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Where are all the men?

Making our toddler groups more welcoming towards men

Jo Jones and Clive Barber from Eagle’s Nest Church, Nottingham share how they consciously set about creating a male-friendly culture in their playgroup.

Jo says: There’s nothing more estrogen fuelled than song time at playgroup.

I remember sitting in a library singing session as we hit the crescendo of ‘Five little ducks went swimming one day’. I noticed a dad squashed down in the corner near me. He was the only man there and, although his mouth was moving, no sound was coming out. I didn’t blame him though – I wouldn’t choose to be the only baritone in a sea of descants.

Fast forward from that scene and we’ve been running Fledglings baby and toddler group for a couple of years now. Within our crowd we have a fair percentage of dads and grandads; around 15 in a group of 70.

We also have a guy on the team, called Clive. I asked him what it is like being male in what can be a predominantly female environment.

Did you have any worries about being a male at a playgroup?

Yes. There’s so much negative publicity around men these days that you have to be more mindful around women and children than ever before. I did share my concerns initially as I thought that it would feel awkward approaching one of the mums for a chat. I hope that now they’ve seen me regularly over the weeks that I’m just one of the team now.

As a bloke what is the ideal playgroup experience for you?

My ideal would be to play with the kids. I have two lovely grandsons myself and think nothing of making myself look silly if it entertains them. I think that it’s also good for the kids to have a man on the playgroup team to interact with.

What do you think playgroups can do to be more male friendly?

I definitely think that having a man on the team helps, but it’s also important not to come across as patronising – it is far too easy to make a male carer feel less capable simply because they’re a man by avoiding, ignoring or bypassing them. Having the changing table in a unisex toilet helps too, as does being inclusive with language from the front and in any publicity materials.

Men in general may not interact as well as women in a playgroup setting, as women can usually find something in common to talk about through their children. The stereotypical view of men is that they just want to talk about football, cars and beer, but it’s about the children so that’s where the start of any conversation should come from.

I think it’s important not to make assumptions, especially with the younger men, such as: they haven’t got a job, don’t really want to be there or want to be left alone. From experience I know that as a male parent/carer at playgroup you can be self-conscious and feel awkward. Occasionally male carers are only there as a ‘one-off’, so it can feel like the effort to get to know them isn’t there to the same degree.

Helpful principles

Here are a few of the principles that we apply to all our group members, but can particularly apply to the guys. Hopefully these will help you create a male-friendly group too:

  • Introduce them to others in the group, and find out a conversation hook to share as you introduce them. Sharing a few names and offering some information about someone as you introduce them can take away some small talk awkwardness.
  • Give them opportunities to get involved. Some people like to be practical, and something as simple as helping to pack away the chairs can help them feel included.
  • Include a variety of activities during free play and group time. Having different zones to move around gives people a focus so that they don’t feel so awkward.

And here are some further comments from Tony Sharp, Who Let The Dads Out? National Coordinator:

“There is a definite shift in societal attitudes, expectations and opportunities that are resulting in more dads and father figures accessing parent and toddler groups throughout the UK and beyond. The example of Jo and Clive’s group at Eagle’s Nest Church is a case in point and it’s great to hear that they see a good number of men attending.

“Their advice on making everybody feel welcome, both male and female, is spot on. That first welcome is so important. Helping parents to understand how things work in your group, where the buggies can be parked and so on, assures any nervous first-timer that they belong and are welcome.

“Be assured that dads are happy to talk about their children with other parents.  The children are the reason they are there so talking about them is both a safe subject and one that they are interested in. Recently we’ve had a great chat on our Who Let The Dads Out? WhatsApp group, with guys discussing which are the best nappies to buy.

“And of course dads also love to get stuck in and play with their children. That certainly happens in all-male dads and toddlers groups, and I hope that same dynamic is achievable in mixed groups too. While the news headlines tend to be dominated by stories of feckless fatherhood and domestic abuse, the majority of men are doing a great job as fathers and father figures to our children. So continue to celebrate dads by being determined to create a male-friendly culture in your playgroup.”

Have a look at Who Let the Dads Out? for lots of ideas on how to reach and support dads. www.careforthefamily.org.uk/faith-in-the-family/wltdo