In 2012 Cotlands started its non-centre based early childhood development programme and has made play-based early learning opportunities available to 12 675 children in South Africa’s poorest communities through toy libraries and playgroups.

The underlying premise of this service is to take the programme to children in their communities – even in remote rural areas – where due to small numbers or space restrictions, it is not possible to build ECD centres. Using a non-centre based model avoids expensive infrastructure costs and ensures that no children are excluded because of where they live. It also enables an increase in access to a lot of children using the same resources, explains project manager Getrude Mabeza.

“These programmes give vulnerable children access to high quality play-based early learning opportunities to reduce the effects of deprivation and promote the development of their innate potential.”

Cotlands’ toy libraries offer high-impact, cost-effective services that lend books, educational toys and play materials to children, their families, early learning facilitators and ECD practitioners. To increase access even more, they use mobile toy libraries to reach remote and under resourced areas. Toy libraries also provide a safe environment where an adult guides children’s playful learning experiences.

“Play is important to all children and toys are a major element in helping to play and learn. A toy library welcomes children, their families, primary caregivers and ECD practitioners to come and play in themed play rooms and outdoor areas, or to borrow toys, games, puzzles and equipment.”

The Early Learning Playgroup programmes cater for birth to two-year-old, as well as two to four-year-old age groups and are based on best practice principles that ensure the holistic development of a child. These play sessions are held in a range of venues including individuals’ homes, empty rooms in inner-city buildings and church halls.

For birth to two-year-olds the high impact two-hour playgroup sessions are offered once a week and helps minimise the risk of babies falling behind in their developmental milestones. Mothers and primary caregivers attend a group with their baby and learn techniques like baby massage. Parents are also offered counselling and parenting education and taught how to make improvised toys using recycled and everyday household items, explains Mabeza.

The two to four-year-old playgroups, on the other hand, are held bi-weekly with sessions carefully planned around gross and fine motor skills as well as social and emotional skills. Children also receive a healthy meal, as well as health check-ups and psychosocial support.

Partnership with government

As with most operations and programmes that really want to make an impact, collaborations and partnerships with government and specific departments are needed in order to ensure scale.

Cotlands’ successful implementation of their early childhood development programme relies on a partnership with the South African government’s Community Works Programme (CWP). The facilitators’ stipends are paid by COGTA and those involved in playgroups are pulled from the CWP, explains Mabeza.

“They work according to the CWP conditions and run two playgroups, twice a week while we (Cotlands) are responsible for the training, setting up, monitoring and support of the playgroups.”

Challenges encountered

Implementing non-centre based programmes are not without their challenges and there are several they have encountered over the years. These include:

• Lack of venues
• Uncertainty about operational environment
• Legal requirements from the municipalities and the Department of Social Development
• Inconsistent sources of income
• Deregistration of children
• Absenteeism; a lack of qualified personnel to run the programmes; playgroup facilitators are unhappy with the stipend they are paid for the amount of work they do, which leads to high attrition rates as facilitators leave for greener pastures
• Lack of resources and equipment for cleaning

In order to address these challenges action needs to be taken at a local and national level, and can be addressed through buy-in by all stakeholders; allowing access to the DSD ECD grant for different programmes (not only centre-based); career pathing for unqualified facilitators in the form of study bursaries; as well as stipends for facilitators, says Mabeza.

Other programmes

In addition to their work with children, Cotlands runs several adult-focused programmes through which they reach and impact 7 120 adults.

Cotlands’ other operational areas include:

• Hosting monthly parenting workshops at every playgroup venue to inform, support and encourage positive parenting skills
• Capacity building activities where they share best practice principles with non-profit organisations so that they too can implement their toy library and playgroup model. In doing so they can more rapidly increase access to early learning opportunities. These sessions also help empower those who work with children and assist in behavioural change that enables participants to work positively with children – aiding their development
• They have collaborated with the Department of Basic Education, UNICEF and the LEGO Foundation to build a free online e-learning platform, equipping 150 000 ECD practitioners and Grade R to 3 educators with play-based learning techniques
• They also source and train playgroup facilitators and toy librarians from pools of unemployed youth in local communities. They encourage their workforce to formalise their qualifications by obtaining accredited ECD Level 4, 5 and 6 qualifications.


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