As I watched, a little boy was sitting on some big cushions in a corner of a room in a house in Sheffield playing lively games with two women. Children could be heard laughing in other rooms nearby from time to time.
Seven-year-old Jack obviously enjoyed the simple games, which included counting how many freckles he has, measuring the size of his face with a strawberry shoelace, seeing if he could punch through pieces of newspaper and guessing the colour of a sweet popped into his mouth just by tasting it.
Some games involved putting little dabs of cream on him, for instance looking at where he had little cuts or bumps on his arms or legs. He seemed to love the attention and responded really well to it.
Jack was playing with therapist Sarah Allkins at the Chrysalis Consortium in Sheffield, which is a new fostering agency that puts therapy at the centre of its service. Fostering services manager Margaret Davies played alongside Jack, as a foster parent would do in the real therapy sessions. She is a friend of his parents.
Jack, an ordinary little boy who lives very happily with his own family, was a volunteer. He was helping to demonstrate to me how Theraplay works when it is used to help cared-for children feel better about themselves and bond with their foster parents.
Children who need to be fostered may have suffered abuse or neglect or faced other traumas that have parted them from their families. Worried that all too often foster parents have to battle to get therapy for children, Chrysalis, based in Nether Edge, Sheffield, puts this at the centre of its own fostering placements.
Sarah, who is also a director of the company, explained: “For me the aim was for him to feel better about himself and to teach him things about himself he didn’t know and have more sense of self about him. That’s why I opted for those games.”
Sarah said that it is really important that the therapist remembers all about the child and what games they played together at previous sessions. Dabbing the little cuts and bumps with cream is done every time for that reason, and to help a child understand that someone cares about them and can touch them safely.
In some cases a child can’t tolerate being touched, so the therapists work round that. Another point of the games is to help children manage their emotions, to help stop them going from one extreme to the other.
Sarah added: “For lots of our kids, they just can’t bear the challenging activities. Some won’t even try one. Their self-worth is so low they can’t afford to fail.
“There are some who are over-confident and we set them up to fail, so that they can see it’s safe, nothing’s happened to you.”
The foster parents join in and learn how to use the therapy to cope with the children better and build a relationship with children who may be mistrustful, withdrawn or quick to lash out. Eventually they lead the sessions with the therapist’s support.
Sarah summed up the best part of her job: “It’s the joy of tiny things. No matter where you pitch it, it’s a positive experience.
“The first eye contact with a child on week three, say, is cause for a massive celebration. The child has felt safe enough to expose themselves to something other than looking down at their own jacket. The children mostly want to come back for more sessions.”
Chrysalis is looking for people interested in becoming foster parents. Call 0114 2509455 or email Margaret.firstname.lastname@example.org for information. www.chrysalisassociates.org