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When we decided to focus on the importance of play in healthcare this month, we reached out to one of the gurus of cultivating playful experiences for children in the face of great challenge – Dr. Ben Meisel. Propelled by his belief in the power of play, Dr. Ben serves as an ambassador for pediatric patients as a Medical Director, through his work with hospitals and camps throughout California, his musical performances, speaking engagements and his incredibly educational (and fun!) approach to care – “Building Play into Health.” In this two-part series, he talks about the real meaning and purpose of play in a way that’ll make you smile and will inspire you to play your way through the challenges that come from providing top-notch child-friendly care to your pediatric patients.

 


A PONDERING POST ABOUT PURPOSEFUL PLAY

by Ben “Dr. Ben” Meisel, MD

I have seen the dictionary define PLAY as “to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

In my humble opinion as a provider of medical care to children with serious medical conditions, a designer of games for health, and a former medical director of camps for children with life-threatening illnesses…this basic definition of PLAY is: COMPLETE BULL HUNK!!!

And, beyond the realm of medicine, I’m pretty well certain that the creative engineers at Google who PLAY for the sake of creating practical human tools for the world would agree that the above definition of PLAY underestimates the importance of purposeful play in the realm of innovative and therapeutic pursuits.

For those of us working to improve the experience of healthcare (both for those who receive it and those who provide it)…“Building Play Into Health” is an active, labor-intensive, difficult, worthwhile BLAST that can motivate, change lives, and change health outcomes for those who otherwise might be trapped in difficult health realities. PLAY in my “PLAYbook” is an active process (most powerful when it is a socially gratifying process) that engages the participant so fully that perceived confining life limitations (whether real or imagined) melt away, sometimes only for a moment, and other times, when the PLAY experience results in a major personal paradigm shift, for an entire lifetime.

Life’s challenges are inevitable….but suffering is not. We will all experience suffering during our lives….but the amount of it that we experience as suffering is somewhat up for grabs…something that we, as humans, have the capacity to alter.

As a pediatrician running programs for children with serious medical conditions, my goal is to create a playful teamwork environment, where honesty and respect are demonstrated, and where the child is “put in the driver’s seat” and asked to provide input that guides the team whenever possible and appropriate. For this to happen, the child must feel safe and respected. Standing in the way is the ever present hierarchical structure of medicine. Nothing promotes safety and breaks down the stifling effects of hierarchy more quickly than for the medical providers to invite a child to play with them.

An example: Because of our contract with the city, we operate our medical therapy unit out of old buildings owned by the school district. Our ability to alter these buildings is significantly limited. So, in an effort to breakthrough any misgivings the kids might have about the scary, ugly clinic space, I ask the kids if they’ll help us transform this space by having them wear mustaches. We then ask their permission to take pictures of them wearing these mustaches so that we can decorate the walls with their mustache pictures and thus make the clinic feel more like a place we all want to be. It’s especially fun when the kids make their accompanying adults wear the mustaches as well. It is a great way for us healthcare providers to recognize the child’s humanity beyond their medical condition, value their image as something that improves the world, validates and incorporates humor in the face of serious, complex, overwhelming situations, and gives the child a chance to be in control of a choice (whether they want to help us transform the space).

Play (especially in the form of active engagement with others) is AMBROSIA…an elixir of experience that CAN intoxicate us to traverse hurdles we might not otherwise be willing to confront.

Stay tuned for Dr. Ben’s Blog Segment #2 – Medical Camps: Pinnacles of Purposeful Play

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