Foster children need to experience the benefits of play

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Foster children need to experience the benefits of play

Foster an emphasis on the value of play

Foster a change in views about play

Foster carers, if asked about their impressions of very young children, and what they are engaged in most will probably say play. It is a single word the ramifications of which, are easily overlooked by adults. Foster care is all about meeting the various needs of children and the importance of encouraging play should not be underestimated: consider this – the World Economic Forum, no less, actively promotes the benefits of play to a global audience. This is because there are some disturbing trends emerging which now point to a lack of focus on play and the harm this can do.

The WEF state that children in kindergarten or preschool are now not getting enough time to play. A group of researchers at the University of Texas say that five-year-olds are now doing too much academic work which is pressurising. They also discovered that some children are getting just fifteen minutes playtime in an average day. This is particularly concerning as it is known that play is essential in helping children to develop and grow academically, emotionally and socially. Playing may appear at first sight to be simple and random. This is deceptive: play allows children to process and make sense of new information which, in turn, helps them to develop problem solving skills.

Without adequate time given to play, researchers in the United States have noticed that there has been an over-concentration on rules for young children to try and absorb. In the United States, teachers are reporting that the workload on very young children is increasing – as is the pressure they are under. This is having a negative effect on the confidence of children. They should be learning through play and be allowed to explore subjects in a way which is more balanced. The situation is becoming serious enough for the WEF to be promoting articles that emphasise the tangible risks to children of being deprived of play.

The United States is one of the most competitive countries on earth. The capitalist nation par excellence – so it is not surprising that competition begins early. But doctors there are now asking parents to enforce periods of play. For a great many American parents, school means an unending scramble to ensure their children are occupied at all times. A huge amount of parental organisation and pressure goes into making sure children have access to maths clubs, tutoring, music lessons and all manner of other activities. The approach is frenzied and often unremitting: a recent policy report issued by the American Academy of Paediatrics, advises far more time should be allocated to free play. The report’s authors state that –

“Play is not frivolous, rather, research shows that play helps children develop language and executive functioning skills, learn to negotiate with others and manage stress, and figure out how to pursue their goals while ignoring distractions, among other things.” There are warnings for both schools and parents that there is far too much focus on academic achievement. And this comes very much at the expense of children being able to play.

The chairman of the American Academy of Paediatrics, Michael Yogman – along with other contributors to the research – have written: “At a time when early childhood programmes are pressured to add more didactic components and less playful learning, paediatricians can play an important role in emphasizing the role of a balanced curriculum that includes the importance of playful learning for the promotion of healthy child development.”

Lessons for foster care in the UK.

Foster carers in this country can benefit through an awareness of what is happening overseas. This can be empowered by having some context as to the importance of play. Foster children arrive in care often having been significantly disadvantaged compared to their peers. It is highly likely, therefore, that many foster children will have been deprived of opportunities for free play. It has been well established in the United States that children are playing far less than they should be. In the period 1981 to 1997, the amount of time that children spent playing reduced by twenty five per cent. A survey of eight thousand nine hundred and fifty pre-school children and their parents discovered only fifty-one per cent of children regularly went outside to walk or engage in play at least once a day with a parent. Thirty per cent of American kindergarten children no longer have ‘recess’ or playtime.

Foster carers in this country should be supported to acquire more training and insight into the value of play. There should be an understanding of the benefits that accrue from play. A foster carer who can value and support opportunities for play, will be promoting the healthy development of their child.

Foster a knowledge of play and its potential.

The AAP in its research has identified four basic types of play. Object Play; Locomotor or rough and tumble play; Outdoor Play and Social or Pretend Play. Each of these fosters the acquisition of different skills which are all vital for learning to communicate and negotiate. These are needed for  achieving both emotional balance and emotional intelligence. Outdoor play, particularly enables young children to integrate a range of senses and skills. Games revolving around throwing balls or chasing promotes coordination of both body and mind.

It is now apparent that countries that provide generous opportunities for imaginative play within their educational systems witness increased levels of academic success. This may seem counterintuitive, but randomised trials involving physical play between seven to nine year olds revealed significant findings. These were that play can enhance attentional inhibition, general brain functioning and cognitive flexibility. Pretend Play can assist children in building collaborative skills. Generally, play can play a vital role in helping deal with stress levels: “The mutual joy and shared communication and attunement (harmonious serve and return interactions) that parents and children can experience during play regulate the body’s stress response” was one of the main conclusions of the AAP Report. In the U.S. it seems that parents who are rushing to provide so called ‘enrichment opportunities’ at a rate which mitigates against natural forms of play, are subjecting young children to worrying levels of stress. In one of the most competitive countries in the world, it looks as if parental competition is actually impeding the healthy development of pre-school children.

Foster an understanding of what children themselves want and the benefits play delivers.

It’s a fact that when children are asked about their opinion as to what is most important to them, playing and their friends come top of the list. play has often been described as “what children do when they are not being told what to do by adults.” Play is after all an entirely natural process that the young of many different species engage in. Research that has been conducted in the U.K. showing that access to quality play provision can be good not only for children but for families and the wider community. Other benefits of play for children are:

  • an increase in self-awareness, self-respect and self-esteem;
  • an increase in confidence;
  • the development of imagination;
  • the development of independence;
  • the development of creative skills;
  • increased levels of resilience;
  • the development of risk assessment;
  • dealing with challenges and problem-solving;
  • it facilitates the development of communication skills;
  • provides the chance to be spontaneous;
  • creates the opportunity to test limits.

What can foster parents do to encourage play.

It is possible for foster parents to help children who might be experiencing a range of problems by simply learning how to play with them. Toys can be used to facilitate this.  Problems that can be addressed can include developmental disorders, emotional problems, learning difficulties and hyperactivity. Issues that might be impacting on a family – such as divorce – can also be explored through play. Specific toys can be used  as well as specific kinds of one-to-one parent-child interactions. Where problems are more deep-seated, play can be used as part of a therapeutic intervention. Foster parents often work with play therapists who can guide them on how best to use play to help alleviate a child’s particular problem. The relationship between a foster parent and child can improve significantly through the use of play. It is important to understand that this kind of contact doesn’t have to last for hours every day. It can be for a few minutes only, but what matters is that takes place on a regular basis.

If you are a foster carer looking after a toddler, play that is unstructured – or often called ‘Free Play’ – is highly suitable. It isn’t organised or planned: at its best is spontaneous – just happening and driven by whatever might have provoked a toddler’s imagination. Play does not have to cost a lot of money. Toddlers like nothing better than to dress up in old clothes – or make dens out of cardboard boxes and blankets. Playing with different materials such as water and sand can be of considerable educational benefit teaching children about the properties of different materials.

The chair of the charity Play England, Nicola Butler, states –

“At the toddler stage, play is all about exploring everything around them and working things out for themselves through new experiences. When they’re playing, they are completely absorbed and concentrated and learning all the time. At this age, they also come up with very imaginative ways of using things, and their own wonderful logic. You can show them how things work but let them experiment, without a prescribed ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way.” Who says a colander isn’t fabulous headgear?”

Join Team Rainbow and see what we offer our foster carers

At Rainbow we understand that being a foster carer is a huge commitment. For this reason,

is the support and training we provide is amongst the best available. Rainbow have been one of the leading foster care agencies for over 21 years. Our ethos is based on the idea that we exist to support our foster carers to provide the best in loving care and stability for vulnerable youngsters.

A dedicated, well supported foster carer can transform the life of a child or young person – giving them hope – as well as a foundation from which to move forward in life and succeed.

During this time we have made a difference to the lives of hundreds of children and their foster carers. If you are interested in fostering babies or very young children we’d love to hear from you.

Above all, we need people who are enthusiastic and ambitious. People who can deal with challenging situations and still thrive on the rewards fostering has to offer. We train people to be foster carers whatever their ethnicity, gender, marital status, sexual orientation or previous work experience. Rainbow have foster carers from all kinds of backgrounds and cultural traditions – it’s what makes us such a vibrant community.

We know our foster carers have transformed young lives. There is currently a national shortage of foster carers in the UK. If this is something you have been considering, then there is no better time to start. Every day ninety young people are entering the care system in England and Wales. And they all deserve a loving stable, home. Last year saw the biggest rise in children coming into care for seven years. If you could provide a foster home then please contact our recruitment departure on 020 8427 3355. Alternatively, you can get through to us using our National Line – 0330 311 2845. Either way, we shall be delighted to hear from you.

Interested in more specialist foster care opportunities?

Rainbow therapeutic placements. Our specialist service addresses the needs of children and young people who have experienced trauma following abuse and/or neglect. It takes skill and expertise to care for children with the associated behavioural, emotional and attachment problems. Once trained as a therapeutic foster carer and with a placement, you will qualify for our enhanced payment rates. This kind of fostering provision can be challenging, but our therapeutic foster carers are supported within a collaborative team. Everyone works 24/7 to deliver therapeutically planned and led recovery programmes. If you are already a therapeutic foster carer and would like more information about transferring to Rainbow – as well as the excellent benefits available – please visit

Rainbow Fostering is recruiting now across London, Manchester, Birmingham and the South Coast. Whatever your marital status, gender, ethnicity, cultural background or sexual orientation, we would like to hear from you. You will need a spare room to foster a child or young person.

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