A Ngawha inmate who told staff he had never played a board game, and did not know how to play with his children, can take some of the credit for a new initiative that is bringing inmates and their families closer together by teaching fathers how to be fathers.

The initiative, launched almost three months ago and described by prison management as extremely successful, began with the transforming of an unused space off the visitor area to make it more family-friendly.

A colourful, educational mural and interactive art panels welcome children, and encourage them to learn the alphabet, about the seasons, shapes and New Zealand's geography.

The visitors' area also has colourful child-sized picnic benches, made and painted by prisoners in the carpentry and painting workshops, while children can play a giant quilted snakes and ladders game, have fun with dice and counters made from fabric and play quilted tic-tac-toe, all made by youth offenders in the sewing workshop.

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Prisoners in the carpentry and sewing workshops also made small Christmas gifts for families and children, and personalised Christmas decorations.

The gifts included wooden planes, cars, helicopters, basic tic-tac-toe games, wands and backpacks.

What staff had noticed, a prison spokesman said, was that some fathers did not know how to be fathers, or how to interact with their families and children.

So the one daily visiting period was divided into four, and instead of sitting around a table and talking, the children inevitably getting bored, they can enjoy some quality family time.

The new approach also includes a breakfast club in the morning and light refreshments in the afternoon, the prisoners making toast, cups of tea etc for their families, welcoming the opportunity to look after their families, something that many of them had never done.

The prison says the programme is changing the way inmates think and act as parents.

They are encouraged to get involved in activities with their families, whether that be games, board games or reading.

There was a little more food than usual last week, given that it was Christmas, with presents under a tree for the children.

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And staff say they are seeing a real difference. The TV on the wall in the visiting area had not been switched on since the programme began, there being no need for children to be distracted.

"When I visited last week there were four families.

The children were laughing, and you could see they were enjoying the time with their fathers," said Debbie Beadle, who was there for the Northland Age.

"The day before, staff told me they had 36 children visit, and instead of running riot they sat down with their fathers and interacted with them, playing games, reading books, and were looked after by them, changing nappies and feeding them."

In the New Year staff were hoping to add a parenting skills course.