South Africa

South Africa

Letter to the Editor: Early childhood development centres cannot be a substitute for quality family engagement

Letter to the Editor: Early childhood development centres cannot be a substitute for quality family engagement

There is much merit to Refiloe Nt’sekhe’s column on prioritising early childhood development. Quality early childhood development is important and has a lifelong impact; pre-schools are valuable and need to be grown and supported. Two years of Grade R should be integrated into the school system. However, what Nt’sekhe’s article fails to include is the essential role of primary caregivers, a role often overlooked when government refers to education. By DAVID JEFFERY.

Refiloe Nt’sekhe focuses her column on expanding access to early childhood development (ECD) centres and Grade R, but the most fruitful period of early development happens long before this – between birth and two years of age. It is in these youngest years that children’s’ neural networks are developing at an extraordinary rate. If we wait until a child is a suitable age to attend crèche, we have missed the golden opportunity to support our children’s neuro-cognitive development.

While there is much to commend ECD centres as a means of providing education and care to large numbers of children, they cannot be a substitute to quality family engagement. A child’s socio-emotional, cognitive and language development is most effectively nurtured through loving and stimulating relationships with their parents and family. It is particularly difficult to outsource this to facilities, which are often optimistically serving classes of more than 25 children.

Indeed, on a purely logistical level, the Centre for Early Childhood Development reports that there are approximately 70,000 teachers in ECD centres across the country. In contrast, there are more than five million primary caregivers of children up to the age of four – which is potentially the largest body of educators in the country.

Three studies in Khayelitsha by Stellenbosch University have shown conclusively that simply equipping parents to talk about the pictures in a book with children as young as 14 months old has extraordinary gains for an infant’s language and cognitive development, as well as empathy. This homegrown programme, called “supportive book-sharing”, is such a powerful initiative that it is now being studied in India, Brazil, Italy, and the United Kingdom, and has been recommended by the World Health Organisation

In ignoring the educative value of primary caregivers, there is more at stake than just misdirected attention. In our work in South Africa, Lesotho, India and the UK, a common refrain we hear from parents is, “I am uneducated, and so I cannot teach my child. I will take care of my child’s health, and the teacher will be responsible for my child’s education.”

By focusing exclusively on ECD centres and pre-schools as the site of early childhood education, we reinforce the mistaken belief that education happens outside of the home and that “uneducated” parents cannot educate their children. We cannot afford to build more crèches while disempowering the most important educators a child can have: families. DM

David Jeffery is the CEO for the Mikhulu Child Development Trust, which bridges the gap between the academic research on parenting programmes and organisations that work with families.

Photo: Global Action Nepal

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