Early childhood education is the key to South Africa’s future

Learning through play, the stimulation these young children are getting from the educational toys provided by The Unlimited Child will build a lifelong ability to learn.

Millions of children across South Africa returned to school last week and was joined by a whole new intake excited to be starting primary school for the first time.

The sad fact is that many of these first-graders have already been short-changed as real learning starts even earlier – with well-planned early childhood education, said Steph Bester, chairman of The Unlimited Child.

“Internationally, educationists agree that a child’s ability to learn is shaped during the first six years of life. Those who miss out on early childhood education may never fully catch up on their cognitive and personal development and will probably battle with learning to read, write, spell or do maths,” she added.

The importance of preparing young children for school led to the launch of The Unlimited Child in 2008. This organisation now reaches over 800 crèches in six provinces: Gauteng, Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and Western Cape.

More than 90 000 young children have benefitted so far from the initiative’s expert-developed practitioners’ guides, kits of educational toys and books, training for caregivers and ongoing monitoring. “Seeing the difference that these programmes make to young children, our aim is to reach 20 000 crèches,” said Bester.

South Africa’s National Development Plan placed high priority on early childhood education for four and five year olds but about three quarters of the country’s 7 million children under the age of six are not yet benefitting. Bester believes that corporates and individuals have to help fill this gap in order to positively impact South Africa’s future.

“Studies by UNICEF, UCT, Wits and Stellenbosch University to name but a few, have shown that beyond better literacy and numeracy, good early childhood education programmes help prepare young children to learn more effectively through primary and high school. As a result, they also significantly improve grade promotion, repetition and dropout rates,” he said.

Providing children with a stimulating environment in which they can learn and grow is not only for their development – studies have also shown that high-quality early childhood programmes bring impressive returns on investment to the public. One of the most significant research papers published in this regard is a 20-year study that found toddlers from Jamaica’s capital Kingston who were exposed to high quality stimulation programmes were on average earning 25 percent more as adults than the children who didn’t get any intervention. The public also saw returns in the form of reduced special education, welfare and crime costs (Prof P Geltler and J Heckman).

“In the longer term, early childhood stimulation programmes will enable our country’s future generations to transform their own opportunities in life and impact our economy for the better,” said Bester.

The Unlimited Child was founded after researchers encountered crèches where young children were left sleeping instead of being stimulated or where caregivers had no equipment to help them introduce early learning. Two leading South African educationists, Freda Wilkens, a renowned early childhood development specialist, and educational management specialist Ian Corbishley, created The Unlimited Child’s stimulation programmes.

The initiative now has four programmes, designed to provide age-appropriate stimulation for various age groups. The programmes and toolkits for babies, toddlers and pre-Grade R children are aligned to National Early Learning Development Standards (NELDS) whilst the Grade R programme is aligned to CAPS (Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement). Each of these programmes are now being rolled out to crèches participating in The Unlimited Child.

Putting purpose before profit, The Unlimited Child was founded and continues to be supported by The Unlimited Child, a Durban based financial services company. “We really welcome like-minded organisations to partner with us as together, we will be able to achieve a far greater impact on the future of South Africa than we ever could alone,” Bester concludes.

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