I’ve spent many a lunch hour standing on the school playground watching fourth and fifth graders play soccer. From my vantage point on the sidelines I see children jumping rope, playing foursquare, and tossing a football in the distance. Occasionally two kids will get into an almost-fight on the soccer field—you know, the kind of playground scuffle that almost occurs but doesn’t quite materialize because an adult is present. I’m the adult. More specifically, I’m a dad, and I’m on the playground by invitation from the principal because I’m a member of the school’s Dad’s Club.
Dads On The Playground
“The dads are certainly invited to help model conflict resolution,” says Joel Palmer, principal of Borah Elementary School in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “But if there’s real trouble, the paid reinforcements are brought in,” he says in the tongue-in-cheek manner that helps explain why students smile when they address him by the affectionate moniker, Mr. Palmer.
“This frees the dads up to help the kids concentrate on the love of the game, responsibility, and playing fair in soccer, four square, and football…for the love of the activity, which is a lifelong skill that doesn’t always get taught at home,” he explains. “For me, it’s important to have as many positive adults on the playground as possible. It prevents problems and it’s a learning opportunity.”
Playground problems virtually vanished since the dads got involved. “I’ve cut down on my football and soccer related problems ten-fold,” says Palmer.
Rolling Up Their Sleeves
Twenty-four fathers showed up to serve ice cream and toppings at the Ice Cream Social last fall, many of them wearing chef’s hats emblazoned with statements of father involvement such as Super Dad, Ice Cream Dad, and Dad’s Club. Jon Fisher was among them. “My daughter feels kind of proud to show off her dad I guess, and I’m willing to embarrass her,” he jokes. He works five 12-hour shifts a week but finds time to help at school. “There’s no reason why every dad can’t do it. They’re missing out on the smile on their kids’ face and their kid saying, ‘That’s my dad serving ice cream.’ You gotta make the effort,” he said. Jon Fisher also attended Mr. Palmer’s work party last year when several dads shoveled pee gravel on the playground on a rainy Saturday morning. Dads are ready to be involved, says Palmer. You just have to ask them.
Dad’s Club grew quickly from two dads initially to almost 30 today. “The dads would say, ‘Wow, this sounds exciting, this sounds like fun. What would my job be?’” Palmer recalls of early recruitment efforts.
Moms have always helped out, but dads needed a nudge. “Prior to Dad’s Club there were just a few brave, bold dads who would show up at events. Before, it was a feeling of ‘Are we supposed to be involved, should we be involved? Now it’s an equal partnership balance. Dads walk in the door thinking, ‘There’s something that they want me for, a specific job that allows me to feel that I’m a part of the school,’” Palmer said.
“It’s a valuable resource that we never thought of tapping before,” he said. “I’m more amazed each time we do something because more and more dads want to be involved.”
The Academics of Fatherhood
Mr. Palmer expects increased academic performance and a reduced drop out rate by involving dads now. “Some of the dads who have been involved are non high school graduates themselves. They’ve said they’re trying to break that cycle. They’ve told me, ‘I don’t want my child to turn out like I did and not finish high school,’” he said.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), kids get better grades, enjoy school more, and stay in school longer when their fathers are involved at school. According to a 1998 NCES study, nearly one-third of students got mostly A’s when their fathers were highly involved in their schools compared to 17-percent when their fathers had low levels of school involvement.
Model for Other Schools
“It hits on two positive venues,” Palmer said. “One, academic excellence, and two, character. The dads are modeling responsibility, they’re modeling follow-through and honesty and all those positive character traits we like our kids to see. It’s something that can be replicated and something everyone should be jumping on and doing. It doesn’t cost any money and it’s just a good deal,” he says.
The words of Henry David Thoreau ring true at Borah Elementary School: The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it…. It seems that 95% of the time when Mr. Palmer asks dads to exchange some of their time for their children at school the answer he receives is a resounding ‘Yes!’