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Dads can put the pop in playtime

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 01:17 PM

Mike Faraguna didn't have kids yet when he bought his house in north Tampa, but he knew the large lot and lake access fit the approach to fatherhood he was going to take.

He wanted a spot where he could teach his children to fish, as his father had taught him. He knew there would be plenty of space for afternoons spent together, horsing around or just hanging out.

Now his sons are 7 and 12, and the yard has a central role in their family time.

"It's kind of our little playland," Faraguna says.

There's a dock where they fish for bass. An oversized raft bobs nearby. They swing from a rope or on a tire, play catch or cram into a hammock together. A year ago, Faraguna built a sprawling tree fort that provides a launching point for tree climbing and water gun battles. He's talking about adding a zip line.

This playtime, Faraguna says, has helped turn the family into a "tight-knit bunch." They share experiences, build memories and spend time with each other that invites conversation without forcing it.

It's one of the best and most natural ways dads have of forming attachments with their children.

"It's the essence of bonding. When they're babies, it's easy. We have to hold them," says psychologist Lawrence Cohen, co-author of "The Art of Roughhousing" (Quirk Books, $14.95). "As they get older, we have to be more creative."

Play can get pushed aside for responsibilities, safety concerns or fear of aggression. But "The Art of Roughhousing" and another new book, "Baby Barbells" (Running Press, $13.95), offer parents a way to turn physical play into a lifestyle, even detailing moves to try.

Cohen and co-author Anthony DeBenedet, a physician, weave into their text research that says horseplay is not only OK, it's important. It builds trust, stimulates the brain and teaches social skills. Their book suggests games with varying levels of intensity, complexity, creativity and contact. You can follow instructions and illustrations to sail down stairs on a mattress, turn a bed into an ejection seat or help little ones fly.

"Baby Barbells," by Joshua Levitt, focuses on younger children and includes crunches with a child propped on dad's legs, rows with the infant car seat and lunges while cradling the baby. Levitt developed a lot of the movements playing with his three kids, beginning with bench-pressing his daughter when she was 6 months.

"I started to feel the burn in my triceps, and she was loving it," says Levitt, a naturopathic physician.

None of these techniques are exclusive to men. Moms make great roughhousers -- Faraguna's wife, Susan, is active with her sons in their yard, too. But mothers many times already occupy a niche in their children's lives as a nurturer, while fathers are looking for their role.

"This active, physical play is more of the first thing dads think of," Cohen says. "For a lot of moms, they might do it, but it wouldn't be their first choice."

Peter Jenson, 55, always knew he would be active in his daughter's life. He and his wife, Diane, had tried for more than a decade to have children before Lauren, now 10, was born.

A church music minister, Jenson has coached Lauren in singing and got her started playing piano. He taught her to play golf and takes her out with her grandfather for nine holes or the driving range. At home in Tampa, they try to beat each other at Monopoly or backgammon.

"Daddy's always been the fun person," Jenson says. "I'm the one who goes and jumps in the swimming pool with her, and we have all the fun."

His wife's territory involves manicures they do together and, now that Lauren is entering middle school, conversations about fashion and boys.

Jim Stuart, 47, always roughhoused with his three kids, pretending to be a monster who wanted to catch them. But he is happy to let his wife, Cindy, handle the "power shopping" his two older daughters want to do while he hangs out with his son.

Because he travels a lot for a sales job, Stuart instituted a "day out with dad" to help him connect with his kids more. Each of his children, who span from third through eighth grade, get a day once or twice a year to do whatever they want – theme parks, fishing, movies. His daughters also asked him to coach their softball team, which he enjoys because he can spend time teaching them about values and setting goals.

Bruce Delk says he'll do anything his 10-year-old daughter, Katie, asks him to, even when it involved practicing disco moves so they could perform together in her dance recital this month.

Delk, 57, has missed school and dance events due to his job as a Hillsborough County firefighter, which keeps him away for 24 hours at a time. But when he's home, he says, he makes sure he's 100 percent dedicated to his family.

He organizes monthly dad breakfasts at Lake Magdalene Elementary. He helps Katie with her math and science and takes her to the movies and the mall. Friday nights are dedicated to pizza and movies.

And every morning during the school year, Delk walks Katie to her class.

"I've told her as soon as she says she doesn't want me to do that, I'll stop," he says. "I don't want to embarrass her."

But Katie surprised him on a recent morning.

"I felt her little hand find mine," he says, "and hold onto it."


cpastor@tampatrib.com (727) 815-1072 Follow Courtney Cairns Pastor on Twitter @TBOmom.

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