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Child Life Corner: How Play Can Help Kids Cope With a Health Crisis

Blog Child Life Corner: How Play Can Help Kids Cope With a Health Crisis

From the moment a child arrives at the hospital, the need for play is present. Play in the hospital can allow children to approach threatening experiences and process information, thoughts, and feelings at their own pace.


Anyone, be it adult or children, will experience feelings of discomfort, fear, anger, and sadness when thrust into the hospital setting. My name is Kristin Brown and I am one of 24 Certified Child Life Specialists at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health who work to help children cope with these feelings during their hospitalization.

From the moment a child arrives at the hospital, the need for play is present. Play in the hospital can allow children to approach threatening experiences and process information, thoughts, and feelings at their own pace. It is through play that children can become an active participant, rather than a passive recipient, which is so often the norm in healthcare settings.

Play is perhaps the most powerful tool used by Child Life Specialists. There are several types of play utilized during hospitalization to provide support to children and adolescents.

Expressive Play

  • Children have their own way of seeing, thinking, and feeling. Through expressive play, children are able to express their thoughts/feelings in an acceptable manner while also gaining increased control of their environment. Any activity that allows patients to create, act out, tell their story, etc. serves as expressive play. You may see a patient who writes out five words that describe her anger regarding the hospital, turn them into targets and then use medicine syringes to squirt paint at those words. So while she’s processing her anger, she’s also creating a work of art. Another expressive activity may be an “All About Me” sheet or a “Day in the Life of” poster. Children often want staff to see them as kids first, not just a diagnosis.

Familiarization Activities

  • These are activities that allow children to freely explore, manipulate, and play with health-related objects in a non-threatening manner, with the end goal being to reduce fear of the hospital and medical equipment. For example, a 6 year old newly diagnosed diabetic may be struggling with the multiple finger pokes and insulin injections that are required daily. An activity where she can safely look over, feel, and practice with the needles on a doll may help her to become more comfortable with the equipment, develop a coping plan for when she gets her shots, and ultimately reducing her fear regarding a necessary medical treatment.

Dramatic Play

  • Through dramatic play, children are able to manipulate, act out, and process traumatic or anxiety-inducing situations in an attempt to gain better understanding or mastery over the event. This may look like children using dolls, puppets, cars, tool, etc. to act out what led them to the hospital or what has occurred in the hospital. A child who has been in a car accident may want to repeatedly reenact the trauma to help work through their understanding of what happened and the chain of events that led to it.

Adaptive Play

  • It’s important to note that not all children play the same. Some need modified materials, space, or guided help to meet their play needs. At Riley, we have adaptive toys with larger buttons or puzzle pieces that have peg handles attached for children who have less control over their fine motor hand movements. We also engage patients in hand-over-hand guided play to assist children in activities such as painting, writing and building.

Certified Child Life Specialists work on every inpatient unit at Riley as well as in some outpatient areas.  Please contact Childliferiley@IUHealth.org if you have questions about how the child life department at Riley may be able to help your child.

-- By Kristin Brown, CCLS
   Certified Child Life Specialist
   Child Life and Creative Arts Therapies
   Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health

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