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Education And Training

NPO provides safe spaces for early learning

Reports of neglect, abuse, and violence against children in South Africa have increased by over 35% since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, this is according to Child Welfare South Africa. Often, these events occur in places where children should feel safe – such as at home or in a classroom. National early learning social franchise SmartStart, is calling for a community-centred approach to creating safe spaces, where children can learn and play without fear. This will help them to build a solid foundation for future success.

“As we approach 16 Days of Activism, it’s important to recognise the impact that the pandemic has had on many families in South Africa. Beyond the financial and social stress caused by the lockdown, isolation and social distancing measures have meant that children are left behind closed doors in their homes, limiting their opportunities for early learning, and leaving them vulnerable to violence and abuse,” says Grace Matlhape, CEO at SmartStart.

To date, SmartStart has trained just under 9 000 people to fill the gap in early learning service provision – to the benefit of over 98 000 children across the country. Using a social franchise model, the company taps into the experience of existing civil society organisations who recruit, train, and license women to launch and run early learning social enterprises, for children aged three to five.

As children grow and become more curious, they require safe spaces in which to exercise their independence and build a positive relationship with the world around them. To create an environment in which children have the freedom to explore and develop strong self-regulation skills, SmartStart employs one practitioner for every six to ten children. This ensures that each child is closely supervised and receives the attention they need to feel calm and comfortable – without compromising their safety.

“As South Africans, we encounter many unsafe spaces, where our children are particularly vulnerable. As a mother, I worry about the safety of my family, especially when I have to go to work and can’t be there to keep an eye on my son. With SmartStart, I feel relieved that not only is my child safe at school, he is also getting all the tools he needs to get ready for big school,” says SmartStart parent Luyanda Skunana.

The SmartStart programme is delivered through playgroups, day mothers and existing ECD centres where the safety of children is already a top priority; “When children are surrounded with care and attention, it helps their brains to grow in the way they should. When they are made to feel that their needs and ideas matter, their self-belief soars. Children who feel good about themselves love to try things out, are less afraid of making mistakes, work well with others and take on life’s opportunities – all essential skills for success at school and beyond,” says Matlhape.

Beyond creating safe learning environments, SmartStart is also working to empower parents and caregivers to bring these principles into their homes. With the launch of their national campaign later this month, the organisation hopes to educate parents and caregivers about the importance of early learning for their children, and assist them by sharing relevant resources and stimulating learning activities via social and traditional media. For more information, visit www.smartstart.org.za.

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