Refilwe sitting in the “fantasy play” corner of her playgroup

By Lisa Cohen

Her name is Refilwe* and she is three years old. She lives in Ngobi village – a small, lonely fleck on the dusty North West landscape.  Refilwe and I meet in the early learning playgroup she attends three days a week.  She is the quietest child in the group and immediately gravitates to the playgroup’s ‘fantasy play’ corner when given the opportunity for unstructured playtime.

I sidle over to her and compliment her blue sun hat – no response, not even a smile. But I am not easily deterred.  I start playing pretend with a plastic doll and show Refilwe how to rock and put a baby to sleep. She imitates me and we play in companionable silence for a few minutes. When I ask if I can take her picture, she gives me a nod too serious for a three-year-old and just the tiniest of smiles. Refilwe is beautiful and I’m smitten.

Less than 24 hours prior, I attended a long meeting in Rustenburg planning the future of Refilwe’s early learning playgroup and roughly 30 others currently taking place in the North West. The playgroups are a joint initiative between Cotlands, Lima, COGTA’s Community Work Programme, the Department of Social Development, Ilifa Labantwana and, soon, SmartStart social franchising.

We all play a different role in the project but we are working towards the same goal – to bring early learning services, through to a non-centre based model, to children who wouldn’t typically have access to them.As with all multi-stakeholder endeavours, the co-ordination, planning and execution is frequently complex and occasionally frustrating. However, through the adjustments, the tweaks and the U-turns; our mantra has stayed constant: just 40% of South Africa’s poorest children have access to quality early learning services during the period their fast growing brains most need them. This needs to change. The connection with this little girl, her 3 and 4 year old peers, and the CWP Early Learning Playgroup facilitator that day, reminded me why the ‘higher level’ engagement in meeting rooms is so important – so that every child can have access to early learning services in South Africa.  The main outcome of our joint meeting was a plan of action to work together in the coming months and years allow more playgroups to reach children like Refilwe who, for logistical or financial reasons, don’t have access to centre-based early learning.


A group of children take part in a Early Learning Group group exercise


The Early Learning Playgroup in Ngobi village

*Name changed


Lisa Cohen is Ilifa’s Parenting Portfolio Manager





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