/ 10 June 2016

Helping kids learn – with waste

At play: Educational toys need not be costly
At play: Educational toys need not be costly

It’s 10am in Yeoville, Johannesburg. The words “Love Them All Day Care Centre” are painted on the bright orange wall, listing Yvonne Nsimba’s contact details. Inside the day care, on a worn-out green carpet, children sit quietly with their eyes fixed towards the TV mounted on the wall. They are watching cartoons, but with the sound of toys rattling they start fidgeting. Yvonne Nsimba slowly takes out a bucket full of Lego toys, miniature cars, and a few patched-up teddy bears. Battles among the children about who will play with which toy ensue, and routine bellowing and tears follow as Nsimba calls the toddlers to order.

Nsimba has been operating her day care centre for eight years after starting off in a run-down flat, pregnant and unemployed. She has an NQF level four qualification, and has with much difficulty managed to register Love Them All as a non-profit organisation — one step closer to becoming a fully recognised ECD (early childhood development) centre.

Love Them All provides services to the mainly foreign nationals living in the area, operating as a day care, pre-school and after care. Sometimes it opens on weekends for parents with odd working hours. But even with scores of pupils attending Nsimba’s pre-school she is running at a loss, with non-payments from parents and the overwhelming financial burden of maintaining the facility.

A considerable number of the centre’s children have single mothers; the parents work as security guards, hairdressers or sell second-hand clothing in the CBD. At the end of the month, Nsimba says: “Parents come complaining that they cannot pay the R400, some will say ‘I’m not working’; others say they didn’t get enough money this month.”

Nsimba is well aware of the situation of her clients, but it affects her ability to purchase learning materials, toys and other basic necessities for the children.

Teaching takes place using anything they can grab around the centre. “We use the toys or pencils to teach them colours or how to count up to 20. Sometimes if we have fruit we will teach them the different fruits and shapes, which is barely enough to really teach the children,” says Nsimba. The need to buy learning apparatus is constant, a costly necessity to prepare the toddlers for school.

A “hand up”, not a “hand out” is one of the key approaches to solving shortcomings of ECD centres like Love Them All. The KwaZulu-Natal-based organisation Singakwenza (“we can do it”) aims to promote self-reliance in ECD centres. By running workshops around the country using thrown-away household packaging, caregivers are trained to make their own toys, which can be used as educational tools.

“If one breaks it is easily replaced, at no cost,” says Julie Hall, founder of Singakwenza. Initially providing the same service to more affluent parents and households for a profit, Hall has run 42 Waste2Toys workshops throughout South Africa last year, teaching 685 people how to make toys and teaching materials from household packaging that is usually thrown away, providing 20 751 children with educational toys.

Using cereal boxes, polystyrene vegetable trays, plastic drink and milk bottle lids, yoghurt containers and plastic bottles, Singakwenza hopes to change the gloomy scenario of many day care centres like Nsimba’s, by teaching communities to recycle waste packaging in a different way. The aim is not to rely on donations for learning apparatus and resources but to use a DIY approach to adequately prepare and stimulate the minds of children in their pre-school years.

With a pair of scissors, a marking pen and ordinary rubbish, the Waste2Toys workshops train teachers on a “whole range of educational toys that teach the same concepts as purchased toys, but for zero cost”. Bread bags are transformed into skipping ropes, margarine containers become cars, polystyrene trays become puzzles, yoghurt containers become shape sorters and cereal boxes become dice. Cutting shapes into a shoebox lid can teach children how to learn different shapes, by pushing cardboard pieces through into the box.

The simple exercise of poking holes through a polystyrene vegetable container with used matchsticks enables muscles to develop in the tiny hands of a nine-to-15-month-old child. This exercise incidentally forces the child to hold the thin matchstick in the exact manner one would correctly hold a pencil. The simple tool enables a strengthening of the hand to swiftly advance from a palm grip to a five-finger grip, until the child is able to master a pencil grip. Hall says “if children don’t learn that at the time when they are at the most receptive to learn that”, they are at risk of getting into grade one being unable to hold a pencil, and consequently unable to do the writing that teachers demand from them.

Occupational therapist Magdel Houson says: “The occupation of children is working through play. Their work is to play, and these créches are really being changed from babysitting facilities to educational centres.”

“If you donate toys and then they break, then who replaces them? The reality is that if you have children playing with toys, they do break.” By using waste in an imaginative and educational manner, a lack of the resources need not stand in the way of good early educational learning. 

Smart packaging design

Packaging which becomes waste needs to be designed in a way that promotes its use beyond just housing its original contents and attracting consumers. According to Green Choices, a UK-based lifestyle advocacy group, a third of all domestic waste packaging is food packaging, which is difficult to recycle as packaging is driven by the desire to promote the brand and make money, not to meet real human needs or promote recycling.

Hall says Singakwenza frequently used baby formula and coffee tins to make shape sorters and posting activities, but the metal used tended to be too thin and rusted too quickly to be safe for children to use. Cereal boxes are also an integral part of the activities within the classroom; however, most boxes now have printed text inside, and painting over the text, defeats the point of minimal use of resources.

In an effort to promote good environmental practices through packaging, Packaging SA released its 2015 revised document on ways to produce sustainable and safe package material across the board. The findings and recommendations urge all industry players to consider what can be done with packaging after it has completed its initial function, and how it can be re-used.

The research found that minimising food residue in used packages is imperative to reduce unnecessary waste and contamination, making it easier for recyclers to repurpose. By avoiding sharp corners within the design, product residue is less lightly to collect within the container. Packaging designers were also urged to investigate the use of non-stick additives within the pack and product to reduce contents clinging to the container and to ease emptying.

Using removable labels is also an opportunity to maximise the value of the material being recycled. A label or sleeve that avoids colour contamination may also add a decorative element to the container.

Innovative ideas on how packaging can become recyclable for day care centres are beginning to emerge; perhaps, in the future, packaging companies will move towards creating more sustainable, user-friendly designs.