Play is universal across mammals with a big role in learning and development, especially in children. For younger foster children, who might have experienced abuse or neglect, play is an important part of healing. It’s an aspect of therapeutic fostering where foster carers can provide support.
Ella Booth is a Supervising Social Worker (SSW) at Fostering Solutions North West, one of our local agencies that supports fostering in Liverpool and the surrounding areas (Fostering Solutions has a total of 4 teams across England).
As an SSW, Ella builds close relationships with foster carers in her area, making sure they’re integrated with the wider team and providing any guidance and support they need.
“Most play is just normal play and this is huge in itself,” she said. “Some kids don’t know how to play when they come into foster care. They might not have had any toys or been allowed to or taught to play. So, if they’re playing Hungry Hippos, tag, Lego or Barbies, it has superb value.
“Play can also be approached therapeutically. Foster carers can have an awareness around opportunities that can be used, gently, to help the child work things through and fill gaps.
“Therapeutic play is child-led and can help them meet a need that’s never been met before. We encourage it as a way of bonding, attachment and filling in these gaps.”
Some kids don’t know how to play when they come into foster care. They might not have had any toys or been allowed or taught to play.
“Some gaps are things we take for granted that haven’t happened for some foster children,” Ella said. “For example, a foster carer plays at restaurants at teatime. Previously the child hadn’t known where his next meal was coming from.
“One foster child loved being wrapped in a blanket and held like a baby. They’d never experienced being held and safe and calm. It helped to act it out. With a young child, we expect these kinds of play scenarios, but this child was older. They were young developmentally, they hadn’t had the opportunity to experience this feeling before, so they sought it out in a safe environment.
“They might communicate a need – by using baby voices and mannerisms, for example. Play is how we can meet them.
“Sometimes simply acknowledging the presence of ‘Baby John’ who is using a baby voice, is enough and it won’t go any further. Or therapeutic play might evolve – it depends what the child feels they need. It fundamentally fills developmental gaps for them. Having experienced love and calm or something else they needed to fill a gap, they feel it’s safe to move on.”
They were young developmentally, they hadn’t had the opportunity to experience this feeling before, so they sought it out in a safe environment.
“In play there are clear boundaries,” Ella explained. “Everyone in the play knows it’s not real, it’s imaginative, we’re all pretending.
“Play provides a degree of separation from negative feelings like shame or fear. So, for example, a child who clearly has issues around mealtimes might find it too confrontational to be asked directly about their anxiety or misbehaving. But they might find playing at restaurants meets their need. They can experience feeling in control.
“It allows kids to engage at different degrees and it’s a brilliant attachment building exercise. It’s a nurturing approach with a playful layer. Sometimes, it makes it possible to start conversations about big emotions – but not always.”
There are “many flavours” of therapeutic play and play therapy, Ella said. This includes Theraplay – a play-based attachment intervention, which is led by a play therapist who facilitates activities. There’s also Thrive, a model used in schools, which identifies developmental gaps and recommends particular play scenarios like sharing or waiting their turn. This model isn’t usually accessible to parents or foster carers.
Therapeutic play is a less structured model that can be used by foster carers and the ideas are introduced in foster carer training (which is free). “We follow the PACE model, which means Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy,” Ella said. “The importance of play is always covered. We give our foster carers all the support they need, so for advice on the specifics of a child’s behaviour, you can get advice from an expert in a clinical role.”
“There’s a bigger picture,” Ella said. “Therapeutic play is part of a wider structure of support for the child. There’s a whole team focusing on therapeutic fostering, including our brilliant foster carers.”
Having experienced love and calm or something else they needed to fill a gap, they feel it’s safe to move on.
Around the country, dozens of children enter the care system every day – children who can’t live at home through no fault of their own. We work with local authorities in every region of the UK to meet growing demand for all types of fostering. Can you become a foster carer and make a difference to a child’s future?
If you’re unsure whether you’re eligible, try our Can I Foster? tool, which answers common questions about suitability to foster, based on a personalised Q and A style format. The outcome might surprise you! If you’re ready to chat with one of our fostering advisors, contact your local team.