Men at work and Dads at play (group!)

Playgroups … an enigma to all non-parents and also to many Dads who haven’t had the opportunity to attend them. When asking such people about playgroups you might be met with such stereotypical responses such as:

  • ‘just a mothers’ meeting and chance for a cup of tea and a natter’
  • ‘people charging over the odds to allow mums and their babies to do ridiculous things’
  • I’d rather change 10 pooey nappies a day than attend a playgroup!’

Prior to my time off on shared parental leave I had only had very fleeting dalliances with playgroups. Karen had taken Tessa and Tilly to various ones when she had been off on maternity leave with them and I had heard her stories of them and seen plenty of photos. Similarly with Toby and her leave with him. I knew that one of the things I really wanted to do whilst I was off on shared parental leave was to throw myself into being a ‘stay at home Dad’ and to attend a few playgroups. This blog post is my story of a Dad at play (groups)!

The novelty of a Dad at playgroup does wonders for your popularity!

Initial fears

There are undoubtedly fears that Dads will hold when faced with the prospect of attending a playgroup dominated by women and young babies. I expect that the fear plays out in many minds a little like this: A Dad walks into a church hall or Guide/Scout hut with his young offspring in a pram. He is already nervous and the nerves increase when he realises his baby has delivered a poonami of epic proportions, or starts crying uncontrollably, or he realises he has forgotten something important that will draw gasps of horror and audible tuts from the mothers in attendance. BAD DAD they will think. Then the fear draws the Dad in further – should I turn back? What if I make a complete fool of myself? But it’s too late and the Dad has told his partner he’ll go – the point of no return. In he goes, as the room falls deathly quiet. The music stops. The children stop chattering and crying. The Mums stop talking. All eyes turn slowly to look at this Dad trying to pierce the Mums’ inner-sanctum. Then one loud, disapproving slurp of a cup of tea makes the Dad jump out of his skin and he very nearly bursts into a flood of tears….

Okay, the fear may not be that extreme, but generally questions of self-doubt may arise, including normal and obvious concerns such as:

  • Will anyone talk to me?
  • Will I feel like a complete and utter lemon singing baby songs and prancing around?
  • Will I be ostracised by the Mums the moment I walk through the door and be banished to a dark corner on my own to make conversation with my baby, a tatty and deformed version of Iggle Piggle from In the Night Garden and an empty toilet roll tube?

Well, I admit to having some of these fears myself, but I am here to reassure all the Dads out there, that playgroups are not as bad as you may fear and, in fact, they’re a great way for you to spend some fun and quality time with your kids and to also engage with other parents who are going through similar issues and concerns that you might be experiencing at any one time. It’s a great chance to bounce ideas of each other and to obtain support.

What I would say is to go along with a positive mindset. I heard Dawn French say on a podcast chat with Fearne Cotton before my leave started that, straight after leaving school, she had a year in New York do some drama stuff. She had been a fairly shy and retiring type at school, but she knew going over there she had a blank canvas and she intended to act confidently. She did so and took that forward throughout her immensely successful career. That’s the kind of the attitude I wanted to adopt myself (on a small scale!), but to be confident to speak to people and make the most of the sessions. We are forever telling our children when it comes to making new friends – ‘just say hello and tell them your name’. The same applies as adults – say hello to the person next to you, maybe ask how old their little one is (being careful not to confuse boys and girls – ‘He’s a bit of a bruiser this lad isn’t he’ doesn’t go down well when it’s a bonny little girl!) and kick off the conversation. After that it’s much easier. I’d also say throw yourself into it too – participate. Don’t sit back miming the words to ‘The Wheel on the Bus’ or ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ – sing it and enjoy it – your little ones certainly will.

My playgroups

During my time off I’ve been regularly to a few playgroups and I’ve set out my views on each of them below to give you an idea of what goes on from a Dad’s perspective. C

Class 1 – Monday morning – Salvation Army playgroup

The first playgroup of the week was a Monday morning session run by a bunch of lovely ladies from a local Salvation Army group. It was a little further away, but Karen had started going as Tilly had a number of nursery friends that went, including her best friend Lucy. So when I started my leave I would take Tilly and Toby and quite often my niece Luna (meeting Karen’s Mum, ‘Granny Annie’ there who would have Luna and Tilly most Monday afternoons). Always a bit of a rush to get there, they would start off with a bit of a craft activity for the older ones, whilst I would sit Toby in a baby section for a play with his little mates. I was made to feel very welcome by the ladies who ran the group and soon got chatting to other Mums and Grandparents, as well as the occasional Dad who would pop along.

The playgroup gang hard at it!

The kids then get some free play time with loads of toys available for them – farm animals, toy cars, dollies, a little slide – loads to keep them fully immersed in play. After that there’s ‘tidy up time’ followed by snacks of toast, grapes, biscuits and a drink. There follows story time and some sing-songs, with everyone’s favourite being the Hokey-Cokey where children are launched as high a possible during the chorus.

From top left – Tilly’s playgroup creche, Toby monopolising the group leaders, Luna enjoying the
Hokey-Cokey and Toby loving a snazzy set of wheels!

The kids then have to sit on chairs against a wall whilst innumerate trikes, scooters and other moving toys are put out for them to play with. Cue almost guaranteed tears as they all rush for the pink scooter, but of course there can only be one winner (hopefully Tilly so I can avoid her getting upset!). They whizz round for a bit before they all get ready to leave and to choose a sticker or two (which normally get stuck on me somewhere which I then forget about for the rest of the day!).

My little big-man at his last playgroup – pin up all the way!

So, a lovely little group, run by fantastic people and with friendly attendees! All for the princely sum o £2.50 for two of them! Fantastic. I’ve also has chance to speak to other parents who have similar aged children to Toby about their little ones’ sleeping habits, how they have changed bedtime routines to help them sleep through and have given advice myself (on the back of having three of them). A mutually supportive environment for those that attend. It’s also noticeable there are a number of grandparents who attend too. The role of the grandparent in modern day parenting could easily take up a blog post on its own, but for now, I simply salute those grandparents out there who provide so much support to their children by helping to care for their grandchildren! Bravo to you all!

Class 2 – Messy Play – Little Mess Pots

The second class I regularly attended was a lovely little local class called ‘Little Mess Pots’, run by a girl called Hannah who put in ridiculous levels of effort to make the class different each week and to leave babies in sensory overload with the different textures and things for them to explore … all whilst making a massive mess! Toby and I have loved this class and Tilly’s also been a fair few times (and cousin George) and Tess even came along for one week in the holidays (eating anything she could at the various stations!). It was a pay as you go class (a lot you have to book and pay for in blocks) at £5 a head and £2 for siblings.

The class begins with numerous stations each with different themes

On arrival, we’d strip Toby down to his Babygro and launch him into play. He loved the spaghetti and would happily spend a good chunk of time eating it. There was jelly, dried cereal, rice, chocolate whip, custard, water play, foam play, painting for the older ones, shakers, plastic cutlery, brushes, bubbles all accompanied by popular songs for children. Towels were provided to clean off any slippy bits and the session finished with little washing up bowl baths for them to clean off in. The different assortment of stations meant that messy play got very messy indeed, but that’s the fun of it!

Messy play – just like Ronseal – does exactly what it says on the tin!
The big sisters enjoyed watching Toby Tornado wreak havoc …

So during this class I had some great interaction with Toby – watching him explore different textures and tastes, having a good giggle each and every week and generally having lots and lots of fun. I also got loads of time to play with Tilly too – regularly painting her hands and feet as part of the fun and generally allowing her to get a whole lot muckier than I probably would at home.

Simple pleasures!

We’ve all enjoyed it so much we’ve in fact booked Hannah to run a slime party for Tessa’s 7th birthday party this coming weekend, which we’re very much looking forward to! I was intending to heartily recommend the group to anyone local, but Hannah’s decided to stop them for now as it’s not the right balance for her family at present. Thanks though for the great times during my time off though!

Class 3 – Bloom

This is a class that Karen would take Toby to on her day off from work (whilst I nipped off to the gym with Tilly!). I was able to go along to a couple of the classes and it was clear Toby loved it. There’s lots of sensory play involved with darkened rooms and lights involved, parachutes are used to cover the babies overhead, plenty of music and songs and toys/instruments for them to play with and bang together. Oh, and an assortment of bonkers wigs and head gear to really boost the photo selection to be brought out on that 18th birthday!

Seriously – you’re making me wear more of these?!

Toby loved these classes with his little mate Zac who he met there, and Karen has made a friend in his Mum through the classes who she has just moved to another class with and will keep in touch with in the future. This just goes to show the benefits playgroups can have to parents at home with their children – it’s also a chance to make more friends, particularly with people with kids the same age as your own and nearby. So if you’re in the South Manchester area, give Bloom a look up, particularly if your kids are a little younger and under 10 months or so.

Class 4 – Baby Splash

This was a class I came to quite late to join the party – only the last month or so. It’s run at Hazel Grove swimming baths about 20-25 minutes away from us. It’s a half hour class in the baby pool and Toby absolutely loves it. It’s a mix of free-play, some guided swimming type exercises (pulling them through the water, encouraging them to reach forward and kick their legs or float on their backs), and some singing and movements in the water (splashing, swooshing and, if brave enough, dunking!). I’ll also sit Toby up in the side and watch as he wriggles himself over the edge and into the pool and my arms, laughing all the way!

A baby swim session is a great way to get them used to the water early on in their lives. You need to be realistic – they’re not going to do 3 sessions and swim like Michael Phelps, but it will build their confidence in the water and you’ll have great fun with them along the way!

Concluding thoughts on playgroups …

As you will have surmised by reading the above, I’ve found during my shared parental leave that playgroups are not the hideous ogres people perceive them to be. I’m sure there are some out there where people, Dads, or whoever, have not been particularly welcomed and found it hard to break into the groups that have been well formed. But for them most part, I’d say give it a try. Be confident and brave enough to speak to people there – you have an easy common ground in your children to get the conversation started. Most importantly, use it as a chance to fully engage with your children, without distractions such as TV, or job lists to get in the way. Both you and they will thoroughly enjoy yourselves.

There are plenty of playgroups out there which you can find through Apps like Hoop, from suggestions of Mums’ Facebook groups and the like, or just by word of mouth. If you’re a Dad and are truly nervous, there are also some groups set up just for Dads. There’s one not far from me in Romiley called ‘Just 4 Dads St Chads’, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to get along to whilst I was off, but sounds like a great idea for Dads to seek out support and the chance to meet other Dads who might be the stay at home partner in a relationship.

So, a big thank you from me to all those lovely people who run these groups and put in so much time and effort into them, and particularly to those whose classes I have been to. Toby and I (and the girls when they have been) have loved it, as can be evidenced by these last few photos of fun!

Thanks again for reading – it’s back to work on Monday for me, but I’ll still be doing the occasional post, including a reflection on my time off on shared parental leave following my return to work!

Follow me on Instagram: @bethedaddy

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