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When "Play" Becomes Therapy: The Power of Play Therapy for Children Before & After Surgery

Imagine this: your child, usually full of boundless energy, is facing a hospital stay and surgery. It's a scary and confusing time, filled with unfamiliar sights, sounds, and procedures. But amidst the seriousness, there's a powerful tool that can help your child navigate this experience – play therapy.

Beyond Bandages and Betadine:

Play therapy isn't just about coloring pictures or building towers with blocks. It's a specialized form of therapy that utilizes a child's natural language – play – to address emotional and psychological needs. In the context of pediatric surgery, play therapy becomes a powerful tool to help children:

  • Express their anxieties and fears: The unfamiliar environment, medical jargon, and potential pain surrounding surgery can be overwhelming for a child. Play therapy provides a safe space for them to express these anxieties, often through pretend play with dolls, puppets, or stuffed animals. Maybe their teddy bear gets "surgery," or their favorite doll goes on a "hospital adventure." Through these scenarios, a therapist can gently explore the child's fears and provide reassurance.

  • Understand their diagnosis and treatment:  Using age-appropriate language and play activities, therapists can explain the surgery and recovery process. They might create a model of the body with removable organs to demonstrate the procedure, or use drawings and stories to explain what will happen. This understanding empowers children and reduces feelings of powerlessness.

  • Develop coping mechanisms for pain and discomfort:  Surgery, even minor procedures, can be painful. Play therapy can equip children with coping skills to manage discomfort. Therapists might introduce relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises, or teach them distraction strategies through playful activities.

  • Process emotions and experiences:  The emotional impact of surgery can be significant. Through play therapy, children can work through feelings of sadness, anger, or frustration in a safe and healthy way. This can involve role-playing scenarios, creating stories, or expressing emotions through art activities.

The Benefits of Play Therapy:

Studies have shown that play therapy after surgery can lead to several positive outcomes:

  • Reduced anxiety and fear

  • Improved communication and self-expression

  • Enhanced coping skills for pain management

  • Faster recovery times and shorter hospital stays

  • Increased feelings of empowerment and control

Benefits of Play Therapy Before Surgery:

  • Reduces Anxiety: By using play to talk about needles, doctors, and the hospital environment, children can become more familiar with what to expect. This familiarity reduces anxiety and fear associated with the unknown.

  • Improves Communication: When children struggle to express themselves verbally, play therapy provides an alternative outlet. Through play, they can communicate worries, fears, and questions they might not be able to articulate otherwise.

  • Empowers Children: Play therapy allows children to take control within a safe space. They can act out scenarios, "operate" on stuffed animals, and build "healthy" hospitals with blocks, fostering a sense of agency and empowerment in the face of potential vulnerability.

Benefits of Play Therapy After Surgery:

  • Copes with Pain: Play therapy can help children manage post-operative pain. Techniques like guided imagery or distraction through games can shift their focus away from discomfort.

  • Processes Emotions: Children might experience sadness, anger, or frustration after surgery. Play therapy offers a safe space to express these emotions and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

  • Promotes Healing: Studies have shown that play therapy can contribute to faster recovery times by reducing stress and promoting positive emotional well-being.

Making Play Therapy a Part of Your Child's Journey:

If your child is facing surgery, talk to your doctor or pediatrician about the possibility of play therapy. Many hospitals and pediatric surgical centers now have play therapists on staff or can connect you with qualified professionals. Play therapy can be a valuable addition to your child's overall care plan, helping them navigate the challenges of surgery and emerge stronger and more resilient.


Play therapy is not a replacement for traditional medical care. However, by harnessing the power of play, it can become a powerful tool for helping your child heal emotionally and physically after surgery.

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