Developing ways to engage fathers more in the early life of their child is a key aim of the 'Healthy Lives, Brighter Futures' strategy (Analysis, 26 February). It is hoped that the greater involvement of fathers will lead to improved life chances for children.
To this end, children's centres are to receive greater support in how to engage fathers in their services, an area that has already been addressed at Gloucester Nursery School and Children's Centre in Northampton. Not just fathers but all the men who play a vital part in the lives of the children attending the centre are being actively welcomed into the setting through the introduction of regular 'FUDGE' days - for Fathers, Uncles, Dads, Grandads, Etc.
FUDGE was devised when staff looked at the demographics of the families attending the centre and realised that they were inadvertently excluding some men from sessions. Children's centre co-ordinator Kerry Wright says, 'Some children have no fathers because of bereavement, whereas other fathers have not had any input into their children's lives. This did not mean the children were not close to male family members.
'We have so many different kinds of family units, which made us want to broaden our focus and make sure that the children could welcome positive male role models into the centre. As well as fathers we wanted to include those grandfathers, uncles or cousins who play an important part in the children's lives even though they do not necessarily live with them.'
The FUDGE days are an opportunity for these key men to have fun with their children, from babies to eight-year-olds, at the children's centre. They are held every six weeks on Saturday mornings from 10am to 12.30pm, with hopes to extend this time in the summer. Each day is planned around a different central theme, such as healthy eating, where everyone cooked soup and made picture recipe cards so they could re- create their dishes at home.
'Some of the fathers only see their children at the weekend. They've told us that they would often not know what to do and would do things like go to McDonald's, walk the streets or go to the park. Mums get plenty of times to meet other mothers. Here fathers have the opportunity to meet other males. They can bond, have a chat about their kids and talk about the rugby,' says Ms Wright.
The days are advertised in the nursery and at outreach projects in the local community, with the aim of also targeting vulnerable families. The female-dominated workforce wanted to make sure they captured men's attention with the promotion, so Ms Wright consulted her partner, who is a designer. He has devised eye-catching posters for all the sessions, ranging from a dancing Father Christmas for their festive fun day to an image of a child in combat clothes for the personal trainer day.
The days have proved popular, with around 30 men attending with children. 'There is a fantastic turnout and we have the space for it. It is great to be able to utilise the centre at weekends,' Ms Wright says.
'We want to put the ownership of the day on to the men, and show them that we value their contribution. So we encourage them to put ideas on a board because it is their day. We facilitate it, but we want their input into the children's play. We did the personal trainer day because we were asked to provide an assault course and football skills. We have been asked for more healthy cooking too.'
Children are also consulted by filling in evaluation forms or taking photographs of what they like. Staff gauged that many of the men enjoyed an element of competition, so in one session they were challenged to design 'banana cars' which they then raced down a ramp.
Along with the set theme, the adults and children are able to enjoy the centre's facilities, including a fantastic outdoor area. 'One granddad absolutely loved making a den with his grandson. He said it brought back childhood memories,' recalls Ms Wright. 'Many of the men enjoy playing on the climbing frames with their children and are really hands-on.'
The three FUDGE days have already had many positive impacts for the people who attended. They have encouraged men to interact with the children and it is hoped that it will get them involved in their children's education when they start at school.
The days have also enabled like-minded men to form friendships and have given them the confidence to enter an environment that may have previously been considered 'female territory'. It has been noted that more men are now signing up for courses, and two men have started attending the Tinies baby group.
'One of the parents has told us that he is now more confident in what he does with the children when he has access,' says Ms Wright. 'He has different ideas of activities and feels confident to go out and play with the children without feeling that he is being watched. He now knows how to play with them and doesn't feel judged.'
Healthy Lives, Brighter Futures - the strategy for children and young people's health is at: www.dh.gov.uk/en/Publicationsand statistics/Publications/PublicationsPolicy AndGuidance/DH_094400