Building LEGO, reading, playing sports, hide and seek, peekaboo, and even tickling are all examples of activities that foster creativity and closeness. In fact, research shows that playtime stimulates early brain development and improves a child’s communication, vocabulary, and language skills. Play also contributes to school readiness by helping children learn how to problem-solve, manage their emotions, and build empathy and social competence.

At Children’s Home & Aid, we believe that parents are their child’s first and most influential teachers, and that fathers have an important role in strengthening their families. Stronger Beginnings for Families (SBFF) is a FREE and voluntary program in Southern Illinois that is rooted in these ideas, providing home-based prevention and intervention services to at-risk prenatal mothers, and families with infants and toddlers (up to age three) — from education classes and parent-child bonding activities to developmental assessments and community referrals.  

Tabitha Luczak, Lead Home Visitor with Stronger Beginnings for Families, is convinced that empowering parents with practical ideas for playful parenting will strengthen families and help parents prepare their children for later school success. “What we’ve found is that when we bring families together, they listen, understand, and encourage one another,” Tabitha reflected. “Having supportive relationships is a strong protective factor against mental illness, helping to increase the emotional well-being of the whole family.”  

Tabitha emphasized that father involvement, specifically, increases a child’s self-efficacy and self-worth. “When families share everyday activities together, they form strong bonds,” she pointed out. “Having a father who is affectionate and supportive helps a child’s cognitive and social development and instills a sense of well-being and self-confidence.”  

Children’s Home & Aid is committed to engaging families ahead of potential issues that could create problems in the future. Providing tools that include the entire family unit, whether they live under one roof or not, is a critical part of doing our preventive, family-focused work. This is where former LEGO Master contestants Tim Croll and Corey Samuels come in. To learn more about such relationship “building blocks” — and knowing the enormous appeal of LEGO — Tabitha attended an Instagram Live with Tim and Corey looking for ideas to engage fathers and families in her region.

Tim and Corey both spoke about the importance of their roles as fathers within their own families and how important it is for fathers to spend time with their children. Inspired by their conversation, Tabitha organized what would be the first panel presentation, combining the LEGO masters’ interest and passion for fatherhood engagement to Children’s Home & Aid’s Blueprint for Impact, a guide to our doing our work with a focus on equity and strategic actions to strengthen entire families. 

LEGO for Life 

Tim Croll is a business growth strategist that uses LEGO as a visual aid, showing clients how to build their businesses. He got into LEGO while playing with his children and firmly believes that there is nothing more powerful than parents connecting with their kids by spending time with them through shared interests. 

“I act as a teacher and guide, providing the framework to help people develop a life worth living. I have learned that the legacy that we leave isn’t defined by the size of business we create or the amount of money that we make, but rather our legacy is defined by those that we have impacted.”

Tim is very passionate about creating an environment for fathers that supports, encourages, and motivates them. “We need both mothers and fathers to raise healthy children.” 

The Narrative You Create 

Five fathers, enrolled in the Stronger Beginnings program, participated in the first one-hour virtual panel discussion called “The Narrative You Create.” The discussion was designed for fathers and significant male figures as an open forum to talk and share about their own childhood experiences and their experiences with their children.  

Meeting online gave the fathers freedom to make connections with other fathers and integrate the powerful discussion into their family’s evening while their kids came in and out of the room. The participants listened to each other with great intensity and interest while Tim provided feedback and some ideas they could put into practice. They graciously shared their own unique circumstances and their desire to build connections with their children through play and other activities regardless of their circumstances or the ages of their children.  

The fathers also spoke of their challenges. One said, “I know many fathers that want to remain involved with their children, but the system seems to be built for us fathers to fail. We’ve got to be consistent and remain strong.” Another observed, “We don’t have platforms where we can speak to each other and be able to relate, and that is important.” A third father said, “More dads need to have a voice with an outlet and male counselors would be a great addition.” 

Tabitha and her Stronger Beginnings team want to provide fathers with additional platforms, like more fatherhood panels, to share their experiences, talk about their challenges, and build community. 

Providing Support to Fathers 

Playing together and creating memories are important building blocks to strengthen families because we know that childhood outcomes are better when fathers are also involved. This includes an increased chance of academic success and reduced risks of delinquency, substance abuse, and other risky behaviors. At Children’s Home and Aid, we know fathers are essential and we’re partnering with dads throughout the state to link them with the resources, tools, mentorship, and peer support they need to succeed. 

With the help of partnering agencies, volunteers, and donors, Children’s Home & Aid is building the foundation for strengthening families in Illinois, including supporting fathers who are involved in their children’s lives and those who would like to take a larger, more engaged role. But there is still a lot more to do to make a difference––firstly acknowledging systemic racism, especially for child-welfare involved families.  

Please contact us online, if you are interested in supporting future fatherhood panels, Stronger Beginnings for Families, or one of our other fatherhood-focused programs like Thriving Fathers and Families. It takes a village to build communities and bring about change! You can also learn more about our prevention work by checking out our statement in support of National Child Abuse Prevention Month. 

“Fathers in our program are participating more in services because we simply changed the time of our events based on survey results. Since our first fatherhood panel, many of the fathers who participated have reminded us to not forget about them.”  
~ Sherri O’Toole, Home Visiting Supervisor, Stronger Beginnings for Families 

Families from SBFF pose for special group photos during the 2021 Winter Bizarre event.