The Healing Power of Play

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”–George Bernard Shaw

Kate Schwan, CCLS, CRS, Child Life Clinical Coordinator, is serious about play, especially in a hospital environment.

She heads a program called Child Life at ProMedica Toledo Children’s Hospital, coordinating and incorporating playful activities for children of all ages during their hospital stays.

Many people might think this is merely an exercise in distraction, leading experts agree that playtime offers far more than temporary amusement.

Incorporating play activities into a child’s hospital stay brings a sense of normalcy to their life.

Medicine for the Spirit
Two of the major goals of the Child Life program are to bring normalcy to the lives of hospitalized children, and reduce the fears of children and their parents. For example, learning about an upcoming scary procedure through puppetry can help a child understand their medical condition at their level, and lessen their apprehension of the unknown.

Playing also offers a way to connect with other patients and their families.

“When we invite hospitalized infants, children, teens and their families to play, we are contributing to ‘medicine for their spirit’ and boosting their immune system, which is beneficial to their recovery,” states Schwann. “We do that through varied healing modalities: The use of puppetry to educate reduces fear prior to surgery; through medical play, we make the unfamiliar familiar; and through special events like the Toledo Zoo community programs, normalcy and social engagement are fostered.”

Play: A Child’s Natural Language Expression
Shona Christy, a Child Life Specialist in Neonatal Intensive Care at Toledo Hospital, agrees that playtime is a vital part of a child’s medical care. She states that play is a child’s natural language expression, and can often help hospital staff understand how a child is perceiving the hospital experience, and adapting to the medical environment.

“Guiding a child’s play experience in the hospital can be an important aspect of the healing process, as it can provide the framework for developing healthy coping skills for managing pain, fear and anxiety in the hospital setting.”

Books and rocking chairs are available for patients and their siblings to enjoy at Angie’s Place, part of Child Life at Toledo Children’s.

But play isn’t just for children receiving care in the hospital. Christy admits that the NICU can be a frightening place for child visitors, complete with noises, smells and sights that are unfamiliar. Child Life Specialists use play to help siblings understand the different medical equipment that is being used with their new baby brother or sister.

“We also guide play with siblings to help them cope and normalize to the hospital environment, which can change their perception of the hospital and take the ‘fear factor’ out of the experience, allowing them a more meaningful bonding with their new sibling.”

Incorporating Technology Into Play & Learning Time
We live in a tech world, and play offers a “high touch” way of connecting with young patients. Because many of the young patients of today are computer savvy, the Child Life program incorporates “tech time” as a way to educate children without intimidation or fear.

Steve Glad, Technology Liaison, believes, “play disarms in a non-threatening way.”

Glad facilitates computer access as a way for patients to stay in touch with family and friends. He also directs patients to playful websites such as and others which link into animated learning games. These games let children learn and explore about how an IV is started, or what happens during an MRI. Children can also virtually look at a blood cell when they drag a slide with their computer mouse and place it under a virtual microscope. A “Slime Game” is also available to learn about an illness.

Just Use Your Imagination
The bottom line is that play is important to a patient’s well-being. Even a simple card game can aid healing.

Jessica Jarvis, a Child Life Practicum student, explains the power of play. “A hospital is where play is least expected and needed most,” she states.  “A simple game of UNO or a tube of paint can significantly enhance a child’s psycho-social well-being.”

The Child Life program strives to normalize the hospital experience through therapeutic play. A little imagination can turn a surgical mask into a thing of wonderment.

“Children say, ‘I can’t wait to smell the strawberry mask,’” states Kylee Byrd, CCLS, PPI, surgery specialist. “The anesthesia mask becomes a familiar toy,” — the very mask that makes adults cringe.

Perhaps we adults could use a bit of imagination, to look at things with childlike eyes and discover the positive coping power of play.

Is fun a necessity? Play Time, a summer exhibit at the Toledo Art Museum explores the concept of play through interactive exhibits for adults and children. ProMedica is a proud sponsor of the exhibition, which runs now through September 6, 2015. Come discover the healing power of play, or learn how to reconnect with your inner-child. For more information, visit