As children, we learn new, critical skills at an alarming pace. It is as children that we learn to understand language, move, and communicate effectively. During this time, the brain is constantly growing and creating new connections that will last for the remainder of a child’s life.
Virginia Castleman, a mother and teacher herself, understands the important role of fun and exploration at this highly developmental point in a child’s life.
“Kids learn so much from playing games and reading,” said Castleman. “This includes social skills, eye-hand coordination, and mental development in math, science, literature – fun covers all disciplines.”
Nevertheless, the beginning of Castleman’s childhood did not always allow a focus on games and learning. Around the age of four, her and her siblings were pulled from their home and placed into the foster care system.
In the system, they constantly moved from one home to another. Under the stress of constant movement and losing her family, there was very little time for learning and fun.
Castleman recalls how she found comfort through imagination during this experience.
“My biological dad got me this big stuffed dog at a flea market that became my best friend,” Castleman said. “That dog was as good as real. It was more than a stuffed pet; it was family.”
The dog became her “family” and was with her through this traumatic and confusing process. Eventually, once she had found a home and a permanent family, the dog ended up being thrown away. To this day, she still remembers “Big Dog.”
“Kids in foster care can’t always take with them treasured toys and things precious to them,” Castleman explains. “It’s important to recognize that losing those things can be severely traumatizing, on top of all their other worries and traumas they are experiencing.”
For so many kids in the foster care system, the focus is not on stuffed animals. It’s not on books or imagination, games or stories. Finding the best home for the child becomes the pressing issue, and so many of the other vital elements can be overlooked.
“Kids need fun in their lives to offset some realities that can be anything but fun,” Castleman said.
The kids in foster care are left with much to cope with, which leaves their ability to enjoy fun activities as a crucial element. Having someone to trust and to guide them allows the children to focus on the positive experiences they deserve. A CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) is meant to be that trusting outlet.
“After speaking with many volunteers at the CASA conference, I saw the most dedicated, loving group of people who give their time, energy, and hearts to the kids they represent,” Castleman said.
In this way, the CASA Foundation strives not only to assist the children in the legal aspects of their experience in the system, but also to give them someone to trust. This provides extra room for growth and imagination.
With a mentor as a foundation, the child has the ability to look away for a moment and find something fun in their lives. Furthermore, a CASA often offers to bring some of these fun activities to the child.
This October, the Washoe CASA Foundation and Barnes & Noble created the Book-tober Fair to assist the Foundation and give a creative outlet to the children, both in and out of the foster care system.
Having written her own novel Sara Lost and Found, which shares Castleman’s understanding of the foster care system, Castleman offered her expertise in two writing workshops at this Book-tober Fair.
“I saw shy kids opening up, laughing, being silly and working both independently and together,” said Castleman. “I met a truly lovely family who had adopted two amazing kids, and had the joy of hearing their stories.”
Sometimes, beyond the rules and the training, it is important to remember that foster kids are just that: kids. While their situation offers them unique struggles, they strive for the same limitless imagination and fun that every child thrives in.
It’s not always easy to find the fun while they travel through this system. That is why it is so important for any type of mentor to bring the fun to these children.
The Book-tober Fair is a great example of how powerful it is to bring all types of kids together for simply fun activities.
“I know there have been a lot of situations where I have heard from kids through the years who say that they are teased, that they are bullied, that they’re misunderstood,” said Castleman. “I think [the Fair] shows kids who aren’t in the system that kids in all different situations can get together and have a good time.”
In the end, all kids need to be able to understand that everyone deserves the ability to enjoy fun and exploration.
“They need to know that adults like to play too,” said Castleman. “I don’t care what age they are; we all need to have more fun.”
Written by Caitlin Pupich, Washoe CASA Foundation Intern