Playgroups spring up to give dads much-needed time with kids

A father plays with his daughter in a ball pool

A father plays with his daughter in a ball pool

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THE noise is the first thing that hits you. Kids are yelling, playing guitars, singing songs, digging in sand, gradually emptying the ball pool . . .

it’s like any other loud and frenetic playgroup. Except there’s something missing at this toddler get-together: mothers.

Michal Rusak with daughter Wiktoria, David Lee with Saya and Filip Stepien with Jessica

Michal Rusak with daughter Wiktoria, David Lee with Saya and Filip Stepien with Jessica

There are no mums at the Prentice Centre playgroup in Granton on a Saturday morning – or at a similar one in Sighthill. These are play times for dads and their kids only. And, apparently, they rock.

Set up by two fairly-new fathers, Dads Rock is an organisation which has launched Edinburgh’s first and only free playgroups for babies to five-year-olds aimed at giving dads a place to take their kids for a few hours for some vital bonding time – as well as a couple of free hours to mums so they don’t have to pretend delight at stale walnut loaf washed down with awful coffee, while having to sympathise with a woman whose name they’ve long forgotten, about her children who seem intent on destroying the light fittings of the church hall. The dads get to do it instead.

Except, in the best traditions of 
fatherhood, these new groups are more about sound and fury than tea and biscuits. And you’re unlikely to find a mother-and-toddlers group which ends with a collective rendition of the Queen anthem “We Will Rock You”.

“That’s my fault,” laughs David Marshall, one of the Dads Rock founders. “I am a huge Queen fan ... but it’s not compulsory, though the kids all seem to enjoy it . . . at least I think they do.”

Colm Borthwick with son James

Colm Borthwick with son James

Marshall, along with his friend Thomas Lynch, launched Dads Rock in February with an idea that dads needed to be catered for when it came to having somewhere to take their kids – where they wouldn’t be looked at strangely for not having a set of ovaries. Nine months on that playgroup at Sighthill has proved overwhelmingly successful with around 28 dads every weekend, which has spawned a second group in Granton, as well as a photographic exhibition, In Dad’s Shoes, which was shown at the Scottish Parliament. “It’s taken us a bit by surprise, how popular it’s all been,” says David. “I think a lot of time men are written out of the whole equation when it comes to parenting. The focus is on the mums and the babies, quite rightly, but our lives change dramatically too and there’s a lot of expectation around what you should do as a dad. There are not many people to ask, so we though let’s have a dads only playgroup, so that we can meet other dads and share our experiences and ask the stupid questions without embarrassment.

“We’ve had dads come from Fife, from the Borders and throughout 
Edinburgh of course . . . it’s been amazing.”

David, 33, from Parkhead – who has openly admitted to suffering from post-natal depression when his daughter Freya was born three years ago – says that for many men, a more traditional playgroup set up can prove difficult. “Going in and seeing predominantly mums, who can become a bit cliquey, you do feel the odd one out and as if they’re looking at you. I think it all goes back to being cavemen. Men aren’t seen as the child carers, it’s always women.

“So these days if you show an interest in your kids, take them out by yourself or even want to work with kids, there are some who will automatically think you must be gay or a child molester. It’s a very strange attitude, and it leaves many dads in a quandary about what to do, or where to go. So now they can come to us.

“And as it’s a Saturday morning it’s a good time to get dads out the house to spend time with their child. It’s also for all dads – there are plenty of single parents who are dads who need a bit of company and support too.”

Marshall’s partner in Dads Rock is Lynch, a human resources manager with Lloyds and dad to four-year-old Lewis, who is currently overseeing the Granton playgroup – the pair are on fortnightly rotations at the two centres. “When dads come along they can expect a lot of noise,” he says. “It all kicks off at 10am and there’s about 15 minutes of free play, then we get the musical instruments out and all the art stuff, and there’s a ball pool, and the dads can do what they like.

“Some just want to play their kids others want to talk to other dads – it wasn’t long after we started that we got questions about nappy rash, I think men find it easier asking other men. There’s also a healthy snack and storytime, and then it all ends with the song at 11.30. It’s 90 minutes of good fun chaos.”

The 38-year-old from Drumbrae adds: “It’s also good for mums to get a break from taking the kids to playgroups and soft plays, to give them a bit of time to themselves. One of the dads at Granton told me he only heard about us because his wife had told him to come with the kids. But most dads say they want to come because it gives them some time on their own with their children, and mostly because it’s just for dads and they won’t feel they’re being judged by the mothers of other children.”

The very fact that there’s demand for dads-only groups seems to reflect a change from the Victorian idea of fatherhood – no tears, no cuddles, and certainly no nappy changing – to the present day where dads are expected to shun the pub for playdough and potty training. Yet despite more emphasis being placed on a fathers’ role, still most are reluctant to show up at places where mums rule.

“Things aren’t really set up for dads,” explains Thomas. “Even nappy changing facilities in shops tend to be in the ladies’ toilets. There’s a misconception in society about dads’ involvement with their children. I remember my own experience of feeling ignored by the NHS and pushed to one side when Lewis was being born. Of course the focus should be on the mother and child, but dads do want to be involved.

“There’s almost been a stigma attached to men who were interested in their kids in the past, but that is changing. There’s even a push by the Scottish and Westminster goverments to get more men into childcare.”

In fact David is now studying for a National Certificate in childcare at Edinburgh College – the same place where the pair hope to expand the Dads Rock concept. “We’re talking about a Dads Rock Academy with the old Stevenson College for kids from five to 14 which would give kids free music tuition for a year – so we might get a few Queen numbers in there too,” laughs David.

Thomas adds: “And we’re thinking of a dads ante-natal group. But we’re not against mums – we love them. It’s just that there are lots of playgroups out there for mums, run by mums, but this is for dads, run by dads.”

• For more information on Dads Rock visit www.dadsrockblogspot.com.

Support waiting in the wings

IT sometimes seems that whenever dads are in the news it’s for all the wrong reasons.

In fact, it can be incredibly hard for men to find good examples of fatherhood represented in the media, which is why support groups are sprouting up all over the country.

Families Need Fathers is one such organisation which runs dads’ groups in Edinburgh. It offers information, advice and support services for dads on how to do the best for their children. It also lobbies for changed legal and social attitudes towards dads to ensure they are seen as equal parents. Other groups are less political. DadsChat is a new group which meets at the PYCP building on West Pilton Place to give dads an opportunity to meet others and share their experiences of fatherhood. A similar group, Porty Dads, was set up to get dads together so they could get to know others in the community.

Then there’s DadsWork in Musselburgh, which provides support groups as well as trips and outing for fathers and their kids.

And Fathers Network Scotland is a collection of professionals, dads and individuals interested in fatherhood who have come together to help support men in their role.