Every child has a deep, intrinsic love for play. I was reminded of this during a visit to the Family Center at C.S. Mott's Children's Hospital earlier this year. Among all the children in the room, I saw a little girl of about 5 years old who was sitting in a large wheelchair; her body was weak, connected to a variety of lines and equipment. She wore a princess gown, but that wasn’t fun enough: she wanted a superhero cape, too. And with the cape, of course, she wanted someone to push her wheelchair around the hospital at high speed, so that she could feel like she was flying! As tired and sick as she was, the playful spirit bubbling out of her was heartwarming and unmistakable.
Play is not just something that children love: they also need it. It's how they explore and learn, and how they cope with their world. Maria Montessori, the creator of the Montessori education approach, said that “Play is the work of the child.” Play prepares children for the adult world. And this doesn't change when a child is hospitalized; play is also the way they prepare for and cope with their treatment.
Beyond this, play also serves another purpose in the hospital environment: motivation.
It can be hard to encourage a child to participate in rehabilitation therapy that can be painful and frustrating. As an occupational therapist at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital put it:
It's easier to follow instructions from your therapists when you’re having fun. And augmented reality is fun! It’s immersive and engaging; it allows kids to focus on the play and not on the downsides of treatment, like pain or frustration.
Whether they're healthy or sick, kids just want to be kids. And if we let them be kids even while hospitalized, we’ll see that they heal better and engage with their treatment in a healthier way.
To drive this point home, here’s an inspiring talk about the power of play from Michael Towne, child life specialist at UCSF Benioff.