Case study: Identifying barriers to dads’ engagement at Three Trees Children’s Centre, London

15 December 2010

Three Trees Children’s Centre is a relatively new Centre, which opened in January 2009, in Queen’s Park, London. The centre is still in the process of developing a fully integrated approach to involving fathers. As a Children’s Centre it does not offer day places, and there are no children on site without a parent or a carer. The emphasis is on providing services to support to children under 5 and their families.

Pat Wharton is Deputy Centre Manager and the key person responsible for working with fathers at the Centre. Pat attended an accredited training course delivered by the Fatherhood Institute, based around working with fathers and working towards creating a father-inclusive environment. As she explains, she has strong personal reasons for having a deep commitment to increasing the involvement of fathers:  “I was raised by my dad as a single parent, at a time when that was very unusual – so on an individual level, my experiences growing up only served to highlight the importance of a father’s role. So I’m very passionate about passing that message on, and learning how best to make it count.”

The training, which took place in a nearby Children’s Centre, involved 15-20 Children’s Centre staff (of whom, Pat recalls, all but one were female), and was a highly interactive blend of discussion, group work and role plays. At the end of the training all of those attending had to produce a portfolio detailing their own centres, the work they’d done around fathers, and what they planned to do in the future. Once back at the centre Pat shared the knowledge gained with the rest of the staff, feeding back the training so that the ideas involved would play an integrated part in future staff planning meetings, thus impacting upon all of the plans they made. 

Naming the barriers – and overcoming them

The main impact of the training on Three Trees was in helping them to both identify barriers to fathers accessing their services, and devise ways around these barriers. Barriers to Fathers attending the centre with their children included:

Preconception – Too often, fathers are of the opinion that places where children go are for mothers only – and often, that is in fact the case.

Availability – If fathers are working, or attending training, they may not be able to attend the centre during ‘traditional’ opening hours.

Awareness – Fathers often aren’t aware of the services that are available, such as the father who said to Pat, on the subject of child care, “That’s her world”. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that mothers tend to be the ‘gatekeepers’. A lot of the information around children tends to be delivered via mothers, particularly in the early years, making it problematic for fathers to access it.

Environment –  Most Children’s Centres are mainly, if not solely, populated by female staff and attended, traditionally, by female carers. Ally this to the decor – frequently walls painted pink and decorated with pictures of breastfeeding mothers – and you have an environment which is not conducive to attracting fathers.

Negative stereotypes – Pat cites a recent advertisement featuring a father changing a baby, only for the baby to end up wearing a tea-towel instead of a nappy, as symptomatic of the stereotypes which discourage fathers from getting fully involved.

Advertising/media – Centres such as Three Trees traditionally advertise ‘Coffee Mornings’ or ‘Stay and Play’ sessions. Whilst mothers will be happy to come along for a chat and a coffee, fathers often want something a bit more specific and focussed,  that will be of direct benefit to them.

Attitude –  As Pat explains, the training helped to underline the truth that change can sometimes be as subtle as a slight altering of attitude:  “It’s sometimes just about being mindful ;  if a man arrives at a centre with a baby we tend to rush over to help them, whereas, with a mum, we’d leave her to get on with it. And that’s really just subconscious . It’s about being able to support without being patronising and taking over.”

Having taken these issues on board, Nicky Case, Centre Manager initially organised a consultation involving both mums and dads, based on the realisation that many mums didn’t think the dads would be willing or even able to take advantage of what was being offered on their own. This first consultation took the form of a Family Breakfast held on Father’s Day as a celebration of fatherhood.

This format underlined another problem – when mums are around it’s often harder for dads to do anything without the mum ‘hovering’, as if fearful that they might drop the baby. An example of this came in the person of one particular dad who, in the first mixed session, nodded mutely as mum answered all the questions for him. Thus the mums, who are as keen as anyone for dads to play their part, can unwittingly make it more difficult.

Starting off with a dads-only session

Having consulted, Pat set about arranging dad-only sessions on Saturday mornings, between 10 and 12, with the invitations sent out directly to the dads themselves. The fact that the sessions were for dads only meant that the dads felt more relaxed interacting with both their children and the other dads – if they wished to discuss personal issues involving their relationships, for example, they could do so confidentially and without fear of causing upset.

The environment of the centre was made more dad friendly by taking photographs of the dads and children attending the centre and displaying them on the walls. Having persuaded the dads to attend the centre, the desire for a male friendly environment meant that each session was given a specific theme – Dads First Aid/Dads Pottery Session/Dads Photography Session etc, with a group trip to the zoo planned for the future.

Since the Saturday sessions were amended, post training, the numbers attending have risen from four or five to fifteen or sixteen. Some dads like to be reminded via text or email, but for many the date is fixed in their diary – the same Saturday, same time, same place every month.

For the future, Pat is planning a Fathers’ Information Day, a day when organisations who wish to work specifically with dads can all come down together, allowing dads easy access to the help and information that’s out there. Longer term, and funding permitting, she feels the centre should employ a male facilitator, as experience has taught her that dads may more easily relax and open up around other men, particularly fellow dads.

Read more about our Working with fathers in early years and children’s centres course.

Our new Dads Included Toolkit for developing father-inclusive services – available in the Shop from January 2011 – features lots of great ideas to help you work towards a more father-inclusive service.