“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

– Fred Rogers

No matter the century, the country, the culture, or the setting: wherever you find children, you will see play taking place.  On the surface, play is wholesome, light-hearted, and brings joy to everyone involved.  It stimulates creativity and provides an opportunity for children to learn new skills.  But if you look a little deeper, you will see that play is essential to the growth, development, and adjustment of a child to the world around them.  Children don’t just want to play, they need to play!

This need for play in a child is further heightened when placed in a stressful setting, such as the hospital.  Play provides the child with a sense of mastery and control over their surroundings, which is something they lack when undergoing medical treatment. Through role play and medical play, a hospitalized child can recreate experiences, work through past trauma, and even learn about what’s to come in their treatment plan in a fun and non-threatening way. They can explore freely and express their innermost thoughts and feelings, away from any judgment. Play is empowering– providing a reclamation of identity and self-confidence. This can help them better cope with the challenges they face while in the hospital.

Play provides an important distraction from the pain and fears associated with medical treatment. When a child is engaged in play, they are given a time of respite to escape into a world of their own– free of I.V.s, monitors and medications.  These moments of distraction help reduce stress levels and promote relaxation, even after the play session has ended. Studies have shown that less reported stress correlates with lower pain scores, along with a reduced use of pain medication in pediatric patients (Ullán et al., 2014). Play promotes healing and overall well-being (Díaz-Rodríguez et al., 2021).

The many benefits of play are seen through StudentsCare’s Hospital Buddy Program.  Engaging in recreational activities and social interactions with StudentsCare volunteers provides hospitalized children with an opportunity for normalcy and helps to reduce feelings of loneliness. Through StudentsCare’s group programming they are able to make friends with other hospitalized children,  providing validation and reassurance.  Further, when having StudentsCare buddies visit children at their bedside, they provide an outlet for children to express themselves and bring a safe friend into their world of imaginative play.   These friendships build trust, understanding, and serve as a critical part of the child and family’s  support system.

Take Joshua for example– an 8-year-old, multiple organ transplant patient with a huge imagination!  

Joshua and his StudentsCare Buddy Anna play and imagine together, creating worlds beyond the hospital walls. Anna recalls “A day I remember vividly is when Joshua was finally allowed to walk after months of bedrest. We decided to walk around the hospital unit in order to get some exercise, while his mom went home to get a change of clothes. While walking around, I found it fascinating how large his imagination was. As we walked the halls, nurses became burglars, child life specialists and volunteers became zombies, and he became a crime fighter, FBI agent/007 spy by day and Batman by night. His imagination was so great that even I was able to fall into his imaginative world. We fought a zombie apocalypse and put burglars in jail– all with his IV Stand in one hand, and an empty water gun in another.”

The benefits of play are two-fold when bringing hospitalized children and their volunteer buddies together.  StudentsCare volunteers can help hospitalized children learn cooperation, develop empathy, problem solve, and  build strong relationships in an otherwise very isolating setting. For the volunteer, they get to witness firsthand just how magical, and powerful, play can truly be.

By Elizabeth Jativa, Hospital Buddy Program Advisor  


Díaz-Rodríguez, M., Alcántara-Rubio, L., Aguilar-García, D., Pérez-Muñoz, C., Carretero-Bravo, J., & Puertas-Cristóbal, E. (2021). The Effect of Play on Pain and Anxiety in Children in the Field of Nursing: A Systematic Review. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 61, 15–22. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedn.2021.02.022

Ullán, A. M., Belver, M. H., Fernández, E., Lorente, F., Badía, M., & Fernández, B. (2014). The Effect of a Program to Promote Play to Reduce Children’s Post-Surgical Pain: With Plush Toys, It Hurts Less. Pain Management Nursing, 15(1), 273–282. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmn.2012.10.004