Sunday's a fun day for dads at library

Here's something more exciting for fathers than vacuuming the car on a Sunday morning - taking the kids to the library to make a cardboard crocodile or a working rocket.

Steven Russell

Here's something more exciting for fathers than vacuuming the car on a Sunday morning - taking the kids to the library to make a cardboard crocodile or a working rocket. Steven Russell did it

WELL, knock me down with a feather . . . comparing modern libraries with those of my childhood is like contrasting chalk and cheese. The difference is particularly noticeable on a Sunday. There's no ssssshhhhing, you can have a drink (as long as you're careful not to spill your coffee over The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe) and even eat there, too (but please don't let your crumbs drop into the computer keyboards if you can help it). And what's this? A big red mat spread on the carpet and children having fun - PAINTING!! The scary Miss Mountfield, who ruled my local library in 1970 and could turn you to stone with a look over her half-moon spectacles if you so much as dared b-r-e-a-t-h-e, would turn in her grave at the thought of glue within a metre of the precious books. We kids always reckoned she was the mother of the childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

That was then and this is now, and we're responding to an invitation to go MAD. Not literally, of course, for MAD stands for Me And Dad - fortnightly and free activity sessions at the central library in Northgate Street, Ipswich.


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Seven-year-old Myles and his newish pal Ashley are already going at it like there's no tomorrow, transforming a big cardboard box into a space buggy with plenty of paint, adhesive, old containers and a healthy dollop of imagination. Nearby, two girls are building a fantastic model rocket out of plastic bottles.

There's nothing for it but to roll up our sleeves and get stuck in. Those outsized boxes look fun, so Joshua (he's the Me in our partnership) and me (I'm the Daddy) produce a natty Tardis. OK, so it's red instead of the conventional police-box blue, but we figure its chameleon circuit is even more on the blink than usual.

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Next, we tie string to a sort of handkerchief and thread the ends through a kind of plastic funnel thingy to create a parachute. Thirdly, we make a paper cone nose and fins - for someone with sausage-fingers, much more tricky than it looks - to help turn a plastic tube into a little rocket. More about those models later . . .

This is the penultimate of six MAD mornings and draws more than a dozen young space cadets. Previous Sunday sessions at the library have offered different themes, such as chefs, monsters, historians and mechanics. Children and dads have made crocodiles out of boxes, robots out of bottles, castles out of egg cartons, and volcanoes that really fizz. Each session has ended with library staff reading stories related to the subject of the day.

The MAD gatherings are a Suffolk County Council pilot scheme. If you thought local authorities were stick-in-the-muds unwilling to step out of their comfort zone, think again. For co-ordinator Adrian Deith (who styles himself “The Dad Worker”) had a meeting with early years librarian Jo Dixon to outline his vision of some fun for fathers and their offspring, and received the green light.

He didn't come out of the blue, mind. Adrian had worked as a volunteer with the Treehouse Children's Centre in Clapgate Lane, Ipswich, and had experience of running a dads' group. He thought it an idea that could be extended. And here we are, thanks to the county council's backing.

“When I went to Jo, she took a gamble. She really did. I went with an empty hat and a big mouth!” he quips. “I said 'I've got this good idea. This is what I reckon we could do.' They had confidence in me.

“I figured that making it physical and three-dimensional, rather than two-dimensional, dads would be encouraged to join in.”

In a nutshell, Me And Dad groups “are quite simply activity sessions for dads and male carers to go to with their children and have some really messy, creative fun - nothing more, nothing less”.

With many men working during week, Sunday is often a rare chance to go to the library with the children.

Helen Boothroyd, Suffolk's children, young people & schools library service manager, says: “We hope that fathers and children will enjoy spending time together and, through the simple themed activities, learn new skills. The fun activities are easy for them to do again at home and at a low cost, often using household materials. Research shows the important role that fathers play in their children's lives and yet, for some, they are not always sure how to involve themselves in a practical way.”

Adrian adds: “There are many dads who have to go to work from 8 o'clock in the morning until 8 o'clock in the evening and the closest they get to seeing their kids is reading them a story, if they're lucky, before they're on their way up the stairs,” says Adrian.

He points out there are other things for dads, often by the Sure Start Government scheme, but these are aimed at early childhood. MAD thus goes beyond the age of five and welcomes children up to 13 years.

County council events co-ordinator Linda Mowles was pleased with the MAD turnout from the start, with the first session attracting 11 youngsters.

It's certainly been a hit with young Myles, who's been to every session and is full of anticipation during the gaps between. “All week it's 'What are we doing? Can we go?'” explains dad Andrew Miller, from north Ipswich. “At the end of the sessions he's asked Adrian what we're doing next. He's into knights and things like that, so he was thinking about his design for the shield even before we did it.”

This Sunday morning is a bit of a busman's holiday for Andrew, who actually works in the library and was on duty yesterday. Not surprisingly, he learned about the MAD groups through work.

“I have to say that normally we're very allergic to paint, because of the mess, but because we've got this big sheet we can do it; and we're lucky we've got this big library,” he grins.

“I think it's nice to have the opportunity to do things on this scale. For children to come in and work with other children because they want to is great.” Take the early activity making a croc from cardboard boxes, joined together with bits of string and decorated with lots of white and green paint, for instance.

“The brilliant thing - as well as the dads being here - was the kids got together and we had about four children all working together to make one crocodile. These kids didn't know each other, but they've become friends.”

Time for more action. We go outside into the courtyard and watch while Adrian and Andrew drop the parachutes one by one from the fire escape. They all float gracefully to the ground.

Then it's the big moment for those rockets. Adrian carefully puts part of a vitamin C tablet in the tube, along with a drop of water. The lid is put on and the rocket carefully placed on a low wall a good few metres away. We all stand back and wait.

I'm a bit hazy on the exact scientific details, but the water obviously reacts with the tablet and creates a build-up of gas. After 30 or 40 seconds the pressure in the tube is so great that the lid is blown off, the gases rush out and the rocket is propelled into the air. It's a spectacular little stunt that costs only a few pennies.

Helen Boothroyd says these pilot sessions have been paid for from the Suffolk Libraries budget. “We need to evaluate the success, which does seem apparent from the ad hoc feedback we have had from parents, carers and children. Our ambition is to be able to run further sessions at County Library and to extend the scheme to other libraries. We are already discussing with colleagues delivering overall county council services for children and young people about how we may fund this.”

Adrian's certainly thrilled with how things have gone.

“The kids' faces . . .” he smiles. “I think we've all shown that it's cool for dads to have fun with their kids.”

Get your skates on . . .

The final MAD Group in this batch is on Sunday, May 3

It's from 10.30am-12.30pm

It's at the central library in Northgate Street, Ipswich

People can drop in and leave at any time

Sunday's theme is gardening

Activities are likely to include planter painting, cress heads and sunflowers

Despite its name, it's also open to carers and mums

Sessions so far have attracted between 11 and 18 children aged between 18 months and 11 years

Protective aprons are provided for the youngsters, but Adrian advises children and adults to wear something that wouldn't suffer too much if splashed with paint or glue

What else to bring? “A little patience, a good handful of enthusiasm and some imagination. We supply the rest. We'll even clean up the mess afterwards - does it get any better?”

ADRIAN Deith, who organises the fun sessions in the library, is virtually a born-again dad who's seen the joys and benefits of positive and active parenting. A few years ago, thanks to a demanding job in national sales and marketing, he'd be driving up and down roads such as the A62 or jetting off to Singapore. There wasn't much time to spend with children.

Things started to change. The consequences of a torn disc in his back saw him struggling more and more. “It got to the stage where I was having to swallow a handful of painkillers just to get in the car to drive to work, and crawling out of the car and lying on the floor in the office until my back had settled enough to get up again,” he remembers.

The Deiths lived in Derbyshire. When his wife's employer shut its Derby office about three years ago, moving to Ipswich emerged as an alternative. Adrian then stayed at home and looked after the children - Izabelle is now seven and Kyran nearly four.

“I did two years of probably the worst parenting job you could possibly imagine,” he admits, candidly. “There's no manual. You could talk to another woman about 'How do you look after this? How do you find out if they've got meningitis?' But men often can't. How would you feel if I asked 'How did you potty-train your son?'” (Well, OK, actually; but I know what you mean.)

Adrian got involved with the Treehouse Children's Centre near his home and, because he was a volunteer and worked on the dads' group project there, he was sent on courses. Today he's a wider family learning tutor, a support worker with children and young people's services, and is trained in safeguarding children and young people.

His MAD groups are part of his newish enterprise The Dad Worker, which seeks to give children plenty of positive role models to follow.

Web link: www.madgroups.co.uk and www.thedadworker.co.uk

ALL Suffolk's 44 libraries are open on a Sunday - something Linda Mowles believes is unique among local authorities.

“We made the decision that we wanted to do that; and because we wanted to make it a family time, we encouraged people to drink, to chat, and have things happening and to feel 'freer'. We were trying to attract people who were a bit daunted by the usual atmosphere during the rest of the week, perhaps.”

The first opening was in August, 2003 - Bury St Edmunds on the 10th, to be precise. The date is etched on Linda's brain because she worked every Sunday for 10 weeks! The other libraries followed in a

rolling programme over four or five weeks.

“Most of our libraries will have some sort of children's activity going on on Sundays, but of course it has to be done within existing staffing levels and they wouldn't have time to come up with all these different things.” There might be crafts, for instance, but not the potentially-messy kind of activities at the Me And Dad sessions.

Helen Boothroyd adds: “Libraries are places where exciting activities happen for children, especially on Sundays; the activities are free and we wanted to show that Suffolk's libraries are family-friendly places to visit. We also want to promote the fun books that libraries have for children and young people.”

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