The power of Play-Doh. This sounds like such an ironic phrase considering the malleability of this childhood favorite. Between several personal trips to the local store, our clinic buying several boxes, and getting donations from one of our amazing third years who has donated books and goodies for our patients since early intern year; we ended up having a plethora of the stuff.
We needed to make room for more spring-focused games and activities for our patients, so one recent day, when on attending only shifts (the residents were at retreats or inpatient), I made it a point to hand out two canisters of the stuff to every child aged three or higher (including siblings in the room) regardless how old. I saw around 20 patients in this category, and you couldn’t pick a more diverse group if you tried. Five different languages represent nine different countries (we have a large percentage of immigrant families in this resident continuity clinic). Of the U.S.-born English-speaking families, some were families of local faculty or graduate students, some were older and experienced parents, and some were parents with their first child. The age range was also about as diverse as one could statistically generate.
Primary care pediatrics tends to be a busy place, and I often focus on asking the necessary list of questions for each age group and almost subconsciously concentrate on finding a problem I can fix. Despite an emphasis on praising parents for doing a great job, such as done by programs like Triple P and the Mount Sinai Parenting Center, unless I make a concerted effort, I tend not to stop and enjoy the positive interactions in an exam room between patients and their parents. Honestly, I feel that this also impacts our parental interactions as they have learned to jump to the problem list instead of talking about the amazing development skills achieved or neat things that their child has done.
Time permitting, I make it a point to go back to each room with the after-visit summary (AVS) to say a final goodbye and see if there are any questions. On this particular day, I was fortunate to have brief moments to drop off the AVS in most rooms. The patients worked on Play-Doh creations in the first few rooms, from pies to snakes to a hotdog in a bun. I soon realized this was the case in literally every room I went back into, with the patient and/or their siblings busy working with their creations and the parents joyfully looking on and appreciating their child’s imagination, with some taking pictures. These were indeed amazing moments to be had. Even a teen struggling with anxiety giggled as he made a cherry pie with a brown playdoh base and red cherries on top, making his mom laugh.
I venture to guess that Play-Doh is not ubiquitous in the world. But imagination is, and parental appreciation of their child’s imagination is as well. I feel that we too often focus on the pathology in front of us or work off a checklist of what needs to be done at a visit. But it is just as vital to empower our families to just stop and appreciate one another and for us to do the same.
Alexander Rakowsky is a pediatrician.