Dads doing their bit

03:12, Aug 06 2014
Archie Matheson
LOOK THERE: David van der Gulik with Caleb Fenselan, 2, Ben Fenselan with five month-old Toby and Chee Joe with five month-old Aneeka explore EcoWorld in Picton during an Active Dads outing.

Many fathers, when looking back on the lives of their children, wish they had spent more time with them when they were still young. While mothers have traditionally maintained the dominant influence in the very early years of their children’s lives, a unique programme being run in Marlborough called Active Dads  is helping  shift that dynamic.

The Blenheim Gymnastics Club is a hive of activity as dozens of pre-school children dash around excitedly one Saturday afternoon.

At first glance it looks like any other get-together for parents and their little ones, except for one glaring difference – bar one, there are no women in sight.

Archie Matheson
SPECIAL TIME: Active Dad John Pontague with his daughters Lilly, 5, and Brooke, 4, have fun at the Blenheim Gymnastics Club Kindy Gym session.

Instead dads are running around with their children, exercising their inner child and revelling in some fun one-on-one time.

The one woman who is there looks strangely out of place – a total reversal from the sight of the lone stay-at-home dad drowning in the oestrogen-soaked play groups that run during the week.

The only other woman at the Kindy Gym session is gymnastics instructor Maureen Elliott, who watches from a safe distance and keeps an eye on proceedings.


It’s a remarkable sight for the 35-year gymnastics veteran to see so many fathers running around together with their pre-schoolers.   But it’s not something she’s opposed to, in fact she applauds the dads for making the time.

Earlier in the year, at another get-together in Picton, the EcoWorld Aquarium is packed with hundreds of young kids and their dads checking out the displays, pointing out strange sea creatures and listening to talks being given by the staff.

More FM breakfast host Glenn Kirby was one of the dads there with his little ones.

He has little chance to talk as he rushes around after his kids, but the excitement and enjoyment he gets from spending time with them is undeniable.

The reason behind all this dad-time is the Active Dads programme run by Barnardos Marlborough and Strategies with Kids: Information for Parents (Skip)     .

It aims to give men, be they dads, granddads or uncles, a way to get more involved with the children in their care while they are still young – in roughly the under-5 age group. They go on outings, have pizza parties, organise kids zones at rugby games, play sports and attend community events together on a monthly basis.

Older siblings aren’t excluded though and are welcome to join in.

The programme is unique to Marlborough, but it’s due to expand into Nelson in the coming months. The two people behind it – Barnardos Marlborough  service manager Mike Henderson and Jodie Griffiths, of Skip – are hopeful it will spread throughout the rest of New Zealand, too.

The programme is only just over two years old, but has grown quickly to include a large database of dads on their mailing list. Most outings have between 20 to 50 dads and kids attending, but others like a movie night had well over 100, while the aquarium visit attracted more than 200.

It’s a success rate Mike and Jodie couldn’t have imagined. Most encouraging is the number of new dads who turn up. ‘‘A revolution would be a good way to describe it,’’ Mike says.

The parenting dynamic has been changing for decades as dads become more involved with their children from a younger age, he says. The problem is the parenting courses haven’t kept up with this change.

He and Jodie came up with the Active Dads concept in 2011 after realising there was little being offered specifically for men when it came to early childhood parenting. All the parenting material was being written for women by women, Mike says.

However, men and woman approach their roles as parents differently and so a programme which targeted dads was needed – something that would get the dads out and doing things with their kids was just the ticket.

One of the first to join was senior cellar hand John Pontague. He and his daughters Lilly, 5, and Brooke, 4, are regulars at the outings.

‘‘You never get this time back,’’ he says, while fetching a big bouncy ball for Brooke during the Kindy Gym session. ‘‘I never got to do this with my dad, and I wish I had, but now I get to make these memories with my daughters.’’

Generally men aren’t gushing with their emotions when being interviewed, and these dads are no exception, but the excitement and zest for life brought out by having fun with their kids is clear to see.

Another regular since the start of the programme is Scott Randall. He says Active Dads offers easy opportunities for him to spend fun time with his two young sons and their 9-year-old sister.

‘‘A lot of the stuff that is available is during the day on weekdays so I can’t go along because I’m working, but these [Active Dads] activities are on the weekend. It’s great to do stuff like this with them, especially when they small,’’ he says.

It’s not only a time for the dads to bond with their children, but also to socialise with other dads. When couples turn up to events they tend to stick to themselves and not get out of their comfort zone and talk to other parents, Jodie says. But when it’s just dads they are much more likely to chat to each other.

Scott enjoys this aspect as well – it’s like going to the pub but without the drinking, he says. He must be enjoying himself as he’s gone to most events over the past two years. It also gives mums a chance to have some invaluable time to themselves, a win-win all round.

Mike and Jodie couldn’t be more pleased.

They have gone a few steps further as well, introducing parenting talks and a dad’s bag for new fathers. The bags contain a range of essentials like nappies and wipes, parenting pamphlets written specifically for dads, a first reading book and even a toothbrush kit.

A revolution would be a good way to describe the programme and could well become a more the norm than an out-the-box idea in the future.

The Marlborough Express