It could happen at any time.
Your preschooler needs stitches. Your third grader has to have a cast. Your middle schooler needs surgery.
Being injured or ill is difficult for kids to endure at any age, whether it’s for just a few days or for several weeks. Sitting at home in bed or on the couch may feel like punishment.
”It’s not normal for kids to sit in a room by themselves with quiet time,” says Angie Long, child life specialist in the ChildLife Center at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis in Wichita. “It’s normal for kids to play because they learn by playing. It’s very important for their healthy development to play and to interact, and for their brain to be stimulated in different ways.”
Long is an expert at helping children manage being hospitalized for a variety of conditions, from cancer or cerebral palsy to diabetes or broken limbs. She has special training in development, education and psychology. She’s also a mom of two daughters.
“I’m here to make the kids feel more comfortable, to sort of normalize the situation for them, so it’s less scary and stressful. I help kids smile, get them up out of bed, and not crying, and I have lots of kid-friendly items like games and toys. I help the parents cope, as well.”
Here are Long’s suggestions to get creative with play to help your child pass the time — and stay playfully engaged — while he recuperates and heals. “I’m not a big fan of sitting in front of the TV,” she says.
Here are some suggestions:
- Take a stroll in a wagon. If your child has a leg cast or is weak, for example, put her in a wagon and go through the house or out in your back yard or neighborhood for some fresh air, so she’s not trapped in bed or on the couch.
- Tackle a time-consuming project. Activities that take a longer amount of time to complete — a couple of days to a week, for example — offer distraction and delayed gratification. Consider projects such as building a model or making a craft that is completed in stages of assembly today, painting tomorrow, etc.
- Practice self-expression. “Here in Pediatrics, we look for ways to see how children are coping and allow them to express themselves and to act out feelings of stress, frustration, aggression or sadness,” Long says.
Art – Being creative through artwork is always a great means for self-expression. Drawing, coloring, painting, stamping, you name it!
Physical fun – If the child is upset or frustrated, try physical activities to help her release feelings in a fun and healthy way. A pillow fight and shooting or throwing spit balls at a target are fun ways for kids to let go of negative energy and emotions.
Balloons – For children who are bed-bound, blowing up balloons is great for using their lungs and hitting them around indoors is easy, fun and won’t break anything. For kids with arm injuries, balloons can be kicked, instead.
Bubbles – Blowing bubbles is another fun and medically beneficial activity for sedentary children because it encourages them to take good, deep breaths.
Legos – Construction sets such as Legos offer slow, contained entertainment that also stimulates the brain.
Help at home. Depending on the situation, kids can help stir batter, chop veggies, put stamps on bills, clip coupons, fold towels, etc.
Proceed with caution
Depending on your child’s limitations and age, Long offers some specific suggestions and cautions.
Stay on a schedule. “Children love structure and thrive on a schedule,” Long says. “They'll always do better if there are some sort of expectations, a structure and consequences.”
Make sure she’s well rested. “Keeping kids on their normal bedtime and wake time and having them on a schedule during the day helps them heal and boosts their mood,” she says.
Don’t overindulge. Some parents have guilt when their children are sick or hurt, and they may overindulge their child. "The cast will come off or the injury will heal, so remember what you're setting yourself up for," cautions Long. “It’s best to manage the child's expectations of always getting a gift or special treatment, because the gifts and visits will end and life will go on.”
Try behavior modification. Rewarding cooperation is a tool to use for kids who need help with motivation. Perhaps she needs daily physical therapy or has to take medicine she doesn’t like. Implement a reward chart and grant a sticker for completion of each day’s task. Instead of rewarding her with every medicine dose, give her one reward at the end of the week.
"We'll sometimes use behavior modification techniques with children in our Burn Center for their dressing changes and other treatments,” Long says. “It’s nice for kids to have something to look forward to — whatever their currency is.”
Pace yourself. Don't do everything the first day. With gifts, treats and activities, it’s OK to do just one a day. Try filling a bowl with slips of paper naming various activities and plans, then select one each day to space them out for the duration of your child’s recovery.
The main thing to remember is that there are plenty of fun, safe, social and inexpensive play activities to replace the ones your sick or injured child cannot do. As long as he’s getting ample rest and healing time, there’s no need to be stuck on the couch.