/ 28 September 2012

Preschool should be child’s play

Many children miss out on playing with blocks
Many children miss out on playing with blocks

The national planning commission's new plan for the country contains a recommendation for all children to be given access to two years of preschool. I applaud the plan, but I am not sure that the commission, or anybody else in government, appreciates what it will take.

It is not enough to put children within preschool walls. What goes on inside them matters greatly. It is important to address the need for appropriate teacher training and for appropriate environments that facilitate learning through play.

The importance of play is now firmly established. A huge body of research by neurologists, psychologists and educationists shows that human beings establish their most important learning and brain development as babies and preschoolers. What happens at this time will stay with us for the rest of our lives and can mean a successful or an unsuccessful life. Later remediation can help but it will never cure or replace what we lose in those years — and it costs a huge amount both in money and human distress and misery.

Preschool should be a time of huge and complex learning. Neurologists tell us that ignoring or preventing brain development at this time can cause parts of the brain to shut down forever. I believe that many children are failing maths from about grades three to four because they have not played educational games, done puzzles and played with water, sand and blocks when they were preschoolers. They simply have not learnt the skills they needed to take their learning from concrete arithmetic to a more abstract mathematics.

And yet the quality of childcare and early childhood development facilities, particularly in poor areas, is often terrible. Over the past four years, I have observed at least 50 different creches and grade Rs in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng, and watched and worked with about 100 early childhood development practitioners. I have observed them for days at a time — real insights cannot be based on a 10-minute visit where the children look excited and happy to see you, because often you are the only interesting thing that has happened to them all week.

Using play to teach
My observations were aimed at assessing the needs of children's centres and early childhood development practitioners in order to design appropriate programmes of support. Our organisation, Flying Children, works with centres over about three years to upgrade them, introduce a good preschool programme, and nurture in early childhood development practitioners the ability to take responsibility for their own and the children's education — to create emotionally healthy centres that use play to teach.

I have seen preschool teachers who have children spend their day sitting quietly around the walls and who have a hosepipe in their hands to keep them quiet. Or who let children play and fight in the dust and urinate in the garden. Or spend time making the children chant "one, two, three …" or "Monday, Tuesday …" without them having a clue what it means.

I have also seen toys and educational games kept in the cupboard or high on a shelf because the children might break them. Teachers have often said to me, quite seriously: "Our children are not like white children; they break the toys." At one centre the children were put to bed on mattresses for three hours every morning to keep them quiet.

In observing grade Rs in poor areas, I see again and again that the children are given a kind of watered-down grade one instead of the preschool programme that they need. Even worse, it is sometimes a watered-down "Bantu education". One grade R teacher made 50 children sit at their tables doing nothing for three hours except to come up in groups of four to paint a photocopy of an outline of a tree. Some children did not even get to do that because she ran out of time.

The list goes on and on. After a day's observation, I often long for a large slice of cheesecake to nurture myself after the awful, painful experience of watching small children's minds and selves being destroyed.

Effective preschool education is much more than this, and also very different to primary school teaching. And yet, in its practice and structures, government shows that it does not grasp this fundamental distinction. Social workers, who are untrained in preschool, control which centres are registered and therefore funded by government. Primary schoolteachers supervise grade R teachers. Social workers and primary schoolteachers have their areas of expertise, but preschool requires educationists trained to deal with a very different stage of development.

"Being herded" is not the right way
Preschool teaching skill levels are low in South Africa. Many of the people running the dysfunctional facilities I have seen boast a certificate of some kind but are clearly not able to translate theory into practice. So they fall back on what they experienced in grade one and two themselves — rote learning and being herded. There are very few preschool teachers with higher qualifications.

The only solution we have found is to train practitioners in their centres in a practical, nurturing and intensive way over at least three years. We need to remember that most early childhood development practitioners and even primary schoolteachers in South Africa are still suffering from their own purposefully stunting "Bantu education".

The challenge is huge, and it is gratifying that the national planning commission's report recognises the potential of informal preschool facilities to provide part of the solution. The country has a dense network of small private crèwches and preschool facilities, in both rich and poor areas. They supply an important service to single parents or children being raised by siblings, grannies and the like. But they do need financial support and intensive training and mentoring. Our programme shows that it is possible to work with these facilities to improve the service they offer. But it is not a quick fix.

For too long early childhood development has not been taken seriously enough. We cannot allow this to continue, and spending money without the necessary expertise will not help. Real experts need to be found: we need preschool teachers with degrees and diplomas, with training in psychology and psychotherapy to help early childhood development practitioners to deal with the fallout of our fractured society with long-term experience of community work, and a willingness to get involved at the actual coalface — in the children's centres. Otherwise we will continue to have this miserable situation that stunts our children before they even reach their fifth birthday, and perpetuates disadvantage.

Lindy Harris is director of Flying Children (flyingchildrensa.co.za), a non-governmental organisation that works with preschools in disadvantaged areas. A trained preschool teacher and art therapist, she has many years of experience in running preschools and training teachers, and brings her ongoing psychoanalytical training to bear in understanding the complex effect of deprivation on education as well as on emotional and intellectual child development