Foster carers perhaps live with a heightened sense of risk compared to your average parent. That’s understandable since they deal with vulnerable children – many of whom came into care as they were judged to be at risk. Our society is preoccupied with all kinds of risks and mostly with eradicating them. Seems sensible. Who would argue with that? But on reflection, we know the world is actually full of risks of different kinds. Identifying and managing these most likely drove the development of our intellectual development as a species. After all, the risk of starvation forced our ancestors to explore. This trait is fundamental to being human and will always carry many kinds of different risks. And they can’t be avoided or eradicated. In 2019 humans were busy exploring the world relying on air travel: the result – millions of their fellows have been exposed to Covid19 with over three million now having died as a consequence.
We have a schizophrenic approach to risk: legislators ensure kettles and fridges are routinely checked in offices. And this is just as we are causing enormous damage to the climate which could see our tenure on this earth come to an end. Such anomalies; and their numbers are practically limitless, are explained by a single word: perception. Nowhere is this having more profound effects than on our children. Wrapping them up in cotton wool is understandable but may be doing them more harm than good. It is a sad fact that as many of today’s parent’s and foster carers chauffeur their children to and from school on clogged roads, they remain unaware of the serious risks posed by toxic fumes entering vehicles. These emissions; quite apart from increasing the risk of asthma and bronchial disorders, can lower IQ. Could there be a greater irony?
The enforced lockdowns of the pandemic have meant children being shut away. But we should not kid ourselves this was not already happening – albeit in a more subtle way. Five years ago an all-party parliamentary group produced a report on what makes for a fit and healthy childhood. Just as parents – and foster carers – were wondering how best to minimize risk this report found:
“Risky play, involving perhaps rough and tumble, height, speed, playing near potentially dangerous elements such as water, cliffs and exploring alone with the possibility of getting lost, gives children a feeling of thrill and excitement.”
Parents and anyone with responsibility for a child feel a sense of risk that would not have been recognized by previous generations. But why? Part of the answer is to be found in the ubiquitous and immersive nature of digital media. Crime dramas and documentaries about missing children have created a sense of pervasive and ever-present risk. Children’s movements were being controlled and restricted well before we became familiar with lockdowns. Think not? The report from five years ago found the roaming distance (how far children play from home) had decreased by a staggering 90 per cent. This means children are just not experiencing the natural world and that can mean being free to room in the local park as parents and foster carers are haunted by the thought of ‘stranger danger’. Ten years ago there was a mounting pile of evidence revealing that it’s not so much what children understand about nature that’s important compare to what happens to them when they ‘in’ nature. Then, there were many in the scientific community – including doctors, psychologists, educationalists, and mental health experts – suggesting that denying children access to the natural environment is likely to affect their development and this has implications for society as a whole.
The author and naturalist Stephen Moss feels –
“There’s a paradox. More kids today are interested in the natural world than ever before; they watch it on the telly; they may well visit a nature reserve or a National Trust site with their families. But fare fewer are experiencing it directly, on their own or with their friends, and that’s what counts: this is about more than nature.”
Following the restrictions of coronavirus, there has been a collective realization that our anxiety about the safety of children has not served them well. Perhaps it took the extreme consequences of a pandemic to bring this about. The signs are encouraging as there is now a campaign across social media #SummerOfPlay. So what was being warned about years ago, deserves the urgent attention of parents and foster carers. Especially when you consider: a mere five minutes “outdoor green exercise” can produce rapid improvements in a child’s wellbeing and self-esteem – this the conclusion of a study in 2010 done by the University of Essex. Allowing free and unstructured outdoor play improves problem-solving skills, self-discipline, awareness, and focus. And it boosts social skills and cooperation. There are important emotional benefits as well which could be of particular value to foster children. These include reduced aggression and raised levels of happiness. One particular study produced by the American Medical Association as long ago as 2005 concluded:
“Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors.”
And also according to Stephen Moss: “Nature is a tool, to get children to experience not just the wider world, but themselves.” So climbing a tree, he says, is about “learning how to take responsibility for yourself, and how – crucially – to measure risk for yourself. Falling out of a tree is a very good lesson in risk and reward.”
One thing especially important for parents – as well as foster carers to realize, is this kind of play does not involve adult supervision. And that is key: Kristen Lambert, who ran a playscheme back in 2010 spoke then of aiming for children –
“to experience true free play, play that’s not set up according to an adult agenda – in forests and open spaces, not designated play areas. There are no specific activities, no fixed equipment; there are tree branches and muddy slopes. The spaces themselves are inspiring. Children set their own challenges, assess their own risks, take their own responsibility, have their own adventures, and learn from them. And what they learn can’t be taught. You should see them.”
If all this seems uncomfortable, parents and foster carers must think that risk perception is a skill children need to acquire. The world isn’t and never has been a safe place. A degree of risk and excitement is needed in the lives of cosseted children. This can be provided in a step-by-step and age-appropriate way. Above all, the outdoors is key: outdoors time every day is a must. Parents shouldn’t just head to the first neat and controlled play area. Young children should be encouraged to explore in and around hedges – getting grubby as they do. Primary school-age children can be allowed out of your sight. Unsupervised time, even in the garden, might well result in cuts and bruises – maybe even the odd fight between siblings, but this is what most of us did as children. It’s how we learned to make risk-related decisions for ourselves.
As the lockdown is relaxed, foster carers, parents, and anyone else involved with the welfare of children need to think seriously about the value of play and support #SummerOfPlay. If it helps – every parent will have been nerve-wracked as they teach their children to ride a bike but they persevere. As adults we know it’s a worthwhile skill that all children acquire. And it is a supremely visible demonstration to a grown-up of a child learning balance and coordination. And in the mind of a child, cycling off on its own feels – perhaps for the first time in its life – true freedom and independence. The same feeling you had when you passed your driving test!
For some more background and guidance on this subject, the book ‘Risk and Adventure in Early Years Outdoor Play’ provides useful information to parents and foster carers: visit – https://amzn.to/3h3RNcQ
and leave your contact details and a request a time for a call back from a member of our recruitment team.
Foster carers play a crucial role in providing a safe and stable home environment for a child or young person who cannot remain with their birth family. There are many reasons why children may not be able to do this. For some, it is a temporary situation, for others, it may be a much longer-term or permanent arrangement. Children come from widely different backgrounds with different needs. We train our foster carers to provide the best care and support for the children placed with them. The trend for foster carers to need more specialist knowledge – especially if they are caring for children with complex needs – is increasing. This type of care is called therapeutic fostering and there is a great need for carers to work in this area. Other fostering options are caring for sibling groups, teenagers or supporting Parent and Child placements. All our foster carers have one thing in common – whatever type of care they are providing – and that is dedication and commitment to the best for those they are looking after.
We are now seeking foster carers from a wide range of backgrounds, races, and religions: people who are warm, caring, and open to learning new skills. They need to have the time and patience to care for children and young people with compassion and sensitivity. We accept applications from single people, same-sex and cohabiting couples, as well as married couples. You do not need to own your own home or have your own children to become a foster carer.
The children we are supporting are in London, Milton Keynes, Luton, Birmingham, Manchester, and parts of Hampshire.
To foster with Rainbow you will need to be over 21 and have a spare bedroom for a child or young person. But what matters most of all is you have the drive, interest, and motivation to always do your best for the child or young person in your care.
For the latest information on staying safe visit – https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/coronavirus Rainbow putting the focus on fostering.