Prescription for Play: 10 Tips for Taking Kids to the Hospital

Whether kids will be patients or visitors, they'll be looking to you for support.

Parker Barry

Whether your child is hospitalized with an acute or chronic condition, or you’re bringing a healthy child to visit an ill parent or sibling, the hospital can be intimidating and stressful for you as a parent. Here are some coping strategies to support the entire family:

  • 1. Call ahead. In preparing for a hospital visit, call and ask if you can speak to a child life specialist. The CLS can describe what to expect at the hospital so that you understand it and then help you get more comfortable when preparing your child. If the hospital doesn’t have a CLS, there may be one in private practice or in your community.
  • 2. Be honest. If a child is going to be hospitalized or visiting someone in the hospital, it’s important to be honest about what’s going to happen, always reassuring the child that you will be there. Parents are the child’s strongest comfort, and the trust that a child feels in their parent is a foundation for them throughout their lives.
  • 3. Validate feelings. Keep in mind that a certain amount of sadness, crying and anger are all normal; it doesn’t mean the kid isn’t coping well or that you did anything wrong as a parent. You can do a lot just by validating those feelings.
  • 4. Focus on the five senses. Use gentle, age-appropriate language in describing what’s about to happen, focusing on the five senses: “You’re going to see this, you’re gonna hear this, you’re gonna feel this…”
  • 5. Provide props for pretend play. For younger kids who are still engaged in imaginative play, purchase a toy doctor kit and/or a bunch of supplies for kids to free play with (e.g., bandages, tongue depressors, gauze, tape). It’s also helpful to let them play out their experiences after they leave the ER, a longer hospital stay or even a well-visit. Deborah B. Vilas, a CLS and social worker, says, “Providing a kid with this tells them it’s OK to play about this.” Learning will also be deeper when it’s hands-on.
  • 6. Ask questions. Once at the hospital, if there’s anything you don’t understand, ask. Lenia Batas, director of child life at Maimonides Infants & Children’s Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., says, “There’s no shame in asking questions. It’s our job to make sure that we educate and inform families and if we’re not doing that, it’s important that you have a voice and advocate for your needs.”
  • 7. Support siblings. If you have other children at home, they may be feeling overlooked, fearful or confused. They will need explanations and comfort just like their sibling does, as well as opportunities for creative self-expression and play. Some hospitals and camps have programs for siblings, and a CLS can also help a child get ready to visit a sibling or parent in the hospital.
  • 8. Seek help in working with school. CLSs can help schools understand the needs of children facing chronic illness when they return to the classroom and support their classmates in understanding and coping with their fears.
  • 9. If you don’t see a CLS, ask. If you don’t see or interact with a CLS during your child’s hospital stay, make sure to ask for these services in each department you encounter. Note their lack (or their value) in your post-discharge questionnaire; hospitals care very much about what their patients want.
  • 10. Take care of yourself. Your own self-care is essential so that you can best support your child and family. Make sure to take breaks, eat nutritious meals, get plenty of rest and don’t forget to PLAY. Yes, you too get a prescription for play!

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. Photo by Marj Kleinman.

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