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Play Therapy Promotes Emotional Healing in Kids Battling Chronic Illnesses

Play Therapy Promotes Emotional Healing in Kids Battling Chronic IllnessesA version of play therapy using medically themed toys appears to help chronically ill children and their siblings express fears and foster hope for recovery.

The innovative project, reported in the journal Issues in Comprehensive Pediatric Nursing, primarily focused on chronically ill children and their siblings who were staying at the Ronald McDonald House in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The children were provided with medically themed toys such as stethoscopes, miniature hospital beds, ambulances, doctors’ bags and intravenous (IV) lines, as well as head and arm casts. UC researchers would then observe the children at play, up to two times a month.

They found that through play, the children were working through fears and expressing a full recovery.

“No one in the dramatizations died, but in some cases, siblings would want to be sick, too, so that they could receive attention from their parents,” said Dr. Laura Nabors, an associate professor of human services.

Other findings found that children were fearful of having blood drawn — believing that it was something that was taken away — as children were unaware that the body replenishes its blood supply.

“Some children dramatized their stories by depicting doctors as being evil,” says Nabors, adding that play might be an avenue for opening up communication about fears between medical professionals, parents and very young patients.

The researchers also found that in observing the children in play settings, “patients” in the children’s dramatizations often called for parental support, indicating that children heavily relied on their parents in coping with their illness.

In one group, children between 2 and 10 years old were videotaped (with cameras recording only hands and toy arrangements) in at least one of seven different weekend play sessions at a Ronald McDonald House where the children with illnesses and siblings of children with illnesses were living.

The researchers also observed 14 siblings (seven boys and seven girls) of children with chronic illnesses who were living in the Ronald McDonald House. The siblings ranged from 3-to-10 years old.

Nabors said that among siblings, there were instances when their play indicated that they felt “left out” of the attention of their parents as they focused on their child who was ill.

These instances included expressions of loneliness and needs for attention. However, play among both the chronically ill and the play of the siblings would end with stories of a successful recovery.

“I really believe that young children are marked for resilience and that will be explored in our future research,” Nabors said.

A final, comparison group of 6 children (3 boys and 3 girls) ages 6-to-8 — children of families who had no chronically ill children — participated in the study.

“Their play was dramatically different, without rich play experiences and themes indicating that they were working through traumatic experiences,” says Nabors.

Source: University of Cincinnati


Children playing doctor symbol photo by shutterstock.

Play Therapy Promotes Emotional Healing in Kids Battling Chronic Illnesses

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Play Therapy Promotes Emotional Healing in Kids Battling Chronic Illnesses. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 6 Nov 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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