How to Entertain a Hospitalized Child

When Tarica broke her elbow in November, it felt unforgiveable. Why did God allow it to happen to her, of all people? Wasn’t she suffering enough?

My mom, a curious mix of optimism and fatalism, had another perspective. “Perhaps,” she said, “more exposure to doctors will help Tarica get over her fears.”

In this, Tarica needs all the help she can get. The hospital stay in March was a nightmare, although I attribute much of her behavior to side effects from the quarts of drugs being pumped into her seizing body.

But her behavior in the months following had not reassured me that her next hospital stay would be any better. She hated doctors, hated attention, hated, abhorred, despised needles.She drew into herself like a frightened turtle the minute we walked into a medical office, no matter how big her talk was in the van.

Could any good thing come out of a broken elbow? Not likely.

The morning of the first orthopedic visit, I dropped Micah off at my mom’s. My sister ran out to the van with a gift bag. “Here’s a birthday present for you, Tarica,” she said and handed it to her. In the bag was a Melissa & Doug chipmunk house with puffy, reusable stickers: Mama and Papa Chipmunk, three fat-cheeked offspring, and more furniture than we have in our own house.

At the doctor’s office, I helped Tarica out of the van and, at the last minute, grabbed the chipmunk house. That decision ranks in the top ten wisest impulses I’ve ever had. As soon as we settled into waiting room chairs, Tarica wanted me to open the package. She played with her chipmunks the rest of the visit and tolerated the doctor’s presence more calmly than usual, thanks to the distraction.

The doctor wanted to see Tarica again in a week. At her second visit, her cast needed to be replaced because the swelling had gone down, loosening the first cast. The nurses cut the cast off, with surprisingly little fuss from the patient, and then prepared to put on cast #2.

They slid a long sock over her arm, a thin layer of protection against her skin. Without prompting, Tarica reached over, picked up a scissors, and prepared to cut the sock off just beyond her fingers. The two nurses looked at each other, eyebrows raised. “You remember what comes next, don’t you, sweetie?”

They let her cut the sock.

When they were wrapping her arm in plaster, she again reached for the scissors to make a cut in the plaster around her thumb. Without prompting. She snipped the plaster, her eyes intent.

I stood with my mouth slightly open, brain churning. This discovery was important, and if not for her elbow, I might not have realized it before her hospital stay.

If she could somehow participate in events instead of feeling like a helpless victim, she relaxed and cooperated.

And the chipmunk house. If she was distracted, she was more likely to behave.

My mom was right. Even a broken bone had some good in it.

* * *

I need your help.

Tarica will be hospitalized for ten days next month. She is not sick. She is a healthy child (other than epilepsy) with a need for exercise and activity. Instead, she will be attached to wires and made to stay in sight of a camera at all times. And she doesn’t like doctors or nurses.

I don’t have to describe all the ways this scenario could go wrong. Your imagination will do it quite nicely.

I need suggestions for ways to keep her involved and distracted, not necessarily at the same time.

The suggestions should be

  • inexpensive
  • easy to pack and transport
  • suitable for a five-year-old

She enjoys numbers and hates coloring. Because of the drugs, her hands shake, so anything requiring fine motor skills wearies her. She loves stickers and dolls. She likes I Spy and Can You See What I See? books, but I think we’ve borrowed most of them from our library already. Do you know of any age-appropriate search-and-find books other than these?

She likes games, but many of them are too bulky to pack. Are there any travel-size games you can recommend?

The hospital has a children’s library on the same floor as the epilepsy center, so I’m not planning on taking storybooks. Unless you have a can’t-miss book to recommend?

Here are some ideas and suggestions I’m already considering:

  • A hand mirror, so she can watch the wires being attached to her head
  • A doctor set, so she can give the nurse the needle in turn
  • A balloon pump and those skinny balloons to make animals, which I don’t know how to do, but I can learn
  • Her beloved preschool books—if she doesn’t finish them all before February

I need enough variety to keep her from being bored, but not so much that we need a moving van to haul the luggage. The hospital has some resources we can use, but I’d like to be as prepared as possible. In addition, I’m hoping the collection of fun activities will give Tarica something to anticipate.

Can you help me?

35 thoughts on “How to Entertain a Hospitalized Child

  1. When we travel, my children like dry erase boards and markers, story CDs and earphones. What about puzzles? I think you have a good idea with the doctor’s kit. She can copy on her dolly what happens to her. It’s been long enough since my girls were 5… I’m trying to remember what they liked. Boys are so different! 🙂 They spent hours doing paper crafts from those books for teachers from GVS, but that involves coloring… I’ll keep thinking 🙂

    • An interesting observation: My girls have two doll houses of varying size and a dishpan of cute accessories. I found them yesterday when I was organizing my frightful attic. As I passed their bedroom’s open door today, I saw them kneeling around an humble box on the bedroom floor. With markers, paper, and an unlimited supply of scotch tape, they have transformed it into a castle sporting several additions (properly labeled as ‘boys bathroom’ and ‘girls bathroom’ 😉 ) and home to a variety of paper dolls, all drawn free-hand and decorated just exactly right. There’s even a fat little boy doll for Jack! They have spent hours creating and re-creating paper furniture and are still going strong. Money can’t buy the fun that has come from that old box on the trash pile!

    • My sister has a dry erase board that she will lend to us or bring. Story CDs are a good idea, although I’d have to keep them simple. She doesn’t follow complex story lines yet. And she loves puzzles. I could easily pack one or two, in bags if space is an issue–and it probably will be. Thanks, Kay.

      • My 5 yr old loves Mario and Benjie CD’s… in fact, last night we were all laughing at the Benjie Goes to School one. If you have a recording device, you can get Jenica to read and record stories, songs and chatter and burn it onto a CD. Megan has recorded probably a dozen of Thornton W. Burgess books for Jackson. If you think she could follow those, I’d be happy to copy and send you some.

        • I never thought of Jenica doing a recording for her, but that is a fabulous idea. Jenica is a good reader (as long as she doesn’t read too fast) and enjoys reading to Tarica here at home. Now, if we can do it sometime when Tarica isn’t around…. 🙂 We have two Thornton W. Burgess books on CD, currently lent out to someone else. It’s been a while since she heard them. Maybe I’ll reclaim them and pack them.

          At this rate, I’ll have enough to keep her busy for 20 days. Oh, well. It might not be the last time she’s in the hospital. What I don’t use now, I might use later.

          • Jack gets a special kick out of the stories Megan recorded with him beside her. (visual memory) He chuckles at his own funny comments… and the background noise. Sometimes that’s as entertaining as the story 😉

  2. We carry these small book size, tin cases that hold magnetic shapes for the colorful scene. You place your shapes where you want them… comes in farm, construction & hmmm… 1 other one. (I’m sorry. Maybe I should just delete this.I’ve just been given the okay to graduate from flat on my back, bedrest, to sitting & “light” housework, so haven’t been out to the store in what seems like loooong, & kinda forget details. I will send one of my daughters out, after daylight 🙂 ) Also, there’s farm animals to “stitch” shoe laces around the edges, or in the same line… many colored shoes to lace & tie. O, there’s more stuff; I truly feel like my memory muscles (of there gives such) must have left me, when my other muscles slacked off. If you can make any sense out of this rambling & think something like this would be what you are looking for, we’d be so happy to make up a package!

    • The stitching would probably be too difficult with her shaky hands, but your mention of a tin reminds me that we have a tin of dominoes. She likes numbers, and I think she would enjoy the different matching games you can play with dominoes. Thanks for helping me remember. 🙂

  3. thenIf you can find a felt board and various characters at a thrift store, she might like playing with it and making up her own stories. I think the doctor’s kit is genius. I would definitely hold back some things so that the hospital is the first time she gets them.

    The other question is what are you planning to take for yourself and your husband to make the stay easier on yourselves?

    • Your other question is a good one. My husband won’t be there the whole time; he has home fires he needs to tend. I can entertain myself with a few good books and my writing tools. I just hope I’m not so mentally exhausted by caring for Tarica that I can’t find refuge in words. That’s my biggest fear–the mental exhaustion. There’s no way to pack for that.

      • No denying, caring for a sick child is exhausting. Be sure you don’t get dehydrated. Take a good multi-vitamin and Omega 3’s. Your friends will be praying!

  4. Play dough or other type of clay – I’ve seen some that is much less messy than play dough but can’t think of the names. There are also various types of “goops” and recipes online.

    How about some simple origami? You could get a stack of paper and an origami book from the library. She probably couldn’t do it herself but might have fun working at it with you.

    I’ll keep thinking.

    • I know someone who makes Gunk, and the girls loved playing with it. I could get the recipe from her. Good idea.

      Jenica got an origami book from her grandma for Christmas, so I have that and the papers to go with it. I’ve actually dabbled in origami and wouldn’t mind trying some complex designs to entertain her. Thanks, Gina.

  5. When I had my tonsils removed the week of my 6th birthday I was given a child’s version of a spiragraph. I loved it and now my children play with it. The product has changed a good bit since then, but if you Google “spiral art kit” it brings up some options. Of course only you know if that is something that will interest her. By the way, we’re taking Jordan to Children’s for a urology appt on Jan 27. Will that coincide with your stay? If it does we’d love to look you up!

    • Good idea, Sylvia, but I’m not sure if that would work, what with her shaky hands. But you mentioned in your other comment that we should think of the other children, and I think this is something Jenica would enjoy. Thanks for both ideas.

      We would love to be looked up, but she’ll be admitted the following week. However, I will read and reply to any texts you might want to send. 🙂

  6. Just another thought that you do with as you like- maybe it would be good to give your other children each a small personal gift the day you leave for Pittsburgh. It’s going to be a long 10 days for them. Maybe something new would help out, and then again maybe not! You have an advantage that we didn’t have. We had no time to prepare ourselves or the children (or Grandma, bless her!) when I had to be out there with Jordan for 2 weeks and it was traumatic for them! Praying for you!

  7. Tarica might benefit from being very involved in the planning stage for this hospital stay. I don’t know her nature, but being able to plan and pack a few items herself a few days before so that she feels more in control and then having a few surprises after she is there might help. I don’t know all the procedures she will go through but some of the things for comfort that I think about from previous children’s hospital stays for us were soothing natural lotion or lip balm for those itchy, sticky, painful, dry, whatever places on the body that add to the discomfort of IVs, attached wires, blood pulls, etc. Sometimes even boys enjoy having a remedy ready for a physically discomfort that piles on one more mental hurdle for the day of relentless “monitoring” and it being a part of their very own hospital stay kit can make a difference to some 5 year olds.
    Continued prayers for your family and you prepare and for a peaceful spirit for Tarica.

    • I never would have thought about lotions and so forth. Tarica is all girl and loves to slather stuff on herself. Great idea, Gloria. And as gross as she’s going to feel with glue and wires in her hair, it will be good to pay extra attention to the rest of her.

      You are right about her needing to feel somewhat in control. We are trying to involve her in the plans, especially as we get closer to it.

  8. How about paper dolls? You could add a rolling pin and cookie cutters with the play dough idea. I’m been enjoying reading your posts, even read a few to my husband. I continue to pray for Tarica, you and your husband and children, as well as the doctors.

  9. Usborne books have search-to-find books that our children enjoy. Also, there are little books with scenes to put stickers on which is another favorite. Home Messenger Bookstore in Myerstown has all kinds of things! You sure got lots of ideas sent your way already. Blessings to you!

    • Someone else just told me about Usborne books. I will check to see if our library has any. Thanks, Karen. Are there any particular titles that will help me look for them?

  10. My daughter has a wooden magnetic doll set. You can change the doll’s outfit, shoes, etc. and it sticks to the doll magnetically. Maybe she would like that? Do you have access to an iPad or something that she could play simple online games? Best wishes to you!

    • Your mention of magnets made me wonder what other magnetic travel-type activities are out there. I started looking. I never knew there were whole websites devoted to entertaining small fry in the car. It looks like I would run out of money before I run out of options (easy enough to do these days). 🙂 No iPad, but from the looks of this list here, we shall not need one. 🙂

  11. I broke my leg when I was 7 an was in the hospital for two long weeks in traction. I was given a sunshine box an was delighted with the paper doll set of the American doll Kirsten. It was something fun an easy to play with in bed. I was also given Charlotte’s web Story tapes… if she likes listening to stories that’d help pass time.Blessings as you prepare for this mentally an physically!

    • Thanks, Janelle, for your ideas. I read Charlotte’s Web to Jenica before she went to school. Perhaps I should pack the book and have a little storytime each day with Tarica. She is more of a visual learner, so tapes and CDs don’t always work for her. But she likes when I read to her, because I can explain what she doesn’t get.

  12. I suggest you look at “busy Bags” on Pinterest. There are hundreds of inexpensive activities to make ahead and store in plastic ziplock bags. I wouldn’t be surprised if you many appropriate activities that will make Tarica’s stay more comfortable. God’s blessing on Tarica, you, your families and those who will be caring for her during her hospital stay.

    • I researched Busy Bags online, and I discovered a whole world of ideas I never knew existed. One of them that stood out to me was something called an I Spy bag. I think she would love it, and it looks easy enough to make. Thanks for this tip, Nikki.

  13. Hi Stephanie, It has been interesting to read of your life as a mother, since my mind’s picture has you at about age 8!! Would you like me to bring my daughter in as a playmate sometime? That is something you would not have to pack! Praying God’s continued peace and direction in your lives.

    • I would love to see you and Tarica would love the distraction of another little girl (I think), but I don’t know yet what our schedule will be or if/when visitors are allowed. Some days she will be going through some extensive testing involving hours and/or sedation, which will not exactly make her the world’s easiest child. But other days, I suspect we’ll be sitting around waiting for her to seize. On those days, we would welcome visitors. I don’t know if I’ll have a schedule in hand prior to admission or if they’ll only reveal one day at a time. Can I let you know what days might work later?

  14. I was going to suggest the Usborne books but I saw that you already found out about them. The 1001 things to spot are easier for kids her age. We have a 5 and 3 year old who like those books. Also, there are lots of animal sticker book activity books out there that are fairly inexpensive. We have a small store in our area that carries a lot of the Melissa and Doug sticker books and chipmunk house things that you mentioned so I’m not sure where you would find them in your area but those are the types of things I like to take along to Dr. appointments if I need to take the kiddos.

  15. Pingback: How to Make an I Spy Bag–the Easy Way | Stephanie J. Leinbach

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