The Little Elephant Training Centre for Early Education (LETCEE) is a non-profit organisation that has been providing non-centre based ECD services to children in six rural communities within the Umzinyathi district of KwaZulu-Natal for a quarter of a century. In fact, LETCEE was one of the first organisations to do non-centre based ECD in South Africa, even before it was a recognised way of providing early learning services.

Non-centre ECD is central to LETCEE’s model because their operational environment demanded flexibility beyond traditional centre focused services. KZN is mainly rural and the province with the highest number of young children living in poverty. Umzinyathi district is home to 47 391 households with children under 6i and the majority of which (80%) live in rural and under-developed areasii – far from ECD centres and often with no means to pay ECD centre fees.

Currently, the access rates to early learning group programmes for 3-5 year olds in Umzinyathi is only 61%i. LETCEE brings and makes ECD services more accessible to these children. Its non-centre based ECD and fortified porridge programmes currently reach approximately 2000 children.

Over the past three years, LETCEE has partnered with SmartStart, an organisation with an innovative social franchise non-centre based early learning model, as a regional franchisor. LETCEE trains SmartStart facilitators in the district. On an annual basis it trains about 250 ECD practitioners to provide quality ECD services, and has accredited 5 818 women in its 25 year history.

We spoke to LETCEE’s Annika Hayward in operations and marketing who gave us a bit more information about the organisation that believes in a developmental approach to early childhood development.

Q: LETCEE only works in Umzinyathi in KZN, is there a specific reason why you work in this particular area?

The Umzinyathi district has been identified as the most deprived municipalityiii in South Africa. This means that the people here have very little access to services like health and education. We realise that ECD provides such an important foundation for future learning and development. Most of the children here have no access to ECD or if they do, the teachers don’t have any training. I believe that if we can change the face of ECD in Umzinyathi, we are setting our young children up for future success.

Q: How many practitioners or facilitators does LETCEE have in the communities where it works?

LETCEE currently has 100 practitioners and facilitators working to provide non-centre based ECD services in their communities. Additionally, there are also 300 SmartStarters working in the area, who we provide with mentoring, training and support.

Q: What type of programmes does LETCEE run and why these specifically?
The non-centre based ECD services we provide includes playgroups, home visits, toy libraries, food gardens and parenting workshops.

Resources for learning and play

In all the communities we work in, we have at least one fixed toy library. This is a converted shipping container stocked with playing and learning resources. Each toy library is managed by a trained toy librarian, who runs daily play sessions, parenting workshops and a lending service to the community. This is also where our ECD practitioners exchange toys to ensure they have new and exciting toys for their children regularly. We also own two mobile toy libraries, which function exactly like the fixed toy libraries, but are converted vehicles that go out to the most remote areas to provide play and learn opportunities to the areas that are too far to benefit from the fixed toy libraries. This is important because although we have a fixed toy libraries in the communities, they are so vast that people have to walk up to 10km to access their closest toy library – way too far for a toddler.

Like mentioned before, we have trained ECD practitioners who facilitate home- and community based play sessions. They also do home visits and provide parenting and learning support to caregivers. At each play session we provide the children under five with fortified porridge. In each community we also have a trained play facilitator that works specifically with children with disabilities and ensures inclusion in our playgroup programme.

Sustainable community food gardens

Every area that has children has access to a community or cluster food garden where caregivers and other community members can grow their own vegetables. We work on an allotment system, where each gardener can grow what they choose to. There is then opportunity for bartering with other gardeners for vegetables they didn’t grow as well as the opportunity to sell excess vegetables. Because there isn’t always space at home for a vegetable garden for the family, this system works well. We also encourage every family to have a bag vegetable garden where they grow plants that don’t need a lot of space, like spinach, onions, chillies and herbs. We realise that without a sustainable source of food for the children, our attempts to provide good quality ECD services will fail. By empowering the family to cultivate their own food, we have drastically improved the food security for children in these areas. The excess vegetables are also sold and provide extra cash to buy other staples like mealie meal and rice.

Community centre that is always open

In one community, we have a unique community centre. The centre provides breakfast to any children under the age of 18 who are hungry. Children then come in the morning, eat breakfast and then go to school. The younger ones stay at the centre for the day where there is a toy library and daily play sessions are provided. At lunchtime a cooked, balanced meal is provided to the pre-schoolers. The school-going children then eat their lunch when they return from school. There is also an afternoon snack and the opportunity for safe and supervised playing in the afternoon. This centre is open 365 days of the year – children are hungry on weekends and holidays too. We have noticed how these children are more interactive, playful and disciplined since having access to caring adults and a safe place to spend their time. There is also a room for assisted homework where children can work in a calm, warm setting. During exam times this is also open in the evenings to allow children to study – with electric lighting – in a secure and quiet place. When living in a one room house with parents who might or might not have finished school, it is not always so easy to do homework or prepare for tests and exams. Our centre then gives these children those opportunities.

Accredited and improvement courses

In addition to our community development programmes, we also have a training component. We offer the accredited level 4 FETC: ECD course. We also offer numerous short courses that aim to improve the quality of ECD services in our area.

Q: What have been your biggest lessons learnt over the past 25 years?

Having implemented projects in rural communities over a number of years, LETCEE has learnt that the approach to ECD has to be developmental rather than welfare-oriented. We know that ECD cannot exist on its own, but has to be linked to the wider life of the children in their families and communities. Projects must include aspects such as nutrition and income generation if they are to have any real lasting impact.

Our point of entry into a new community is always the community committee. Where there is none, we assist in the establishment of such a committee, which usually consists of traditional leaders and influential community members. One of the greatest realisations was that there is a need for a real, rather than token partnership, with the community. This includes decision-making and the setting of project budgets. We are proud of our continued relationships with the community committees and have seen our projects flourish when the community takes ownership of the programmes and commits to its success.

LETCEE’s achievement in a nutshell

  • In 2009, LETCEE’s model of ECD intervention was recognised by UNICEF as a model of excellence. In the same year, they also received the ABSA awards for Best ECD Provider in KZN and Most Innovative ECD Model.
  • LETCEE have presented our work at numerous international conferences, including in Austria, England and Dakar.
  • LETCEE have initiated and participated in numerous research projects with UKZN and UCT, and also have an ongoing relationship with the University of Leeds.

i The South African Early Childhood Review 2017
ii KZN Department of Health website
iii According to the South African Index of Multiple Deprivation, which presents a diagnostic analysis of poverty and multiple deprivation at small area level across South Africa utilising both the South African Index of Multiple Deprivation 2011 at ward level (SAIMD 2011) and an analysis of income poverty at ward level.

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