P(l)aying to (L)earn: Getting our Children Healthy, Well and Ready for Learning


P(l)aying to (L)earn: Getting our Children Healthy, Well and Ready for Learning

As an economist interested in health, the part of the education system that I get most excited about is early childhood education. This is where access to good health services and education most closely overlap.

So much of what we see in children’s wellbeing in the early childhood development phase is determined by good access to healthcare: for their mothers before they were even a twinkle in someone’s eye, followed by good healthcare during pregnancy, after birth and then in the early childhood years.

When it gets to the education part, it’s not only about book learning, but as much about socio-emotional wellness and physical development. We see multidimensional health receiving more attention here than in any other part of during the educational process: have children received good nutrition and avoided stunting, are they securely attached and happy, and are they able to explore and learn new things when their mother is not in the room?

Much has been written about the importance of the first 1,000 days in children’s lives. It is during this period, roughly from conception until two years of age, that so much (dare I say most?) of what happens later in children’s lives is determined. Yet it is an area of life where the education system has little reach and there is greatest reliance on the health system.

The most important influences in children’s lives are those of the home, the broader family and perhaps a good early childhood development teacher or nurse at the local clinic, if they are lucky.

We know very little about South Africa’s early childhood development sector. Last year the Department of Basic Education undertook an early childhood development (ECD) Census. The census managed to collect data from 42,420 early learning programmes nationally, representing 1.6 million enrolled children. It was the first such attempt to paint a picture of the ECD landscape in South Africa. (Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t locate the original ECD Census Report, but am sharing a link to the comprehensive Daily Maverick piece on the results).

It was a brave, first step to collect data on how this sector looks. But what was discovered was disappointing and worrying. Only 40% of the ECD programmes were fully or conditionally registered with the Department of Social Development, the regulator of the sector at the time of the survey (the oversight function for ECD has since been transferred to the Department of Basic Education).

Only a third were receiving subsidies from government. Slightly more than half of staff at these programmes had a relevant qualification. All of this points to a sector not currently receiving the necessary government support and funding to help children have the ECD experience that will prepare them for later life opportunities.

But the saddest finding of all was about how little time children are given for play. The data showed that 54% of ECD programmes were giving 30 minutes of free play per day, and 45% of these programmes allowed children less than 30 minutes per day outside play.

And how are the kids doing? The Census didn’t collect data on children’s performance. But shortly before the results of the ECD Census was released, the findings of the Thrive by Five Index were widely shared in April. It made newspaper headlines for a week. The Thrive by Five project collected data on how a sample of nationally representative four- and five-year-olds (children aged 50-59 months) were doing across a range of indicators (learning, social-emotional functioning, social relations, emotional readiness for school, growth and normal growth). The indicators were used to calculate a single index which provides a snapshot summary of how children are faring.

The main finding was that two out of every three children whose performance was tested at early childhood learning programmes were not on track to meeting the minimum requirements to thrive by five. One in four children were experienced growth stunting (stunted growth or severely stunted growth). The report mentions that the share of growth-stunted children has not really changed in the last 25 years in South Africa. A much larger share of children in the wealthiest 20% of early learning programmes were on track compared to the poor 20%.

What does this mean for our country’s development? Until now, investment in children’s early lives has been limited and even dramatically neglected. Almost all the attention has been focused on getting children through the hurdles of primary school and then matric. There has been little understanding of how critical the early childhood development years are in determining most of what happens later in children’s lives. Of course, it’s not impossible for children to rise above the circumstances of their childhood. But for most children, what happens in the early life years has an all-influencing impact on what happens later in their lives.

Children who have been growth-stunted or who arrive hungry at school, irrespective of the type of school, will struggle to learn. Children who have not discovered themselves through the power of play, learning to take chances and calculated risks, may be unable to become the entrepreneurs that South Africa needs. Children who are not given an environment in which to safely express themselves and be supported in learning new skills, may never become who we want and need them to become.

And that loss would be monumental.

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