Early Childhood Development – the best place to invest?


In my work I come across truly incredible South Africans whose whole life is given to improving and bettering the opportunities of others. This is one such story – Steuart Pennington 

Written by Sharon Dell 

There is growing appreciation of the importance of play in early cognitive development, but such concerns are still far from being reflected in the allocation of resources in the early childhood development (ECD) sector. To fill this gap, three PMB-based NGOs have forged a unique partnership which makes a real investment in the future of society.

A 22-year-long study started among poor populations in Jamaica in the 1970s by Dr Sally Grantham-McGregor and Christine Powell showed that children whose mothers received weekly home visits for two years by doctors and nurses who helped them engage their babies in play attained higher test scores for reading, mathematics and general knowledge later in life. They stayed in school longer, were less likely to be violent or experience depression, and had better social skills. Significantly, they earned 25% on average more than a control group of similar children.

In a situation in which 50% of South African children who start Grade 1 drop out before matric, and 78% of Grade 4 learners are unable to read for meaning in any language, according to the latest PIRLS test, the need for early childhood stimulation programmes seems pressing.

According to David Harrison of South African foundation the DG Murray Trust, resources that would be better spent in the first years of a child’s life are being concentrated in higher education. “Over the next three years, more than a trillion rand will be spent on basic and higher education, but just 1% of that will go to early learning programmes. When will we confront the reality that homeopathic doses of early learning just won’t work?” he wrote recently.

It’s a view shared by Duncan Andrew, director of the Pietermaritzburg-based Thandanani Children’s Foundation thandanani.org.za). Referring to the #FeesMustFall protests that culminated last year in an increased allocation of funds to higher education, he said: “It feels like the loudest voice gets rewarded … but as in most things, the real rewards lie in early investment.”

However, while financial investment is certainly needed, it does not need to be prohibitively expensive. A partnership forged in 2015 between Thandanani, and two other local NGOs working in the ECD space – Singakwenza (http://www.singakwenza.co.za/) and Dlalanathi (http://dlalanathi.org.za/) – has proved that effective early childhood stimulation interventions can be made without enormous financial resources.

The Play Mat Programme draws on the expertise of all three organisations to target caregivers of children under six who live in resource constrained households that are part of TCF’s Family Strengthening Programme. Caregivers learn basic child development principles, the value of stimulation through play, and the benefits of intentional engagement between caregiver and child.

Caregivers are taught how to make and use educational toys and learning aids made from household packaging such as used yoghurt tubs, milk bottle tops and cereal boxes. The toys are the personal “invention” of ECD practitioner and founder of Singakwenza Julie Hay who was determined to find a sustainable way to facilitate playing and learning among young children.

“Learning is not dependent on having nice shiny toys and materials; it’s about having an adult with commitment,” she said.

Through the Play Mat methodology, each toy is attached to a specific set of lessons for the child – such as eye-hand coordination, problem-solving, counting, and practicing the pincer grip. There are also parenting skills attached to each lesson.

According to Dlalanathi director Rachel Rozentals-Thresher the Play Mat concept builds on the idea that the relationship between child and its caregiver, which actually starts during pregnancy, sets a foundation for all future cognitive and emotional development of the child.

TCF’s Play Mat facilitator and auxiliary social worker, Thobile Sokhela, says the results on the ground have been phenomenal.

“The project is very popular. One mother took her child out of a formal crèche and brought him back to the play mat group because she said she could see that he was learning much more on the mat,” said Sokhela.

Importantly, the programme is also building stronger, more stable, relationships between caregivers and their children.

“It is these seemingly small investments that could change a child’s future, says Andrew.

*For more information on the Play Mat Programme visit:



Thandanani Children’s Foundation: http://www.thandanani.org.za/

Singakwenza: http://www.singakwenza.co.za/

Dlalanathi: http://dlalanathi.org.za/

As an addendum I thought this would be of interest to readers.

Early Childhood Development Centre Owners Empowered to Make Smart Financial Choices

Crèche and Early Childhood Development Centre (ECD) owners are increasingly turning to ‘loan sharks’ to keep their businesses afloat, due to a combination of insufficient funds and poor money management skills. With unregistered credit providers charging up to five times the legal interest on loans, the repayments can financially cripple those running these much-needed facilities and put their centres at risk of closing down. To help prevent this, Metropolitan has teamed up with the African Unity Foundation (AUF) to provide financial literacy training to crèche owners.

To date, this training has been rolled out to 600 ECD owners and practitioners throughout rural Eastern Cape, enabling them to make educated and informed financial decisions when it comes to their own finances and those of the ECD centre.

Matters covered in the workshops include financial planning, financial management, budgeting, understanding financial processes, goal-setting, formulating a plan of action, utilising social grants for financial assistance and gaining financial freedom.

“Informed financial decisions, on an individual level, means prosperity and security that builds confidence and knowledge. It can also help shape the country’s economy into the powerhouse it has the potential to be,” says Dr Lauren Stretch, Founder and Managing Director of Early Inspiration, which manages Unity in Africa’s Early Childhood Development leg.

Metropolitan CSI Manager, Elsie Govender, adds: “It takes education to positively change financial behaviour and we are proud to help drive healthy financial behaviour amongst ECD practitioners because, ultimately, their decisions affect the children in their care.”

For more information, visit https://www.metropolitan.co.za.