School readiness begins at birth

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The South African government has made Grade R (the year before Grade 1) compulsory for all children. Simultaneously, policy makers directed by extensive research, aim to strengthen the systems that support the earliest years through evidence-based early childhood development (ECD) programmes. For context, readiness is defined as a child being able to learn easily, effectively and without emotional disturbance. Sinmarie Pieterse, a Cape Town-based educational psychologist, says: “It cannot be defined as a point of development, however, because growth is a steady continuous process…Rather it is a condition or state indicating that the child is ready to learn.”
What lays the foundation for school readiness? Learning begins in the critical early years, long before a child enters Grade R. School readiness is a process and like a seed, must be watered and nurtured to grow into a viable and flourishing plant. Play-based learning, an excellent way to lay the foundations of lifelong learning, begins in infancy. For example, caregivers could expose babies to books by reading board books with them, or simply pointing to the pictures in the books. By the time the child is three or so, they’ll have a greater ability to enjoy listening to a more advanced book. Then, as the child progresses through pre-school, they’ll learn to begin forming letters and even writing their name with ease.
Being ready for maths begins early too. Children can be given blocks to stack and sort. Caregivers can encourage maths literacy by letting small children help them sort washing, or counting items in a shopping basket. In addition to these targeted activities, parents can do simple things like take their children to parks where there’s ample opportunity for free play in a safe environment. Singing and dancing with children is also a critical part of play-based learning.
The idea that ‘play’ is a critical part of learning seems counter-intuitive. But extensive evidence shows that play is indeed the work of childhood.
Further, children are emotionally ready for school when they’ve received adequate love and care as babies and young children. Well-being, self-confidence and the ability to function in a social group is developed through consistent, caring relationships.
Cotlands is tackling school readiness in a number of ways. First, to create stable emotional attachments between children and caregivers, Cotlands is implementing positive parenting programmes where parents attend workshops at Cotlands’ playgroups across the country. Second, Cotlands is training thousands of early childhood practitioners in play-based learning through the P.L.A.Y online course.
P.L.A.Y is a free online training course aimed at ECD practitioners and foundation phase teachers. It’s a partnership with UNICEF, The Lego Foundation and the Department of Basic Education. The course is meant to complement existing formal ECD training and is flexible enough for teachers to do it in their own time. Monica Stach, Cotlands Chief executive officer said in an interview: “P.L.A.Y is part of a much bigger movement of reintroducing play-based pedagogy into our schools and ECD centres. Ultimately we want to influence the way new teachers are trained and evaluated.” Further, parents are able to see that play is not an aside, but a central part of learning.
P.L.A.Y is revolutionary in that it can be taken to scale quite cheaply. A mobile phone and an internet connection is all that’s needed. Certainly data costs are a risk, but the course has been designed to be digested in small parts and only a small amount of data is needed for the downloads. A welcome development is the Department of Basic Education’s free wifi at most of its teacher training centres across South Africa.
In addition, Cotlands’ capacity building programme offers training on toy libraries and early learning programmes. The organisation is involved with implementation and monitoring and evaluating.
While there are many children who have started school ill-equipped to face its challenges, there is much being done behind the scenes to ensure this trend is reversed.