How Play Supports Pediatric Patients’ Mental and Behavioral Health

patient in children's hospital playing with sensory toyApril 22, 2024 | Children and youth are facing mental and behavioral health conditions at staggering rates1, and play is a powerful tool clinically proven to help manage and improve children’s mental and behavioral health. Studies2 have shown play therapy in a hospital setting reduces anxiety and negative emotions, as well as well as helps children express and communicate their feelings and emotions through toys.

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month in May, The Toy Foundation™ (TTF) facilitated an interview between VTech Electronics, a partner of TTF’s Children’s Hospital Play Grants program, and MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach (Miller Children's & Women’s Hospital), a 2024 play grants recipient, to discuss how play is a vital tool for medical teams to provide pediatric patients with developmentally-appropriate mental and behavioral health support while undergoing treatment.

“Play is the work of children,” said Rita Goshert, director of the Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Program at Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach. “We are seeing more and more children with behavioral health challenges and sensory issues in our emergency department. Starting our treatment by playing with developmentally appropriate toys gives us the clues we need to help us figure out the best course of treatment.”

Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital is an acute care and free-standing licensed children’s hospital that prides itself on supporting all children and their whole family, whether they are in the emergency department (ED), inpatient, outpatient, or visiting a loved one at the connected adult hospital, MemorialCare Long Beach Medical Center. In the ED alone, an estimated 50,000 pediatric patients are treated annually. The child life and medical teams work together and use play to understand where the child is developmentally, reduce their fear and anxiety, and administer care.

“A 5-year-old girl came into our emergency room for finger sutures, and she was terrified,” recalled Frances Viste, certified child life specialist at Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital Long Beach. “I used stickers, clay dough, and a stuffed animal to normalize the environment and build a rapport, and then when it was time for the scary part – removing the gauze from her fingers – we made it playful by having a rubber duck swim in a water basin before placing her hand in to successfully complete the procedure.”

Children who enter the ED with mental and behavioral health concerns or other neurological and developmental disorders might be there for days as the appropriate treatment is secured before discharge. Patients may be overstimulated by the high-level of noise and activity, have increased anxiety, and feel a loss of control, and access to therapeutic play is crucial. Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital is using the grant received from TTF to implement a full sensory program to provide children with a much-needed distraction, create a calmer environment, and empower patients by allowing them to choose and engage with toys according to their preferences.

“It has been amazing to have fidget and sensory play items ready to use and meet our patients’ emotional and behavioral health needs,” Viste continued. “Additionally, these tools better equip our medical team and empower them as they administer care.”

Children’s hospitals are often reliant on external funding or donations to provide play to their pediatric patients and their families. TTF’s Children’s Hospital Play Grants program helps fill this need at hospitals that need it most, including Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital, where 50 percent or more of patients rely on Medicaid.

Help bring play into children’s hospitals nationwide with a donation. Additionally, there are opportunities for small, medium, and large companies alike to get involved and deliver the powerful benefits of play to under-resourced children’s hospitals. To learn more, visit or contact TTF staff.

1American Psychological Association. (2023). Kids’ mental health is in crisis. Here’s what psychologists are doing to help.

2National Library of Medicine. (2020). Play Therapy as an Intervention in Hospitalized Children: A Systematic Review.