Special anatomically correct dolls for learning through play

12 September 2018

Sitting together in a quiet room on Arctic Floor, play specialist Cathy Gill and 11-year-old Lucy are playing with a happy-looking stuffed doll.

Lucy learning about blood tests with Cathy and Charlie Doll
Lucy learning about blood tests with Cathy and Charlie Doll

This, however, is Charlie Doll. He’s not just your everyday doll in the slightest.

‘Where are your original kidneys?’ Cathy asks Lucy. Lucy points and unzips a special pouch in Charlie Doll’s back. She’s right, his kidneys are clearly there, along with many of his other organs.

‘And now would you like to show me where you and all transplanting children have their new kidney?’ suggests Cathy.

Lucy immediately turns Charlie Doll over and points to his front. Lucy knows that a transplanted kidney is implanted in the lower abdomen, on the front side of the body.

Learning through play

Lucy has a renal condition which meant she had to have a kidney transplant in August 2013. She has spent extended periods of her young life at Evelina London, receiving all manner of treatment and procedures. 

Specialist toys like Charlie Doll, which are bought thanks to donations, are instrumental in helping children like Lucy through their experience. 

Charlie and his female equivalent Katie are anatomically correct dolls which can be used for many purposes. All of their organs are in the exact spot they’d be in a child, and can be seen within little pouches and special sections of the dolls.

Cathy, who looks after children with kidney disease and urology problems, mostly introduces one of the dolls to a child if they need to learn how to insert a catheter.

Alleviating anxieties

The dolls can be used for many different things, though, such as showing what x-rays are for, or demonstrating how a blood test works. The latter is especially useful for needle therapy, a technique that the play specialists encourage for children who suffer from needle phobia.

‘We know that this kind of play can alleviate their phobia,’ explains Cathy. ‘It’s like anything - if you face that fear, if you play with something that you’re scared of - which we do literally, we play with the real needles but using dolls in a safe environment – then it becomes more normalised and less scary.’

The children can learn the full procedures, from inserting a cannula for a blood test into the back of the doll’s hand to even taking the blood, which they can watch (in the form of blackcurrant squash to represent real blood) being drawn out through the plastic tube.

Helping parents cope

Equipment like these dolls isn't used solely to help the children, but they’re often key to helping parents cope as well.

‘The doctors talk to the parents and explain a new procedure for their child such as catheterising; they might draw a diagram to help but that’s all they’re doing,’ says Cathy. ‘The parents come with their child to see me because that’s all part of the pathway, and in that play session they’re able to see what’s going on, ask lots of questions, and know exactly how the procedure will take place. Also, once they see their child playing with the catheters in an okay way, they’re not absolutely terrified.’

How donations provide extras

The special dolls are used every day to help hundreds of children a year cope with their experience in hospital more easily. They are items which the play specialists consider essential but which, unfortunately, they would never be able to buy without the help of donations.

Cathy says that she and her play specialist colleagues ‘rely heavily’ on people’s kind generosity.

‘I wouldn’t be able to do my job without extras like these dolls because otherwise I’d just be drawing a diagram on a piece of paper as well. We wouldn’t manage without our donors, we really wouldn’t. Without our donors, life in hospital wouldn’t be the same for these children.’

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