Supporting Dads in Child Care: Let’s Play!

Father and toddler girl with doll

Supporting young children in child care includes helping to strengthen parent-child relationships. Many families who enroll their children in child care may be young, inexperienced parents. First-time fathers in particular may need extra encouragement as they establish relationships with their young children, and that’s a role child care providers are well suited for, yet often overlook.

Supporting father involvement with children may be especially important for child care programs that include military families. These families face the possible absence of a parent for long periods of time and may be living far from extended family. The good news is that all sorts of dads can play an important role in their young children’s development just by playing – and child care providers can strengthen families by encouraging this father-child play.

Men at Work Play

One of the strongest reasons to foster the relationship between young children and their dads is because fathers tend to interact differently with young children than do mothers when children are at play. And research has shown that dads’ unique style has unique benefits for their children:

Dads tend to be more physically active with their young children. No surprise to most of us, but its importance to children’s development may surprise you. Young children need full-body play – it’s good for their developing strength and coordination and the sense of where their body is in space. Boisterous play helps children sleep better, eat better, and even think better! Of course, children can, and do, play actively without an adult partner. But they are much more motivated and likely to push their physical limits with an adult play pal. What does dad-style play look like? Often it takes the form of wrestling with dad, climbing on dad, getting swung around – all things which most moms and female caregivers don’t do! (For a great book on the whys and hows of vigorous physical play in child care settings, see “Big Body Play” by Frances M. Carlson.)

Dads also tend to play with their children more than moms, especially when it involves pretending. Dads are more likely to get involved in the play scenario, whatever it is, by allowing their young child to direct the “script” and then following their lead. Moms, on the other hand, tend to do more supervising, directing, or observing. But even when moms are more engaged with play, dads’ interactions still contribute in a unique way. In one study that looked at the impact of dads’ engagement in their toddlers’ play, the researchers found that the children with more interactive dads, especially the boys, tended to have higher scores in language and fewer problem behaviors as preschoolers, regardless of the behaviors of the mothers. In other words, dad’s unique input made a difference.

Of course, these are generalizations about moms and dads. Individual parents differ widely in the ways that they interact with their children. The point is that, in any given family, each parent has the opportunity to build a uniquely valuable relationship with their children, and play is a part of that relationship. Fathers’ play interactions with their children are important for us to acknowledge and encourage.

Nurturing Father-Child Relationships

Because of each dad’s special contribution to his child’s development and well-being, child care providers (including those who are supporting military families) need to be intentional about fostering healthy, warm relationships between dads and their children. That includes finding ways to encourage father-and-child play, both at home and in the child care environment.

  • Provide opportunities for dads and their kids to interact in the ways that they enjoy most. Of course, that will mean finding out from dads in your program about the things that they do enjoy playing with their children – it won’t be the same for every dad! But once you do find out, think of ways that you can incorporate those activities when you are planning opportunities to volunteer in the classroom and organizing family events. Even simply inviting a dad to stay for a few minutes during pick-up or drop-off times can encourage dad-play.
  • Make it clear that dads are “allowed” and even encouraged to get down on the floor and play, run around the playground, or let kids climb on him (if he’s okay with it!). If they don’t see you doing those things in the child care setting, they may think those types of vigorous play are not allowed. Make a point of letting them know that it is okay. Will the kids get rambunctious? No doubt! But one of the benefits of boisterous play is that children get much-needed practice in learning to manage themselves in a high state of excitement. That may mean that you need to step in with some guidance, but be careful not to step in too soon. Give the dad and the children a chance to figure out how to have fun without anyone getting hurt or anything getting broken. If you do need to step in, do so with a word of encouragement (“Looks like you guys are really having fun!”) so that Dad knows you aren’t upset with him. Then take kids through the problem-solving process. Not only will you be helping the kids learn conflict resolution, but you’ll also be modeling the adult role for the dad.
  • Talk regularly, with both parents, about the benefits to children of physically active, engaged dad-child play. Use informal conversations with parents, as well as more formal communications such as a parent newsletter. Intentionally communicating the positive impact of fathers’ play with their children will encourage dads, especially those who are new to fatherhood and uncertain of their role.

Dad-Style Play is Not Just for Boys

We also may need to convince both dads and moms that girl babies, toddlers, and preschoolers love and need wildly active physical play with dad as much as the boys! Girls are physically every bit as capable of climbing, jumping, and running around as boys. In fact, in order to stay physically active and healthy through the teen years and into adulthood, they need to establish habits of very physical activity when they are young. Dads have a unique and powerful role to play in starting their daughters, as well as their sons, on a path of a physically active, healthy life.

Making It Work in the Military: Playing Even During Deployment

Unfortunately, military service often means periods of separation for dads and their kids, separations that make it more difficult for fathers to stay involved in their children’s everyday play. More difficult, but not impossible….

What does it look like for a military father to play with his children even when he’s deployed? First Lt. Bill Edwards is a great example – such a good example, in fact, that he won the 2012 Military Fatherhood Award. Read about and watch the many ways that Lt. Edwards used playfulness to actively engage with his four children in the nomination letter and video submitted by Esther Edwards, Bill’s wife.

So how can child care providers encourage dad-play during deployment? When Dad’s away, think of some creative ways that you can help him and his child maintain their relationship through play. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

  • Take short videos of the child playing with favorite activities at child care and share them with Mom so that Dad can watch them and talk with his child about them. If Dad has access to the Internet, post videos in a private space online, and send Dad links to watch when he has time.
  • Make a note of the child’s current favorite pretend play and suggest that Dad get involved – maybe acting out a role during a Skype session with the family or taking photographs of himself playing his role wherever he is.
  • Suggest that dad and child design an obstacle course together, then take photos of the child building and going through it with his or her friends at child care.

Sometimes dads just need a nudge – their own creativity and desire to connect in fun ways with their young child will take it from there!

(Dad) Play Matters

Dads play a special role in their young children’s lives. That’s a message that every father needs to hear, but is especially important for those who are new at fatherhood, as well as those whose jobs require them to spend chunks of their young children’s lives away from them. Child care providers can help strengthen and grow positive, healthy, and enjoyable father-child relationships in all families, including military families. And that ends up being good for everyone.

For More Information

To learn more about how child care providers can support young children from military families, check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care links: