New research that followed seriously ill children as they played illustrates how made-up games foster emotional healing.

The study, conducted by the University of Cincinnati College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services (CECH), followed five children hospitalized at Cincinnati’s Ronald McDonald House, along with 14 of their siblings.

The children, ranging in age from two to ten, suffered from illnesses ranging from cancer to neuromuscular diseases to kidney disorders. The healthy siblings aged from three to ten years old.

Researchers observed the children, up to twice per month, as they played with stethoscopes, ambulances, intravenous lines, miniature hospital beds, and doctors’ bags. As the children and their siblings played, making up stories involving the medical paraphernalia, the plot lines illustrated the fears and frustrations the children experienced.

The sick children imparted their reality into make believe to help with emotional healing.

Play also helped researchers identify areas where children were confused by the care they received. For example, the study revealed the children feared having their blood drawn because they didn’t understand the body’s ability to replenish supplies. The realization could help researchers learn how to better help children understand the procedures they undergo while in hospital care.

“Some children dramatized their stories by depicting doctors as being evil,” says Laura Nabors, associate professor of human services at CECH. Improved communication between children, doctors, and parents could alleviate those feelings, she says.

Play helped researchers understand the sick children’s mental processes.

The play also illustrated children’s remarkable emotional resilience as they, and their siblings, imagined their eventual full recovery.

None of the children pretended to die, although some healthy siblings made believe they fell ill. This confirms earlier research that showed siblings of sick children frequently feel left out, lonely, and ignored. By pretending to be sick during play, healthy siblings could attract the attention they so desperately craved.

Researchers said the play helped the hospitalized children work through the trauma of being ill, ultimately fueling their emotional healing. “I really believe that young children are marked for resilience and that will be explored in our future research,” Nabors says.

A control group of six healthy children aged six to eight who participated in the study lacked the heavy themes dived into by the sick children, indicating to researchers that the hospitalized children indeed used play to process their emotions.

Has play helped someone you know heal emotionally?

Image by Christiaan Triebert via Flickr


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