, cope and feel a sense of control over their health care journey.
  • An adult should be with the child during medical play to watch and help the child when needed.

Reviewed: March 2022