Ingredients: All the toys at your disposal, a doctors kit, stickers, and some adult enthusiasm to get stuck in!

The Big Sell: Hey, stop crying / fighting / shouting, there’s an emergency!


Picture my house every Saturday morning:

1)      Husband sets off to work bleary-eyed.

2)     Eldest son (an introvert), shattered after a week at school wants only to play on his own or one to one with me, too tired to think of any ideas for play

3)     Youngest son (an extrovert) is terribly excited that big brother is at home and prepares to provoke him using any method necessary (read hitting) to get his attention

4)     I look at my messy house and long for the kids to play nicely together so I return some order to the chaos by the time we reach Monday

5)     Result? World War 3! By 9.45am there have been several punch-ups, many threats of naughty steps and tears all round.

Normally I would throw them into the local park to run it off (I hear boys are like dogs and need a good walk) but with sniffles and exhaustion they refuse to step foot outside.

Time for PLAN B!  This is what I tried this weekend and whilst I’m sure it isn’t fool-proof, I’ve learnt a few comfort games over the past few years that always seem to help.

Toy Hospital.

You say: Oh my Goodness! There’s an emergency!

Son 1, go get loads of cuddly toys from your beds.

Son 2, help me find the Doctors kit.

To the hospital!! (which is the sofa)

(Start making the Nee Nar noise and get them to follow you conga-style to the living room.)

Quickly, line these toys up so they can be seen by you two – the Doctors. Hurry! They need our help!

Oh dear, this one has a tummy ache – can you give him some medicine?

This one has scraped his head – he needs an injection.

This one has broken his arm – help me make a sling.

Ah – this one just feels unloved and needs a cuddle.

Etc.. I would interject at certain points to introduce a new element of play. A particularly successful element was to introduce “Sticker-itis” (stick any small stickers all over them) – a horribly infectious disease which they spent ages spreading amongst the ward, table, floor… Soon they had improvised a stretcher that they were happily carrying between them, ferrying toys from the intensive ward to rehabilitation! Once that got boring, I introduced medical notes showing them how to draw graphs detailing their patient’s history, and asked them to complete their rounds.

The Verdict:

You can use many games to distract and focus kids when they are stuck in a negative rut. However, I think there are some unique elements here which help. First of all, the cause of the problem is not that you have naughty kids or that they hate each other – it’s that after a leave of absence, especially when they have experienced a great deal of adult-led structure in their ‘working week’ they can forget how to play naturally and creatively with the toys staring them in the face – this is frightening, frustrating and maddening for everyone involved. Their battle cries towards each other on a Saturday morning are actually cries for “Please show me how to play again – I’ve forgotten!”

The nice thing about toy hospital is that is comfortingly uses all their favourite toys, it places them in the position of being caring and responsible (but for a fun reason rather than to let Mummy do the washing up) and re-discovering improvisational play provides many avenues they can choose to go down, so whilst you may have sown the original seed they can choose to grow it into their own world.

I know it may seem the last thing a grown-up wants to do when they have 101 other mundane tasks waiting, but honestly once I’d set them up for 30 – 60 minutes they played nicely for the whole of the rest of the weekend! (I did all the housework and even dusted the cobwebs away ready for Christmas decorations and, believe me, that never usually happens!)

 They had re-learnt that which they had lost through an injection of enthusiasm, some adult role-modelling, and a game which brought them together as allies.

Ideas for your very own Doctors Kit: shops sell good basics like toy stethoscope, blood pressure pump, thermometer, etc.. but we have added real bandages and plasters, blunt scissors and pretend plastic scalpel, pipette, pot with spoon for pretend medicine, one of those plungers for dispensing medicine into baby’s mouths which we pretend is a needle, and of course red stickers for spots.

Catchphrase: Nurse? Scalpel! Swab! Biscuit! …

Left wanting more?

My second FAIL-SAFE for grumpy days is a real Teddy Bears Picnic. Tell the kids to prep by writing invites, laying a tablecloth on the floor, setting out small bowls, and bringing their cuddlies. You prepare many bowls with a variety of foods (both naughty and nice – on grumpy days you can make exceptions!) and ask the children to be ‘in charge’ of the teddies so that they get a good balance of food (not just the sweets) and share nicely. This can work if a child is a fussy eater and you are trying to teach them good table manners as it places the emphasis on them teaching other (naughtier) dinner guests. It’s amazing how exciting lunch can be on the floor with ten chatty teddies…