How group is winning battle to get men enjoying serious fun with their children

Dad on a mission Simon Dalgleish enjoys a book with children Erin, Thomas, Holly and Tilly
Dad on a mission Simon Dalgleish enjoys a book with children Erin, Thomas, Holly and Tilly
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A long day at work followed by the inevitable battle through rush-hour traffic to get home.

With four young, excited children waiting for dad, the chances of Simon Dalgleish enjoying a relaxing and stress-free evening undisturbed in front the television were always going to be slim.

For some parents, the ideal solution may be to simply stick Peppa Pig on the television, Moshi Monsters on the PC and then retreat, content in the knowledge the kids are at least occupied.

But for Simon and a group of other fathers who have just completed a ground-breaking dads-only play scheme, these days after-work relaxation means rolling up the sleeves and building a den in the living room, reading and re-reading picture books and spending time on arts and crafts.

Dads On A Mission was launched earlier this year in South Queensferry in an attempt to both encourage busy fathers to enjoy more one-to-one time with their toddlers and to show them the benefits of play for all the family.

It used a series of missions – easy activities, reading exercises and games – which were unveiled each week along with orders that they be completed along with photographic “evidence” to prove the challenge had been met.

While it sounds like fun and games, at the heart of the idea was a plan to not only strengthen father-child bonds but to boost the youngsters’ development. For with each play mission designed to encourage a specific area of learning, child’s play with dad became a vital component in giving youngsters a head start.

The project was drawn up by Queensferry Early Years Centre staff following concern that its play sessions were overwhelmingly attended by mums.

However, it also came against a background of mounting concern over how little time and effort modern parents put into playing with their children. One study last year suggested it has become a “lost art”, with around a quarter of parents admitting they didn’t know how to play with their child.

For Simon, a senior marking consultant at Aegon, playing with his children wasn’t a chore, but finding the time while working a full-time job meant it wasn’t easy.

“I try to be a hands-on dad, but everyone who’s a parent knows how difficult it is to juggle work, home and kids – and we have four,” he says. “I have always tried to make as much effort as I can doing stuff, but the project showed how much more I could do, and how every bit of what we did together made a huge difference.”

Not only has being involved in the project encouraged him to spend even more time with three-year-old Thomas, it’s brought the whole family closer together.

“Some missions involved making things, like the den or a musical instrument. It was aimed at me and Thomas, but eventually everyone got involved – it turned into really good family time,” says Simon.

Organiser Irene Watson says the project, which last month won an Edinburgh City Council Achievement Award in recognition of its success, was drawn up in response to concerns that working dads in particular might be missing the vital role play has in their child’s development.

“We run play sessions and parents would come along with their children,” she explains, “but while we saw some dads, there weren’t that many. In fact, there was a notable absence. We know dads want to play with their children but that it’s difficult. So we came up with this.”

Staff designed the dads-only fun challenges to ensure they would not only help develop the child’s early communication and literacy skills, but provide a vital bonding experience that could last for life.

The initial group of 13 dads – including Simon – was assigned “secret agent” numbers and each weekly task was accompanied by an explanation of how and why it could help boost their child’s development, with tips on how to make it even more fun or informative.

Turning it into a game kept everyone interested and determined to rise to the challenge set, says Simon, 43, who lives with wife Diane, 41, an investment administrator, in Scotstoun Green.

“There was a bit of competition too, I don’t think anyone wanted to ‘fail’ the mission,” he says.

As there was an air of excitement generated with every new task, the family’s daughters, Holly, ten, Erin, seven and Tilly, six, all joined in. “I signed up without really knowing much about what I’d signed up for,” adds Simon. “When I found out I was being set weekly tasks there was an ‘oh my goodness, what have I done?’ moment. I’ve got a full-time job, family and so on. I did ask myself what I’d let myself in for.” His first set of orders involved spending around an hour once or twice over the course of a week just reading to Thomas. “To be honest, spending that much time reading wasn’t something I’d normally do because there isn’t much spare time in our house. But because I had the challenge, I made sure I did it.”

He broke the mission into small 15-minute chunks and rather than read the same book endlessly, he used it to play word games with Thomas. “You don’t want to read the same book over and over again, you’d go a bit mad,” he adds, “so sometimes I’d get Thomas to tell the story or try to remember what happens next.

“It was really good one-on-one time. It really helped created a different relationship between us.”

Offshore worker Alan Yule works two weeks on, three weeks off, which means he’s often looking after the children at home in Echline, South Queensferry, while wife Ceri works part-time as an accountant.

Even he admits that the Dads On A Mission project changed his attitude to playing with sons James, five and Joshua, 18 months.

“I felt I spent plenty of time with them, but the project gave structure to how we spent that time. You remember more about your day, there’s a record kept of what you’ve done and, if part of the challenge was to make something, you’ve something to show for it all,” he says. “It forced you to take what you do with your kids seriously and make more of it. And it’s given us some really good ideas for play time.”

He adds: “I think most dads try to be hands-on and probably would like to do more with their children but haven’t got the luxury that I have of being around so much. They’re working all day, overtime at weekends and they end up trying to squeeze things in.

“But some guys I spoke to on Dads On A Mission said this disciplined them and made them find time, because it is important.”

The Dads On A Mission scheme follows the Scottish Government’s Early Years, Play, Talk, Read project which aims to encourage both mums and dads to do what many might have thought would come naturally – play with their children.

However, research last year from child therapist and psychologist Professor Tanya Byron, whose television work includes Little Angels and The House of Tiny Tearaways, said 21 per cent of parents asked no longer remember how to play and confessed they struggled to engage their children in creative and imaginative activities to aid their development.

Sadly, the study also showed that one in ten of the 2000 five to 15-year-olds questioned knew their parents’ response to family playtimes was that they are “dull and a waste of time”.

Yet researchers point to the benefits of playing even the simplest of games. Last week, Stirling University announced findings from a study which suggested that parents who interact, play and even just joke most with their toddlers give them a head start.

“Parents, carers and early-years educators shouldn’t underestimate the importance of interacting with young children through jokes and pretending,” researcher Dr Elena Hoicka said. “Spending time doing this fun stuff with kids helps them learn how to do it themselves and gives them a set of skills that are important in childhood and beyond.”

Playtime

So, have we forgotten how to play with our kids? And is a world of gadgets and expensive toys taken the place of good old-fashioned parenting?

Seventy-five per cent per cent of brain growth takes place during in the first three years of a child’s life, while two-year-olds who are regularly read to and take part in activities like art and singing often develop better problem-solving skills and have better language development. But pressure on parents’ time, an influx of distracting gadgets in the home – from smartphones to laptops – and endless toys means many children miss out on the vital ingredient, attention from their parents.

The Scottish Government launched its nationwide Play, Talk, Read campaign two years ago aimed at reversing the trend and teaching parents and carers of the benefits of playtime.

Education secretary Fiona Hyslop said the aim was to encourage parents to lay down building blocks for their children’s future without the need for expensive toys or gadgets. “It’s simple time and attention that makes all the difference,” she added.

The project, which includes roadshows, a website and advertising campaign, was extended this summer.