A Look into Medical Camps with Dr. Ben

Let us catch you up….we are delving hardcore into what it means to play, and why it is CRITICAL to understand it and incorporate it into your pediatric healthcare practices. Our last blog segment by Dr. Ben attempted to shine light on the Power of Play by going beyond its traditional dictionary definition and application. He actually called the dictionary definition of play “Complete Bull Hunk!!!” That’s a good enough review, now let’s get on with it…

Medical Camps – Pinnacles of Purposeful Play

by Ben “Dr. Ben” Meisel, MD

Purposeful Play has immense power to neutralize and counteract fear, worry, and even discomfort. By infusing play into our activities or our living environments it becomes possible for us to move beyond our fears and barriers to overcome “dis-ease” (the seemingly unsurmountable barriers that stand in the way of our getting healthy or feeling well).

For me, some of the most spectacular examples of purposeful play are found at medical camps. Where children with special health needs can go….to live beyond their medical conditions….to just be kids and experience the world without being consumed by the medical conditions that they have. For example, kids who previously refused to take pills will often “go for it” when challenged by a friend to swallow it as part of a camp “Chug A Lug” contest.

Of course, it is not only kids who can benefit from this type of life-incorporated play. My own father with Parkinson’s (Parkinson’s Disease characteristically interferes with the ability to initiate movements) suddenly jumps into agile action when handed a basketball for shooting into a door-mounted hoop in his home.

Actor, Paul Newman, created The Hole In The Wall Gang Camp (his first of what now are approximately 20 worldwide SeriousFun Children’s Network Camps for children with serious medical conditions) where I worked first as a camp counselor and later as a volunteer physician. His goal was to create a place where kids with complex health needs could expand their world beyond their medical needs and just be kids for a change. In his words, to let these kids with the most serious health challenges “kick back, relax and raise a little hell.”

But to gather 120 children with serious medical conditions together in an isolated area to “just be kids”…where they must also continue to receive their life-enabling medical care…takes enormous planning, careful coordination between medical and non-medical staff, and a set of rules that encourages play to flourish.

At The Painted Turtle, California’s SeriousFun Children’s Network Camp, where I eventually worked as Medical Director, our play-enforcing set of rules is titled “The S.T.A.R. Model” and reads as follows:

  • Stay Safe
  • Try New Things
  • Always Build Up
  • Respect Yourself, Others, and the Environment

At the first campfire of each session these rules are playfully demonstrated and “memorized” by the campers and staff. Returning to their cabins after the campfire each group of kids expands on this set of 4 basic rules to create their cabin’s own more specific set of rules. Facilitated by camp staff but generated by the campers themselves, each camper eventually signs the completed list of cabin rules; thus, giving the entire experience a foundation of fairness, respect, and safety to which each camper is made accountable and which opens the possibility for uplifting play to occur.

There are endless, important meaningful camp stories about the therapeutic power of play at The Painted Turtle. One that holds tremendous power for me is that of a 10 year old boy with very severe arthritis. His arthritis was resistant to the strongest of medicines, his body constantly wracked with pain. No matter how bad his discomfort, somehow he always had a kind word for others and a willingness to participate in activities and move forward. He was among the most severely affected campers and he was always the one to “step up” and help others…to hobble over to another kid who had just fallen…to painfully reach down and help that other child to stand. I told him how in awe I was of him and asked how he managed to live beyond coping even when he was overwhelmed with discomfort….and he said to me: “I laugh at my arthritis. And, as long as I can laugh….I win.”

Laughing at his pain – a powerfully empowering show of play-based defiance

Thank you to the Standish Foundation for supporting the premise that a more playful world in the hospital is a healthier world. I tried to capture this power in an animated video meant to celebrate the work of Child Life Specialists. The song “Perfect Day” is the title track off of my 2014 album of music written and enjoyed with children at medical camps and that I created to benefit all kids going through tough times (especially in non-child friendly environments where meaningful, harmonically playful music infused with joyful spirit can work magic). Oh, and something else extremely PLAY-empowered… thanks to some funders who believed in the power of play to transform health, I was able to secure money enabling me to pay the young adult animators of Exceptional Minds (a 501c3 non-profit doing incredible work to train and prepare young adult artists with autism for work as fully employed animators in the entertainment industry).

There is so much more to say and DO when it comes to Building Play Into Health…I hope you will embrace this mission and join this vibrant, dedicated community of health-transforming visionaries. Below are a few PEARLS I hope will guide others in their work Building Play Into Health.

None of us will leave this planet without facing the challenges of daily life. And so, I throw out this playful CHALLENGE: think back on your life’s biggest challenges….What helped you through those times?

Music? Humor? Camp?

Are you ever able to “laugh” at your difficulties?

If you have a story to share about how PLAY has helped you through tough times, I invite you to share it with others who will appreciate it here (in the comments section).

Shine On!

Dr. Ben


It takes a Crud Load of effort and hard work to build play into what would otherwise be frightening, painful, anxiety laden, overwhelming, life-threatening experiences.

  • The hard work necessary for creating the environment for play to flourish…is so worth it…and can be incredibly FUN!
  • For cooperative Play to happen between strangers, ground rules like S.T.A.R. are necessary.
  • Feeling in control is potent medicine. Finding a playful approach to a difficult situation can open the door to problem solving and bring a sense of control coupled with the experience of having FUN! There are few approaches more powerful.
  • Learning how to control what we CAN control makes us resilient when we otherwise would feel stuck or powerless. Breathing, self hypnosis, biofeedback, guided imagery, exercise, knowing low-tech games one can “pull out” anytime to invite play with others, being creative, helping others in need…these learnable activities enable us to PLAYFULLY find control and minimize suffering (for ourselves and others).
  • It is not always possible to muster PLAY for ourselves or others during difficult times. When play gets “foiled”, simply being present as a stable, loving human presence for others is often a powerfully healing gesture.
  • Socio-medical studies of “at risk” teens have determined that kids facing the most difficult circumstances have the highest chance of bouncing back IF they have a consistent adult in their lives (someone the teen believes will always be there for them NO MATTER WHAT) who holds them to high standards. So, be available, be present, stay connected, and encourage kids to be the best selves that they can be…and do your best to be a model for the kind of person you hope they will become.