Using Play to Help Your Child Cope with Surgery

Boy playing with pretend syringe and teddy bear.

Children use play to express emotion, learn, and interact. When preparing for surgery, play can help children understand and cope with their hospital experience.

How can play be used to help your child?

Specific play items and activities can help teach your child about surgery. They can also help distract and relax your child before and after surgery.

What play items are appropriate for your child?

  • Infants use their senses to learn about what’s around them. They can also sense feelings and emotions. Try to stay calm around your child. Bring toys with you to the hospital that your child is currently interested in, such as a rattle or a musical toy. These can be used to distract your child. A pacifier may be helpful since your child can’t eat before surgery.

  • Toddlers like to be active. They like to touch and explore things. Toy medical kits can help your child become familiar with hospital equipment. Bring your child’s favorite toy, such as a stuffed animal, with you to the hospital. You can also bring puzzles, books, or coloring books. These can help your child relax while waiting to have surgery.

  • Preschoolers have active imaginations. Teach them about surgery with puppets, dolls, picture books, and toy medical kits. Playing a dress-up game with a surgical hat and mask can be helpful. Encourage your child to pick which toys or activities to bring to the hospital. Preschoolers enjoy being with other children. Check if your hospital has a play area for children.

  • School-aged children enjoy activities such as reading, writing, and using a computer. Teach them about surgery with age-appropriate books, pictures, or websites on the Internet. Let your child help pick the toys or activities that he or she wants to bring to the hospital. This might include items such as books, video games, or music players.

  • Teenagers learn about surgery by asking questions. They also enjoy reading and researching information with books and the Internet. To cope with surgery, they may relax with activities, such as talking to their friends, writing in a journal, or listening to music.

What is a child life specialist?

Many hospitals have a child life specialist. This person is specially trained to help children understand and cope with their hospital experience. Families can arrange to see a child life specialist when their child is scheduled for surgery. The child life specialist uses age-appropriate items such as books, dolls, and toy medical or hospital equipment to explain surgery. Parents and siblings are encouraged to attend and be involved in these sessions.