Hitting the nail on the head and successfully engaging Dads in Bradford!

Better Start Bradford’s Dads’ Engagement worker, Zafar Kayani, shares how he has successfully engaged with dads with children in their early years by providing woodworking classes.

Ten dads, along with their young children, completed six woodworking sessions at WomenZone’s Play Gym in the very capable hands of Fearless People, Groundwork and Zafar. Together they crafted beautiful wooden stools, toy cars and trains, while Zafar encouraged them to work with and involve their children, reinforcing messages around bonding and the power of simple interaction.

Zafar Kayani

Zafar explains how the sessions took shape:

In my work to engage Dads with the Better Start Bradford programme, I tried various approaches, for example, visiting mosques and schools, and meeting with dads at home and engaging with them at various events in our area of Bradford.

I would ask dads about the type of activities that they would like to try with their children. The feedback that I got was that dads were interested in practical things such as woodwork, gardening, cooking and educational trips. They were also concerned about the development of their children, but felt they were too busy working and doing things and were not sure how to strengthen bonds with their children.

We hoped that by offering an engaging activity for dads and male carers, it would give us a platform to relay key messages about the importance of the early years of life, and how developing a strong bond with your children will help support their development and resilience. I must admit, it was quite a tough nut to crack. I would need the right tools and the right pressure to apply!

I couldn’t do it alone so I set up a meeting with the Development Officer, Shireen at WomenZone – Better Start Bradford had funded The Play Gym and they were trying to encourage more dads to come along. We also got our heads together with our Better Place project team.

From the feedback I had received from dads, we decided that we needed to set up something whereby dads could learn a new practical skill, which they could work with and involve their children at appropriate stages. With this in mind, we came up with weekly basic woodworking sessions to be held on a Sunday morning at Womenzone. The sessions started in December 2021 and were delivered by an experienced tutor through the not-for-profit arts group Fearless People.

I recruited dads via a few different ways. Firstly, by talking to the mums using the WomenZone centre and asking them to encourage their partners to come to the sessions. I also promoted it to dads when they picked their children up from local nursey schools and I also encouraged dads who were unsure what they would get out of the sessions to come along and at least try one session and then decide to continue or leave.

I managed to recruit 10 dads for the first session from a wide range of diverse backgrounds, including a single dad, a foster dad and dads from Somalia, Burma and Afghanistan. Over the weeks, numbers increased as word got out.

There were different elements and focus within each of the sessions, woodworking initially, health and safety and which tools to use. The dads spent several weeks making wooden stools and looking at all the practical and health and safety side of things.

We would have food together and the dads and children would work together on designs for future sessions and they would lead on deciding what to do each week. These collective sessions were the ideal opportunity to talk to the dads about bonding and their own parenting experiences – the experience of being a parent and how they were parented themselves. The sessions would then end with rhyme time and a singsong with the dads and their children.

As the weekly sessions progressed, the dads became more confident in their abilities but also became more open in sharing their experiences and worries around parenting. There were more conversations between the dads and they were finding out more about each other – they would laugh together when something didn’t quite go to plan on their woodworking project. They grew more confident in involving their children in the projects and how to handle the equipment together.

Through learning new skills together, the dads were learning how to bond better with their children and develop confidence in their own ability to parent. They were learning to open up and talk about personal experiences and how those relate to their children. They were able to openly communicate with their children and more importantly to really enjoy spending quality time with them.

The Dads have recently teamed up with local grandads to build a fence in the outside area at WomenZone to surround a new messy play area. The fence is based on designs that the dads and children drew together – the dads’ and children’s names and drawings will be on the fence.

The dads even had the opportunity to show their woodwork projects to the Deputy Lord Mayor of Bradford, Councillor Bev Mullaney at a showcasing event at WomenZone in January 2022.

The Deputy Lord Mayor said: “It was a real privilege to come to WomenZone and see the dads doing the woodwork with their children and interacting with each other. Research has shown when dads are happy, the family is happy and the children are happy.”

The event also featured as a news article on UK44 – Pakistan’s first current affairs and news channel for the South Asian diaspora in the United Kingdom.

The project has been a huge success and continues to go from strength to strength. We recently had a dad’s and toddlers barbecue together at the Neighbourhood Resource Centre, another project that has had improvements to its outdoor area thanks to our Better Place project.

We have even had a day trip out to Hesketh Farm Park, a working farm with farm animal feeding, play areas and a café, where we ended up having to take two mini-buses as we had 26 dads, grandads and children!

The learning from these sessions will enable Better Start Bradford to widen work with Dads and share our experience.

We found that having staff who local dads could identify with and trust was invaluable in breaking the ice. As relationships developed and we listened to the views and wishes of Dads and male carers, we were able to jointly design the sessions around their needs.

Creating a safe and welcoming space with focused activities allowed the conversations around early childhood development to take place. We learned that our participants were keen to have strong and involved relationships with their 0-3s and were ready to explore how they could be improved. They even felt confident to share challenges and how often they felt side-lined or lacked confidence in their parenting skills.

These conversations have led to the programme giving more thought to how we can take the work with Dads further in terms of access to projects and links with other dads groups. The work will be progressed by our engagement team, neighbourhood workers and our projects.

About A Better Start

A Better Start is the ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK.

Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham, and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language, and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. A Better Start is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier.

The National Children’s Bureau is designing and delivering an ambitious programme of shared learning and development support for A Better Start, working within, across and beyond the five partnership areas. The programme is funded by The National Lottery Community Fund using funds raised by National Lottery players.

Our aim is to amplify the impact of A Better Start by:

  • Embedding a culture of learning within and between the partnerships.
  • Harnessing the best available evidence about what works in improving outcomes for children.
  • Sharing the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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