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Small Steps: supporting engaged fatherhood

Small Steps...


Being a report from the frontline of work supporting engaged fatherhood, with some interesting asides around more general father work and the services we offer.

Partway through the session it struck me. I looked around the room. Over there in the soft play area X was playing and building towers and then tunnels to knock over and wriggle through chuckling as he did so. In the "baby area" Y was entranced by the Rain stick alternately turning it over to hear the pit-pat-pitter noise and then shaking it furiously to watch the coloured beads fly around inside the tube. Over him his dad was sharing stories with another about Y's favourite activities.

In the middle of the room Z was on her eighth trip down the mini-slide and ready to head around for her next go. She was gently and ably guided and supported by her dad in the turn taking process of joining the short queue to wait for her next turn.

The difference here today was that the room was full of men - dads and their children playing, chatting and actively engaging with their under -fives and with each other. In Early Years settings men are most usually noticeable by their absence and so this felt different but good. If I had noticed this then surely the children with their keen sense of exploring the world around them and gender roles within that world had noticed it too. How different must this be for them?

By way of contrast I recently attended the local EMAS conference and although there were other men around (one of the stalls was being staffed by a man and there were a number of male caterers) when I entered the actual conference hall proper I was the lone male presence in a room of a hundred or so people. The conference itself was an excellent exploration of the experience of mixed race children in our groups along with storytelling and inclusion but as is so often the case in Early Years - and ironically for a conference focussing on equalities - where were all the men?

Back in the session I walked through to the other playroom where A was going up the small step bridge and calling to her dad each time she did so, he smiled and clapped at her achievements. Eighteen month old B wandered past me taking a moment out to lean on my leg and get his breath back - he was off to the small outdoor space to investigate the buggy that had just been abandoned by another child. As he moved on B's dad followed, but not too closely, and we shared the observation of how well B was doing and how independent he was being, given that when he had entered the group B had clung to dad. "He's really enjoying it, I never thought he'd do this!" said his dad.

I glanced over to the home area and C was offering his dad another pretend breakfast - his fourth in a row. This time dad wanted apple juice instead of a cup of tea.

This was the scene at the most recent Saturday morning Dads group at a local children's centre. It is open to any dad or male carer and their children aged under five. The group was initiated by the centre's Fathers Involvement Worker and she has been running it once a month for the last seven months or so with another worker and myself present as an Early Years Professional and male member of the team (although interestingly some of the attending dads initially assume I am there as a father and not as a worker - "which one is yours?" I was recently asked - underlining the importance of having male Early Years workers as part of a mixed team.

Alongside the group the centre's café is open allowing dads to get food and drink and free fruit snacks are provided there for the children. The café tables also have a scattering of positive dad images and cards with pictures, quotes or information on as thinking and talking points for the dads and children.

Also present in the building and open for the dads sessions is a Toy Library. In June 2007 Play Matters published a report by Capacity (a "Children's services think-tank") that recommended that all children's centres should include a toy library as part of their core service because of their non-stigmatising ability to involve and support families through play. One of the main strengths of toy libraries being in their outreach to the most disadvantaged families. Sadly all too few Children's centres currently do include a toy library.

We are particularly fortunate that this is the Early Childhood Project toy library which has a focus on equalities and anti-bias issues and has a number of books and resources that support the role of male carers as well as resources to support and explore a range of issues with young children.

The Early Childhood Project is an independent registered charity set up in 1988 that runs a toy library as well as providing "information resources and support to all those people involved with young children's play, care and education at work and at home." They are currently adding the finishing touches to their revamped walk in toy library based in the Tarner Children's Centre in Brighton. Alongside this they are commissioned to run outreach toy library and equalities play sessions at other children's centres and venues around Brighton and Hove. The Early Childhood Project also offers a range of support and training including bereavement support with age appropriate resources for families experiencing grief and loss and support and information for professionals working with those families. They also have a remarkable record of work around raising awareness and exploring issues of gender and of support for the positive role men have in children's lives (both as parents / carers and as workers).

At the session one of the dads attending for the first time took the opportunity to ask if I had "any advice about biting" as his nineteen month old son was giving his older sister a hard time. We chatted about this and some possible strategies for moving forward and I was then able to direct him to the Early Childhood Project Playworker for a copy of the book "Teeth Are Not for Biting" that he duly borrowed to take away and share at home.

The group has a very relaxed and informal atmosphere and at some point in the two hour session we come together to sing a few songs and rhymes (most of us that is - one or two of the children use this as an opportunity to have access to resources whilst others are occupied!). The Fathers Involvement worker also uses this circle time as an opportunity to pass on any general information about the group, to point out the toy library and introduce any guest attendees for that session (these have included someone from the library service advertising their own baby boogie sessions for dads which take place on different Saturdays and a local student test running information packs for dads on how they can best support mums in breastfeeding, amongst others).

The most recent research into fatherhood (conducted by Daniel Nettles at the University of Newcastle and made public in late 2008) has clearly shown the value of engaged fatherhood. It establishes a clear link between father involvement and higher child IQ up to age 11 (thus extending the time-frame from earlier studies which found clear positive influence at earlier ages). It also finds that when dads living in two-parent families spend very little time engaging with their children the impact on the child is as low as that of totally absent fathers! This is a clear message to encourage and help fathers in their role and this drop in group is actively supporting and promoting that vision of engagement. This message is backed up by the use of positive images and resources which convey the idea to not only the fathers themselves but to the children, other centre users and other staff within the setting. Some very good posters and photo packs are available from the Fatherhood Institute.

As the title of this piece suggests these are only small steps, we are just beginning in this work; there are very few precedents for successful and long lasting groups aimed specifically at fathers and we are finding our way as we go. Importantly though this group is not happening in complete isolation. There are a number of other initiatives happening around Brighton and Hove to support, promote and extend work with fathers. These include Fathers Involvement workers - now in place in two of the City's Children Centres. There are also the aforementioned Dads Baby Boogie sessions that take place in the city Library. A new monthly evening support group for dads to attend (without children this time) is also about to start where dads can meet up, seek (and) support, be signposted to relevant agencies and groups (where they exist) or just come to share experiences and to chat and listen. There are now some Triple P (positive parenting) courses being run locally just for dads.

Importantly there are also regular, co-ordinated networking meetings for professionals working (or aiming to work) with fathers. These enable workers to know what is already in place and to share experiences and ideas of what works successfully in practice and to highlight possible areas for development. Those attending these meetings so far have included Under-fives workers, children centre staff, Youth offending team workers, Out of School workers, Home Education Co-ordinators, social workers and others). The meetings that have already happened have been buzzing with ideas, enthusiasm and lots of support for direct work with fathers. The next steps are to be a "brand identity" ("Men Behaving Dadly") for work with fathers across the city, a localised version of the fantastic "Dad Pack" produced a few years ago by the Fatherhood Institute and a large launch party / publicity event to celebrate fathers and fatherhood.

Back at our Saturday morning Dads group we are now getting a core of regular attendees and at the most recent session one of the children was unable to come with his dad and so had brought along his Uncle - who was initially reticent but ended up enjoying the session being ably assisted and settled in by the child who is now an "old hand" at the drop in.

Word of the group is also spreading. Our youngest attendee to date was a baby of just four-and-a-half weeks. She came along with her dad who had been given a leaflet about the group whilst attending ante natal classes. I particularly like this example because it not only shows joined up working of services but also highlights how supporting and working directly with fathers is also supporting mothers - mum was at home having her first proper break whilst Dad and daughter were attending the drop in. Research has also shown the benefits of early engagement with fathers to support their care giving; it can boost levels of confidence and build skills.

One of the other workers in the group has also noted two differences as she sees it between this group and some of the other mainly female groups she has been involved in. The first is the predominance of lower voices at the song time due obviously to it being a room full of dads (again though something the children must surely notice). The other is that she feels the dads are more directly engaged in playing and interacting with their children whilst in the group than some of the mums in other groups who use it as time for them (and the children) to socialise. This is in no way meant as a criticism of either group but is also reflected by comments made by some of the dads one of whom clearly stated that "this is my time - I'm at work all week and I find it fascinating to see him develop."

So are there any downsides or drawbacks to all of this? For some of the dads attending the groups are too infrequent. Some would prefer weekly to the current monthly sessions. This would obviously have repercussions for staffing costs and practices, many workers are simply not contracted to work at weekends and / or have other commitments.

Overall though the reception to this group has been overwhelmingly positive and it looks like being around for a good while yet. During the most recent session we had to search for a plastic wallet for a dad so that he could safely transport his daughters "first ever piece of artwork" home to share with mum. Then as we were clearing up and the dads and children were leaving two of the fathers who hadn't known each other before the session but whose children had played together were swapping mobile phone numbers eagerly arranging to meet up at the Baby Boogie session the following weekend.

Small steps indeed but hopefully leading to bigger and more confident movements in the future.

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