What Is Play Therapy?


Children with chronic-illness spend significant portions of their childhood in and out of hospitals while undergoing medical treatment. These treatments are often invasive and painful, and children have a difficult time understanding why these treatments are necessary.

Children grow, learn, and express themselves through play. Likewise, through a focused time of play in a hospital setting, parents and medical practitioners can help children express their feelings and give them a better understanding of what will happen during their medical treatment. In other words, play therapy can help children understand what medical steps they face and calm their anxieties about the unknown.

Many times feelings and emotions that emerge in play would never come out in a face-to-face conversation between a parent and child. Encouraging play therapy can help parents and medical practitioners communicate more effectively with the child, providing insight into how the child perceives what is happening in his or her world. Play therapy simply creates an environment in which the child can express fears or questions in a calm and clear way.

An example: 
My third child, Anavah, was born in 2008 with congenital heart disease. Since she was two weeks old she underwent four life-saving heart surgeries. In order to help her deal with her medical trauma and ongoing treatment, I bought her a Mended Heart Bear. This teddy bear has a zipper sewn over its chest, and when opened, it reveals a stitched heart on the inside. Anavah was able to relate to this bear in a special way, as she now had a friend like herself who had also gone through heart surgery.

Since receiving the teddy bear, Anavah has taken her bear to doctor visits and check-ups. At home, she often plays the role of the doctor and acts out scenarios where she gives her bear medicine, checks the bear’s heartbeat and more. This has greatly helped her accept her life condition and deal with the stresses of day-to-day life as a chronically-ill child.


the importance of play

Children use play to exercise their imagination and express curiosity in the world around them. Whether pretending to be a superhero or a parent at work, they use play to test their own limitations, and they begin to develop life skills and aspects of their personalities that will define their character as they grow up. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Play also offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children.”


While the benefits of play do not often make it into a hospital setting, it does not have to be this way! Introducing medical play gives children an opportunity to master their experience specifically in a hospital setting. It is a way to help “normalize” what they go through in the hospital. Allowing children to familiarize themselves with medical equipment and pretend they are the doctor helps them to become more comfortable with hospitalization and allows them to express any questions, fears or even misconceptions they have. This is a healthy way for children to cope so they will not be scared when they see a syringe, an MRI machine, EKG electrodes or other medical equipment.

Doctors and nurses who have learned the importance of play therapy are often willing to hold the child’s bear and demonstrate various medical procedures the child is about to go through. For example, they might take the bear’s blood pressure, pretend to give the bear a shot or mimic some other procedure before performing the same action on the child. This can have a calming effect on the child to see their toy go through the very same thing they are about to experience. Also, from a physiological perspective, simply holding the bear while going through a procedure can be a comfort to the child.

An example: 

Anavah needed to get an MRI of her heart, and my husband and I really wanted her to be able to do this without anesthesia due to the risks associated with it. A few weeks before the MRI we pretended her teddy bear needed an MRI as well. We explained to the bear what an MRI is and how it will help the doctors gain a better understanding of the heart so they will know how to help. We also watched videos about an MRI. Amazingly, the hospital had a small model MRI machine and we were able to pretend to give the bear an MRI.

When it came time for the MRI, this big machine seemed less scary to Anavah, because she had become familiar with it beforehand through play. It was not easy, but she was able to make it through the entire hour in the MRI machine without anesthesia. Thankfully, the doctors let her take her bear with her through the MRI, which helped the entire test feel a little less scary.

One of the goals of Bears For Hope is that a child's teddy bear can go through the same procedure as the child. Seeing their trusted friend go through identical procedures helps the child become more familiar with the medical equipment and the hospital staff, thereby making the checkup or hospital experience less intimidating.

One of the bears we give out, the Mended Heart Bear, is a specialized bear which helps children better understand heart surgery. With a zipper sewn into the chest of the bear (which can open and close, revealing a mended, stitched heart), it can be used as a tool for “demonstrating” the upcoming procedure and for helping the child during the recovery process.

An example: 

Anavah will often give her bear medication, just like she takes. She brings her bear to the doctor, and before and after, she often plays doctor, giving her bear a surgery. This has assisted her tremendously, helping calm her down and better helping her understand what is happening. The bear is a friend who experiences everything that she does, processing her unique medical situation alongside her.


In the hospital children often feel a sense of helplessness, vulnerability and fear because they are often faced with anxiety and misconceptions over their situation. For example, a child may not come out and say, "I am scared about being sick," or "I am scared about an upcoming medical procedure." However, through play, these feelings are often expressed. Medical play with a real or pretend doctor kit and a teddy bear not only educates a child about an upcoming procedure, but it helps him or her process the experience, giving the child a sense of control over the situation.

This is why play is so important! Play can help doctors, nurses and parents gain a better perspective of how children experience the things that happen to them. When children play, they act out scenarios that give us insight into how they are coping and what their fears are. Their fears or misconceptions can then be addressed.

An example: 

Recently my eight-year-old daughter who has had a long medical journey with heart disease (read her story here) came to me and told me that her bear was sick because of something it ate, and so it would need to have a heart surgery. I knew that she likely had some sort of anxiety or misconception about this issue. We sat down together, and I was able to explain that eating certain foods could not give someone heart disease like she had. I explained that she did not need to worry about how her eating might make her heart condition worse.

Anavah’s play was a window into her thoughts. It provided an opportunity to discuss and process what she was thinking about herself, which mostly likely wouldn’t have come up in a regular conversation.



A significant part of medical play is giving patients more control over their hospital experience. Instead of simply being “the patient,” the child can creatively become the doctor or nurse, who has some control and ability to care for their fuzzy little buddy at the same time that they are being cared for. Children’s ability to process and cope with hospitalization alongside their bear lowers stress and/or trauma and actually speeds up the healing process. At the same time, the child (and parent) gains a healthy understanding of why things are happening, how to cope with the situation and how to help others who are going through similar circumstances.

Play therapy is a relatively new field in the realm of holistic medicine (treating the whole patient as opposed to a specific symptom). A goal of Bears for Hope is to promote and educate parents and medical staff about the benefits of play therapy. We are happy to be a resource for families, medical staff and special education teachers.

Partner with us by donating a bear, supporting an educational session or lecture on play therapy or sponsoring a hospital visit.