“If early childhood development is a priority, a lot of things can happen”

Ilifa Labantwana 1
Ilifa Labantwana is a South African early childhood development programme founded in 2009 (Ilifa Labantwana)

Child nutrition (Early years), Early childhood development, ​Learning through play (Early years)

We look at the issue of nurturing young children in South Africa - through the eyes of an ECD centre owner, a charity worker and an academic. 

Less than a quarter of young children in South Africa are receiving proper early learning – leaving millions without a good educational start in life, according to the General Household Survey.

South African charity Ilifa Labantwana – which works to secure an equal start for all children through quality early childhood development – goes further and claims that only one million of the six million under-fives in the country have access to learning.

So it has welcomed the latest roadmap for enabling the world’s youngest children – the Nurturing Care Framework for Early Child Development, which was launched earlier this year. 

The Framework – a joint initiative of the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the World Bank Group – has set up guidelines to catapult the issues of caring for the youngest members of society into the global arena.

Here we talk to the owner of a South African early childhood development (ECD) centre, a staff member from Ilifa Labantwana and an academic about early years care and the Nurturing Care Framework.

The ECD centre owner

Thuthukile Mhlungu Ecd 1

Thuthukile Mhlungu is the owner and principal of Inkanyezi ECD centre at Amaoti in eThekwini municipality.

She provides a quality early learning service to the children in her care but does it on a shoestring budget. One of the biggest obstacles for many centres is infrastructure – close to 40% of ECD centres in South Africa have infrastructure deficiencies.

For Thuthukile’s centre, that affected the walls, floors, sanitation and amenities. But now the centre is being upgraded thanks to a programme in which KwaZulu-Natal Department of Social Development and eThekwini Municipality are working together with Project Preparation Trust and Ilifa Labantwana.

Thuthukile’s grandmother opened the centre in 1981 – the first in the neighbourhood.

“There’s never been a creche with so much success,” she said. “We have people who are grandmothers today who were actually taught by my grandmother. They only want to bring their children here.”

“If you focus on the children, they grow well and they become responsible adults who will contribute positively to their families and to the community.

“For a long time ECD has been lacking political support. So now it’s finally happening. If support comes from the top, if ECD is a priority, then a lot of things can happen.”

The charity

Ilifa Labantwana 2

Ilifa Labantwana’s goal is to enable an additional one million children under five to access quality ECD (Ilifa Labantwana)

Svetlana Doneva of Ilifa Labantwana said: “The Framework calls for effective national programmes that are driven by strong and sustained political commitment and a determination to reduce inequity, poverty and social injustice – drawing on best practices from across high, middle and low-income countries.

“The Nurturing Care Framework for Early Childhood Development was launched at the World Health Assembly and provides an evidence-based roadmap for action.

“In order to develop to their full potential, children need nurturing care. This means conditions that ensure good health, adequate nutrition, safety and security, responsive caregiving and opportunities for learning. 

“Parents, family members and caregivers – who are closest to young children in the first years of life – are the optimum providers of nurturing care. But in order to ensure they have the time and resources to do this, policies, services and community support need to be in place.

“For example, reading is an important form of stimulation and teaches babies and children about communication. It introduces them to numbers, letters, colours and shapes; develops their listening, memory and vocabulary skills; and enables them to understand the world around them.

“Despite evidence supporting that babies should be read to from day one, data collected during the General Household Survey shows that half of children under two are never read to. The good news is that the regularity of being read to does increase as children get older – but not by enough. A third of South African children under five don’t get read to at all.”

The expert

Ilifa Labantwana 4

63% of children under six in South Africa live in the poorest 40% of households (Ilifa Labantwana)

Mark Tomlinson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Stellenbosch and one of the coordinating writers of the Framework, said: “South Africa has been at the forefront of global efforts towards improving early child development. 

“Universal Grade R provision [Grade R is the year before formal school starts] is an important component of current efforts to improve child development across the life-course and South Africa is somewhat of a pioneer in this regard. 

“The National Department of Health is currently rolling out the new Road to Health Booklet and this was chosen as one of the case studies linked to the Framework. 

“The five pillars of the Road to Health Booklet – nutrition, love, protection, healthcare and extra care – are in many ways quite similar to the five domains of the Nurturing Care Framework.

“The Framework provides an important roadmap for action in the next decade. It’s built on the wealth of evidence accumulated in the last 30 years about early brain development, how early childhood development unfolds across the life-course, and how it can be improved by policies and interventions. 

“In the Framework we included a quote from Sir Michael Marmot, who led the Social Determinants of Health for the WHO some years ago.

“It says: ‘If you are doing nothing, do something. If you are doing a little, do more. If you are doing a lot, do better’. 

“Where South Africa is doing a little we should do more, and where we are doing a lot we should do better. I am not sure that anything is easy or more difficult – as all are essential.”

Theirworld’s work on early childhood development is supported by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

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