Medical play factsheet


Play is how children explore, interact, and come to understand the world around them. Play helps children to learn and gives them a constructive way to express themselves. It is essential for their ongoing physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development.

The use of play for children in hospital can:

  • support their development
  • normalise a medical environment
  • reduce stress and anxiety.

Allied health professionals use different types of play to help children through their healthcare experiences.

Medical play is play that involves using real and/or toy medical equipment. It gives children the chance to look at and become familiar with medical tools in their own time and in a relaxed situation. This helps children to explore and understand the medical tools used in their treatment, while also helping them to process any emotional responses to the items.

 Things to consider

Benefits of medical play

Medical play can help children to:

  • discover how tools are used, so they do not seem as frightening
  • become familiar with and more comfortable around medical equipment, also known as desensitisation
  • be in control of medical items and feel more confident around them
  • play out feelings or anxiety around their own, or a sibling’s healthcare experiences
  • feel better prepared for upcoming examinations or procedures, especially when done in advance, with enough time to process the information.

How to set up medical play

Medical play is usually supervised and supported by a trusted adult (a parent, carer, or a member of their treatment team).

When choosing resources to use, think about what is appropriate for your child or the children involved. This can include:

  • how many children
  • age and gender
  • their medical and social history
  • whether they have a disability
  • whether they are from a culturally or linguistically diverse (CALD) community
  • whether they are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Medical play might be more directed, to prepare or educate your child about a specific procedure, test, or experience.

It may be less directive and more creative, like mixing craft supplies and medical equipment like gloves, bandages, or swabs, to make pictures, collages, or sculptures.

Medical play can also be incidental, for example, a doctor or nurse allowing your child to press a button on the blood pressure machine or giving your child a chance to use a stethoscope on a teddy before it is used on them.

Speak to your child’s treatment team about opportunities for medical play.

Resources to use

There are lots of different kinds of toys, equipment and resources that can be used for medical play.

Things you can buy:

  • toy doctor’s kits
  • dress-ups
  • dolls
  • teddies
  • story books about going to the doctor or hospital
  • pencils and paper to draw, write stories or make plans.

Medical equipment:

  • stethoscopes
  • blood pressure cuffs
  • band aids
  • bandages
  • tape
  • tongue depressors
  • plastic syringes
  • cotton balls

If your child’s hospital has a Child Life Therapy Department, they may be able to help you with more specialised resources including:

  • Medikin dolls - soft dolls that are used to show health and medical treatment
  • medical equipment
  • photos of types of treatment
  • models of scanners and bigger hospital equipment.

Supporting your child during and after medical play

It is important to give your child plenty of time to be able to explore the resources at their own pace. Your child should be able to lead the play and discussion, with a parent, carer, or other trusted adult giving positive reinforcement and supporting their feelings.

You can reinforce learning by listening to your child’s self-talk as they play to gauge their understanding, and repeating their comments when they say something that is correct or name how they are feeling.

For example:

“that’s right! The bandage is very sticky” or “I can hear that you don’t like the plastic syringe, you said it is scary”

If your child is experiencing negative emotions or actions, like hitting, acknowledge their feelings and redirect them to a safer way to express that feeling. This might be through using:

  • dolls
  • play dough
  • pillows.

If your child asks questions, it is ok if you don’t know the answer. Being honest is important and can help your child learn positive ways of finding out good health information.

You can say things like:

"I don’t know, what do you think?" or "How could we find out?"

Children with a long medical history and lots of hospital stays may take longer to feel confident touching or exploring medical equipment. Reading hospital related books or watching videos can be another way to engage them in medical play.  

Always get involved if your child’s actions may result in harm to themselves or others.

Last updated Tuesday 12th December 2023


This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024