Dads and play

For most mothers, connecting with the world of play and imagination that their children inhabit comes easily. Linda Smith discovers for dads, it may not always be so natural.

When a mother told drama teacher Matthew Emond that her five-year-old communicated better with him than his own father – an idea was born.

Convinced this poor dad was not alone, Emond launched a workshop with an innovative twist. Dad's with a Difference* was a first for the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) and proved a huge success.

Aimed at fathers and their children aged between five and 11, the workshop focused on helping fathers to listen to children as they engage in child drama, a place of magic where, says Matthew, "worlds are created and relationships built”.

"Child drama is born from the imaginations and experiences of children," he said.

"I've given a lot of thought to how I relate to kids and why that mother would have said her son talked to me more openly than he did with his dad."

Matthew believes the key to communications between adults and children is simply listening. Really listening.

"You need to learn where the child is at and become a part of the world they are creating," said Matthew.

"If you move into their space they can relate to you as a human being as well."

At the first workshop, Matthew separated the 32 five to 11-year-olds taking part from their fathers and transformed their room into a factory for the imagination. Five large blue mats were spread throughout the space with a collection of boxes, material, costumes – any item that would act as stimulus for the world of three-dimensional imagination. A similar set up was provided for the fathers in a separate studio that would set the scene for a day of fun and adventure.

The morning began with the children working in small groups with team leaders from the Australian Theatre for Young People and professional childcare workers and a lecturer in Creative Studies from the Sydney Institute of Technology, exploring the world of drama.

At the same time, the fathers spent time with Matthew in another studio simply talking about being a dad and how children play.

"The fathers came to the day with the expertise of being a dad I came with a knowledge of how children play," said Matthew.

The conversation was extraordinary, with one father remarking that he had never really sat down and spoken about being a Dad with a group of men before.

"The conversation ranged from differences in the imagination stimulated by a computer, compared to the three dimensional world that we were Exploring on the day, the nature of how children play and how the fathers have been involved with that world," said Matthew.

It was agreed that when you engage in play with your children they usually delegate you to the position of movable prop, an attachment who must follow the system of rules and laws that the child has created.

"It was from here that we began to explore the nature of the day," said Matthew. "How do you get involved in the conversation of the drama, participate as co-creator and not just puppet?"

It was through the following exercises that the group of dads began to find some keys to communication.

First, they played with an exercise called object transformation. From a collection of objects on the floor the fathers began to endow them with a different quality, a different life. For example a scarf becomes a boat, a hat, a puppet, a cloud, an island.

Matthew said the dads flexed their imaginative muscles and came up with some extraordinary results. "It is from this place that we can meet the imaginative world of the child, the place of creation, of transformation," he said.

The second exercise explored was the Ideas Game, which was developed by British Drama Educator, Peter Slade.

Slade has done extensive work in the field of child drama and was the first to acknowledge that unlike the adult form of theatre where an audience come to watch a story being played by a group of actors that children have an art form in their own right, born of play. The child becomes audience actor simultaneously and the need to act to gives way to an authentic release of the creative spirit.

The Ideas Game works in this way: together the child and father list three nouns ie star, island and boat, and from this they create a story which utilises all three words would have been used.

"Together they contribute to the story during the telling and I find it works best when open ended questions are added inviting contribution from all involved," said Matthew.

"After the story is told we then create the world that we can explore through drama. So a couch becomes an island, the roof a sea of stars and two cushions become a boat, and together you live through the story together.

"The important distinction is exploring communication through the work and being aware when the language flow breaks down and you become a living prop again. One of the fathers acknowledged how important it was on occasions for the child to have control over the action."

The day reached its climax as children and their Dads came together to play. With the sound of waves crashing on the sound system, an invitation was extended for everyone in the room to go on an adventure. An ocean voyage.

And so it began. Fathers and their children built boats, sailed on the ocean and embarked on numerous adventures. With a few sound queues, and different music, the drama was kept alive.

"From where I was sitting it looked extraordinary 22 dads and 32 children all engaged in the world of drama. The adventure continues.

* The Dads With A Difference workshop is no longer running. But for more information on other great workshops run through the Australian Theatre For Young People see