Early childhood stimulation is vital for all children, and our ECD policies need to reflect our reality, writes Kaathima Ebrahim. Photo: Jason Boud/African News Agency (ANA) Archives
Early childhood stimulation is vital for all children, and our ECD policies need to reflect our reality, writes Kaathima Ebrahim. Photo: Jason Boud/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Early Childhood Development starts with parents and government policy needs to reflect this

By Opinion Time of article published Mar 12, 2021

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by Kaathima Ebrahim

Premier Alan Winde recently confirmed that Early Childhood Development (ECD) centres are now considered an “essential service” in the eyes of the Western Cape government.

The plans to support ECD centres “feature prominently” in their Covid recovery package - this is welcome news to all of us working in the ECD sector.

But, while ECD centres play an important role for child development, we need to acknowledge and plan for the estimated 3.4 million preschool children in South Africa who are now staying at home with parents and caregivers.

Poverty and access issues to ECD centres - compounded by lockdown-related job losses - have forced parents and caregivers to be the providers of their children’s early stimulation for the foreseeable future.

Early childhood stimulation is vital for all children, and our ECD policies need to reflect our reality, that parents and caregivers in the home also need support, in order to be effective.

Premier Winde asserted that young children not in ECD centres may not be in “appropriate care”. Rather than seeing this as a problem, we need to acknowledge this as a lived reality, and see it as an opportunity to support all parents to do their best for their young children.

In addition to boosting the ECD centre-based sector, the government would do well to look at the sector more holistically, by highlighting and supporting the role that parents and caregivers can, and should, play for their young children.

Where only 5% of adults share books with their children, we need to be creative and deliberate about building a culture of books in our own homes. “Dialogic book-sharing” is a special kind of interaction between an adult and a young child using wordless picture books.

Book-sharing is not simply about reading to a child, but rather engaging them interactively over the pictures in these books.

Academic research - some of which we are involved in - has proven that book-sharing dramatically improves a young child’s language and attention skills. It also makes them more emotionally aware and reduces aggressive behaviours.

Research has also found a direct correlation between positive parent-child relationships and child development. Positive parent-child relationships form a strong tenet in successfully breaking cycles of poverty and violence.

Because book-sharing does not depend on an adult’s education, reading or language abilities - and because it is cheap and effective - it is a well-fitting solution to be rolled out in a context like South Africa’s.

As Mr Winde correctly states, ECD is critical to future education, social - and even professional - performance, but achieving development for our young children cannot be solely focused on centre-based solutions: it has to include parents and caregivers as active agents of stimulation.

Policy should ensure that parents and caregivers across South Africa are supported to make this a reality.

* Kaathima Ebrahim, Chief executive officer of Mikhulu Child Development Trust.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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