/ 1 July 2022

Early childhood development sector rises above flood

Candice Potgieter, chief executive of The Unlimited Child (left) at an early childhood development centre in KwaZulu-Natal


How do you bounce back from the devastation wrought by a natural disaster? It’s a question coastal communities from KwaZulu-Natal now face in the wake of severe floods early in April that left many parts of the area decimated

Beyond the homes, infrastructure and natural resources that have been destroyed, so too were many institutions and centres of learning, leaving some of our country’s most vulnerable without access to education. However with the right programmes in place there doesn’t have to be a break in learning when the unexpected occurs.

According to Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla, more than 630 schools were affected by the floods in KwaZulu-Natal. Along with the damage to the region’s schools, thousands of early childhood development (ECD) centres were also affected. 

Global research has proven that some of the most important learning and brain development takes place during early childhood, between the ages of 0-6 years old. This is why ECD is so important — and why it is crucial that the programmes facilitating this fundamental stage of development are still able to operate under any circumstances — in any location.

The Unlimited Child has been operating as an independently registered non-profit and public benefits organisation since 2008, with a network of 3 200 ECD centres located throughout South Africa, also having launched in Lesotho and Zimbabwe in 2021. These centres have one singular purpose: to get children school-ready.

The Unlimited Child programme was developed with the inherent understanding that agility is a key driver in giving thousands of children from under-served communities a chance to become fully immersed in the programme, and in turn reap the benefits of this essential foundational learning.

Toys and equipment to support the programme were carefully selected to allow movement between locations, should this be necessary, to ensure continuous learning. Childminders were taught how to become fully-equipped ECD practitioners through sustained professional development, with ongoing mentorship and coaching as the landscape evolves.

This flexibility has proven essential in times of distress, as the programme can be temporarily relocated to a church or town hall for example, and qualified practitioners can continue facilitating the programme while looking after the children’s needs and enabling their development.

Support from donors and partners has also been a critical component in the programme’s success. Following the recent floods, all 887 ECD centres located in KwaZulu-Natal received support from various partners, private donations and humanitarian outreach programmes. A further grant will help repair damages to 331 ECD centres within the network, from replacing toys and equipment to fixing common infrastructure damage. 

The strength of the network has grown through regular engagement over many years. Continuous communication with the centres and practitioners ensures that the status of each centre is always known, and their needs can be tended to with great efficacy. The ability to better understand the ever-changing requirements of each centre provides a solid foundation that can carry the programme through any storm. 

This swift response to ensuring children remain within a cycle of early learning no matter what the outside factors are reinforces the Unlimited Child’s tried-and-tested model. Disasters can be mitigated swiftly and effectively because the programme has a network of partners willing to assist immediately because of its proven track record.

When disaster strikes it is crucial that civil society comes together and works hand-in-hand to do whatever is necessary to protect the country’s most vulnerable. We are the custodians of the change-makers of tomorrow. Shouldn’t we be doing as much as possible today — no matter what it brings — to secure those tomorrows?”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.