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 [...]