By Alyssa Harrison
Food, love and learning that young children experience charts their course for the rest of their lives. Parents play a critical role, but children also need out-of-home early childhood development (ECD) programmes for additional support. ECD is a comprehensive approach to programmes and policies for children from birth to seven years of age. Its purpose is to protect the right of children to develop their full cognitive, emotional, social and physical potential. Evidence shows that quality early learning experiences enable children to do better at school and contribute more, economically and socially, as adults.
In South Africa there are about 42 000 ECD centres, many of them operating from people’s homes, and in informal settlements, shacks. These centres provide education, care and well-being for children. About 625 000 children (approximately 10% of children under six years) attend a centre subsidised by the state. Of these, only a quarter have quality programmes with trained practitioners and adequate resources.
Masikhule is a non-profit organisation (NPO) that trains ECD educators in marginalised communities. My story starts one Thursday morning when I joined a group of volunteers at their resource library. We packed bags filled to the brim with educational toys, puzzles and books. From there, they were delivered to 46 ECD centres within the Helderberg region.
One such ECD centre was Lwandle Baptist Kids run by Zimkita Nkani. The children were thrilled to receive the toys and books, their eyes wide with excitement as they ran to unpack the bags. Among their favourites were the puzzles and the ‘fantasy corner’ dress-up costumes. These educational resources are a luxury, as most ECD centres do not have access to toys and books.
Nkani’s first training course focused on the development of babies within their first 1000 days of life. She has since taken part in a business management course for principals; an advanced course to curate a daily teaching programme; as well as Teacher Enrichment Workshops that explore the concepts behind the teaching modules, and their importance for children.
It was the Early Learning Programme, however, that brought everything together. “It was really our compass, it gave us direction, it helped us enormously…it gave us that confidence.”
Through the training, Nkani learnt how to use the resources provided in the resource library. The educational materials are organised according to themes; such as “my body”; “my family”; “water animals” and “seasons”. The materials include varied activities which develop particular skills or concepts. Nkani received hands-on training on how to make play dough; puzzles; and to make learning and play resources from recyclable materials.
An important part of the Early Learning Programme is occupational therapy[AH1] . Léanne Keet, founder of Masikhule and an occupational therapist (OT), structures the activities to develop eye-hand coordination, fine motor coordination, and perception skills. She also trains the educators to recognise when a child is not keeping up, even if it is as subtle as not holding their pen correctly. If a big enough problem is identified, an OT will intervene, allowing issues to be corrected early on. Masikhule continues to mentor Nkani and her school, to see where the teachers are struggling, what is and isn’t working, and what can be improved.
Masikhule is a holistic programme, and Nkani says that she will definitely continue the partnership. From the feedback that Nkani receives from primary schools that the children attend, she can see that they are flourishing, showing the importance of a good start in early childhood.
“The most rewarding thing was to see what we taught them, we’re seeing it being unveiled in the children.”