When trying to navigate life in Alexandra, one of South Africa’s most poverty-stricken townships, your focus is always on finding work, buying food, keeping a roof over your head, and keeping your children safe. It’s unlikely to be on finding ways for your children to play.
And yet, play is a vital part of children’s development, and it’s most important in their early years – particularly in an environment like Alexandra, where recurring cycles of poverty prevent children from emerging beyond their circumstances for a better future.
That’s according to Bafana Mohale, Education Manager at Rays of Hope, an Alexandra based, community focused non-profit company that helps improves the lives and livelihoods of the township’s people.
“Play promotes brain development, it improves intelligence, and it sparks creative thinking,” Mohale says. “It improves communication, vocabulary and language, and it promotes impulse control and the regulation of emotions. It grows social skills and empathy, and it encourages better physical and mental health, as well as improving language, numeracy, and problem-solving skills. It also strengthens relationships between children and their caregivers and peers.
“Play is the safe environment in which children learn how to interact positively with one another and the world around them – it should not be a luxury that is unavailable to vulnerable children that need it to be able to participate in the world around them,” he says.
At present, however, play is a luxury in Alexandra. Children are denied the opportunity as a result of a lack of formal and registered early childhood development centres, a shortage of skills among loving and nurturing caregivers without any formal training, and poverty that prevents parents from paying for qualified childcare while they are at work.
The township’s buildings and other structures are dense, with few homes having their own garden area, and with few public parks and playgrounds that offer a safe space for children to let their imaginations and bodies run free.
Addressing this was one of the reasons Rays of Hope took over management of the Hlayisanani Day Care Centre in Swetla in Alexandra, where up to 72 young children receive quality pre-primary education – and where they get to play.
Children at Hlayisanani also receive food – with this meal being the main source of nutrition for many of them.
“It’s also difficult to realise that making it possible for these children to play, to use their imaginations, to learn and flex their social skills, really could make a difference to South Africa’s future. But it can – because children that learn empathy, problem solving, and who can communicate, grow into adults who can make the world a better place for themselves, their families, and their communities,” he says.
With Alexandra being a mere five-minute drive from Sandton, the economic hub of Africa, Mohale calls on businesses and individuals in the area to make a truly meaningful difference in the lives of the township’s children. By supporting Rays of Hope’s early childhood development programmes with funding, people are also supporting the future of the country. More information can be found on the organisation’s website, www.raysofhope.co.za