The Importance of Laughter and Play for Children in Foster Care


It was noisy.

The seven year old was laughing. Laughing very, very loudly. Running through the house, the little blond haired boy was chasing our five year old daughter. Indeed, both were laughing, and the noise was echoing through the entire house. It wasn’t long before they begun this game of chase that our three year old joined in.

It was noisy. And, it was beautiful.

For the first time, our seven year old son from foster care was laughing. In fact, it was the first time the seven year old had even smiled in our home. Andrew had been living with us for four months, placed into our foster home due to severe and horrific abuse from the hands of his mother; his mother, the person who was supposed to shield her own son from all harm. Instead, his mother had abused her son so traumatically over a long period of time in his short life that Andrew had never really been given the opportunity to laugh. This innocent seven year old child had never known what it was like to, quite simply, have fun; never given a reason to smile.

The first months of Andrew’s time in our house often saw my other children, both biological and adoptive, try to invite their newest foster sibling into their world of play and imagination. At each invite, and each opportunity, Andrew would instead cling to my wife and I, choosing not to engage with the others. When either my wife or I were in the kitchen cooking, in the bedroom folding clothes, or other house duties, the seven year old would stand closely next to one of us. If either of us were sitting down, the child would sit next to us. Either way, he would never speak, simply cling to us, in his own world of trauma and anxiety.

Today, though, was different. For some time, Andrew was watching some of the other children playing in the lounge room, while my I was in the other other room, taking care of the dirty laundry. Perhaps it was the consistent approach from my children; perhaps it was his curiosity; perhaps he realized that his siblings from foster care were not going to hurt him. Whatever it was, Andrew finally joined in, and when he did, it was as if the flood gates of laughter had opened. I watched in amazement as this seven year old, this seven year old who never once expressed any emotion of happiness, joy, or amusement, was laughing. This seven year old boy was healing.

Laughter and play are wonderful ways for children in foster care to begin their healing process, as they help these children in need cope with their stresses, traumas, and anxieties. Indeed, as children in foster care begin to find a sense of humor, they will find it to be a resourceful tool they can use. As Paul E. McGhee, Ph.D. states,
“Your sense of humor is one of the most powerful tools you have to make certain that your daily mood and emotional state support good health.”

It is important for foster parents to help their children in foster care provide opportunities for them to laugh, as it can act as an antidote to some of the painful anxieties, pain, and stress the children may face each day due to the traumas inflicted upon them. Indeed, laughter can ease one’s burden, allowing the body to relax from tension and stress, while at the same time giving hope to someone who feels little in their life. Along with this, laughter is beneficial to one’s health in a variety of ways. A good hearty laugh triggers the release of endorphins within the body, which can help relieve pain, and promote well being. Along with this, laughter boosts the immune system, decreases pain, improves one’s mood, and prevents heart disease. Furthermore, when a child in foster care learns to laugh and play with others, communication increases, relationships are strengthened, and trust can be built. Indeed, some of the fear, panic, and anxieties within a child in foster care can begin to decrease through play and laughter.

So, the next time you find yourself exhausted from the noise and hustle and bustle in your home, and are about to ask your child in foster care to tone the playing down and quiet the laughter, give it a second thought. Perhaps this child in your home is finding a way to relax, finding a way to trust and communicate, trying to build a relationship, and trying to heal from the abuse, pain, and neglect in his life. Perhaps, he is finding a way to become a child. Perhaps, he is finding a reason to finally truly smile.


Dr. John DeGarmo has been a foster parent for 13 years, now, and he and his wife have had over 50 children come through their home. He is a consultant for foster care agencies, as well as a speaker and trainer on many topics about the foster care system, and travels around the nation delivering passionate, dynamic, energetic, and informative presentations. Dr. DeGarmo is the author of several foster care books, including the brand new book Faith and Foster Care: How We Impact God’s Kingdom, and writes for several publications, including Fostering Families Today magazine. Dr. DeGarmo is the host of the weekly radio program Parent Factors with Dr. John.