Bringing Fathers Together

I was working as a community development facilitator in a project that aimed to bring families together and connect them with school and community services; the goal was to help prepare children to achieve at school. The project was based in a primary school with a diverse, largely migrant and refugee population and mostly attracted mothers. Fathers would sometimes turn up, but they never sustained their involvement.

Then I learned of an approach the Family Action Centre at Newcastle University (in New South Wales, Australia) used for involving working-class and Aboriginal fathers. They engaged the children by offering a Play Night, and then the children would bring their fathers (uncles, grandfathers) along. After learning about that, for ten years I ran “Kids’ and Dads’ Play Nights” in several schools in Western Sydney (New South Wales). Other schools picked up the idea, and we are now building teams to run the events in inner-city schools. Because many children don’t have fathers at home, some of them invite other male mentors. Thus we have changed the name of the play night to “Kids’ and Blokes’ Playzone.” This is how it works:

After hearing about the event in class, each child takes home a letter of invitation, signed by him or her. A return slip is sent back to the school if the child and his or her father (or ally) is planning to come. The children’s anticipation of an evening of play helps get the fathers (allies) to attend.

On the play night, the children turn up with their dad (or ally) for a two-and-a-half-hour gathering in the school hall. Team members welcome the families as they arrive and get them playing with beanbags and balls. Then we do a short welcome, identify the team members, talk about how to make the play go well, and go over the schedule for the evening.

After that, a facilitator runs play activities for up to an hour. We encourage people to make some new friends. We talk about the importance of having fun in the play. We say that children like a challenge but that they also love it when they get to beat grown-ups and that this kind of play builds confidence and resilience. Some of the activities involve the child and father (or ally) working together—like the “Dress-up Relay,” in which each child gets to dress his or her father (ally) in funny gear and race children on the other team in doing the same.

The children get very animated, so it helps to have a grounding activity before dinner. One that has worked well is a short, guided shoulder massage in which the men give a massage to their children and vice versa.

After dinner the fathers (allies) leave for a separate meeting, and the children have ice cream and play some more with team members. In the fathers’ (allies’) meeting, a facilitator appreciates the men for making the effort and taking the time to come, draws attention to the young people’s enthusiasm for the playtime, and says that this part of the evening is for the men to think and talk with each other about their relationships with their children. Then there’s a warm-up activity in which they each share with the man next to them a memory of their own father. The turns aren’t timed, though when I facilitate I usually ask them to take about six minutes each. After that, I open up space for them to share their reflections with the others. I usually ask a few questions: What do you want in this important relationship? What would you like to hear from others here? Occasionally I add information if it’s relevant to the sharing or steer the conversation back to their relationships with their children if it starts to go off track.

The men talk about being “time poor” and how the expectations on them are different from those on their own fathers. They talk about the playing they do with their children, how they share parenting decisions with partners, and their challenges with discipline. Some of them talk about having considerable struggles in their parenting. There is little advice-giving. They seem to appreciate and be helped by having the space to talk and by hearing from each other. Some of them don’t say much but look completely focused on the discussion.

Play in community with a supportive team breaks down isolation. It is active, and though many of the men are shy when they arrive, they manage to get involved in it with a little structure and support. Men who have little English can take part. That the evening begins with “hands on” play in a supportive setting contributes to “talking real.” Sometimes the men joke about talking so openly and personally “without a beer.” At the end of the evening when they rejoin the children, they are often intently engaged with each other and slow to leave. And the children show increased connection by climbing on their fathers’ (or allies’) shoulders or swinging on their arms.

The men often say they would like to meet more often. They have stopped me in the street to tell me what a good program it is. One rearranged his work schedule to be able to attend. Some have told me that they call on each other to pick up their children when they can’t make it to school on time. Some have asked for assistance with difficulties with their children.

We hear from mothers that the get-togethers have a good effect. The young people are keen to come. Some of the men tell how their children ring them up at work on the day of the play night to say, “Don’t be late home,” or put out the clothes their fathers have to wear. School principals are pleased to see the men at school. Students and community workers who are part of the team find the events interesting and enjoyable.

Sandy Wilder
Moruya, New South Wales, Australia
Reprinted from the RC e-mail
discussion list for leaders of parents

1 “Turn up” means come.
2 “Blokes” is a friendly term for men.
3 “Beat” means prevail over.
4 “Take part” means participate.
5 “Make it” means get.
6 “Ring them up” means call them on the telephone


Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00