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How to Use a Doctor's Kit Across Developmental Play Stages

There are a few toys that seem to be staples in our children's lives. One of these seemingly essential toys is the doctor's kit. I love these sets for a variety of reasons including how we can learn our body parts, spatial concepts, follow single and multiple step directions along with decreasing doctor-related anxiety.

Over this month, we've been learning about logical thinking development along with play skill development, as these two directly relate to each other. Our doctor's kit can easily develop skills anywhere along the play skill development line! Let's use this as a perfect example for how this familiar set can grow with your child.

Relational Play

During this stage, our little ones are learning to open/close containers, put things in, take them out, and explore the beginnings of cause/effect. Many children during this stage may still explore toys with their mouths, so it's important to be aware of this with any small parts in the set. We're following single step directions at a basic level as well and starting to explore the rules of our environment. Our logical thinking development is at that single step level and we're simply attaching causes to actions.

If your child is in the Relational Play stage, the doctor's kit can be used to foster curiosity! I recommend using a kit that has a container you open and close, along with parts that move and buttons to press. Explore and test the different actions of each piece. Does the thermometer make a click sound when you push it? What about the blood pressure pump, how does that feel to squeeze? What noise does the stethoscope make? Put it on your chest and go bump! bump! or on your chest and breathe in and out. This will also start to bridge into functional play as you test each piece on each other.

During this stage, we are simply thinking about the cause and effect of our toys. We are learning how to attach meanings to actions in order to get our needs met. As we learn how these pieces work, we can start giving deeper meaning and building into our Functional Play stage.

Functional Play

In Functional Play, we start to use our toys with meaning towards ourselves. We've learned our actions have meaning, we can start to form a plan to get help and even begin to understand 2 step directions. We're forming patterns and sequences of actions with our toys to engage with the immediate area around us. Our logical thinking is telling us how to put these simple patterns together and using others are a means to get our needs met, such as by asking mom for help in getting a snack.

This is when we can start using the doctor's kit in a way that looks more like a role play situation. Take the stethoscope and say bump! bump! when it's on your child's chest, and encourage them to take turns with it. Use the otoscope (the tool you use to look in ears and mouth), and show how to use this tool appropriately. Gasp to pretend you see something and take out a nickel (yes, the old Grandpa trick!), or give an emphatic "All clear!" Encourage your child to explore for missing items, maybe you ate something that made you sick and needs to get out of your tummy! Maybe there are bugs in your hair that need to be handled, what tools will your child use to solve these maladies?

During this stage, we are using toys in a functional way towards oneself. We haven't grasped the concept of symbolic representation, so we aren't going to engage in a doctor dialogue or give our teddy bear a check up yet. As we explore the actions of this set with each other, pretend you are sick and begin to introduce other characters to help build out skills into the next stage of development.

Pretend/Symbolic Play

As your child starts to develop symbolic representation, you will notice they are capable of "diagnosing" and "experimenting" with the doctor's kit. They no longer just want to have you as their patient, and their offices will open for teddy bears, action figures and other favorite toys. They are able to fluidly use multiple steps and change together longer sequences to solve problems. They are able to determine, based on your hints, what might be wrong; she might say, "Oh no! Barbie's leg is hurt. She fell off her bike. Let's put a bandaid on her!"

Symbolic Play allows our child to create ideas and test these ideas against the laws of the world around them. The important part for parents and caregivers during this stage is to be creative! Keep the ideas flowing and challenge them with more "and then what?!", along with how and why questions in order to continue creating depth and detail in their ideas. Become the characters in your pretend play, use first person language by saying "I don't feel so great..." while having the teddy bear touch his head, instead of "Teddy bear's head hurts..." Give your characters emotions and show they are scared, nervous, and even refusing the doctor's help! How will your child negotiate these emotions?

Using a doctor's kit, like the one here, can develop play and thinking skills across many developmental stages. What's your favorite way to play with a doctor's kit?

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