Playing with our kids is not only fun, but crucial for strong families. NICK THORPE hears how one pioneering organisation has engaged dads as well as mums in building strong bonds with their children.
“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation,” the philosopher Plato once said. And when that person is your child, the benefits can transform your whole family.
That’s the message from dads and practitioners at the innovative Just Play project. The early intervention partnership between Police Scotland and Angus Council was shortlisted for this week’s 2015 Safer Communities Awards after using play sessions to build attachment and parenting confidence in at-risk families.
“Play can involve the whole family and is interactive and covers all styles of learning,” explains Just Play practitioner Lee Crosby. “The emphasis on having fun helps to build relationships between everyone involved.”
For 27-year-old James Davidson, being in the project’s dads groups proved a lifeline when he gained custody of his infant son Haiden following social work involvement with his ex-partner. “I’ve heard of a lot of situations where kids have ended up staying with their mothers,” he explains. “But in our situation my son would be in care.”
Initially isolated after giving up his labouring job to be two-year-old Haiden’s full-time carer, James found huge support when he joined a weekly Monday dads group and Thursday sports group set up for fathers across the region.
“It’s really good to meet other dads going through the same situation,” he says. “Haiden has met other kids and it’s a really good start for him going to playgroup and nursery. Now he’ll know how to interact.”
Practitioner Lee Crosby helped set up the single gender groups after noticing that dads sometimes seemed reticent in mixed parenting groups. Some of the best friendships have come from the sports group, funded by the Commonwealth Fund, which involves sharing a minibus to trampolining, swimming or football.
“We thought there might be an issue because of the time it takes to drive between Forfar, Brechin and Arbroath picking up dads from across the region,” says Crosby, who regularly makes the 3-hour round trip. “But it’s turned out to be really important in the social side of things, because they’re forced into close proximity, and it’s turned them into a close-knit group.”
The Just Play scheme works with families who have had some police involvement, referring them to regular play sessions before problems escalate. The saving in a single year to statutory and other legal services which might otherwise have been involved with Just Play’s client group has been estimated at £2.7million.
The project has been running in Arbroath since 2012 and branched out across Angus the following year. Initially funded as a pilot by the Scottish Government’s CashBack for Communities programme – which uses funds recovered from the proceeds of crime – it secured three years’ Big Lottery funding last June.
“The focus in Just Play is on the child,” stresses Crosby, who joined the service last October. “The most important period in the child’s involvement is between 0 and 3, so we work one-to-one and in group situations for those with a bit more confidence – and more recently we’ve started doing the sports groups too.”
While he works with both parents, Crosby has particularly enjoyed his special remit with dads. “A lot of people say that dads are hard to engage with, but to be honest we’ve not really found that. We’ve had no drop off rate at all in our groups.”
He’s noticed that after a couple of weeks of taking the minibus to sports group, the children started asking to sit together, and their dads are now firm friends. “We’re not asking them to do backwards somersaults or anything, we’re encouraging them to get on the trampolines with the children – and they love it.”
“It’s been a magical group,” agrees James. “If you’ve got any problems they help you with it. And I’m loving being a dad, it’s just brilliant. Everyone told me it would be hard but I’ve actually found it easier than I expected.”
And his message for other dads? “Every dad should be involved in their children’s growing up. Why would you not be? It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done.”
For more information contact Jill Waldie, Just Play Co-ordinator, on 01241 435018 or firstname.lastname@example.org