An innovative preschool and aftercare centre in Germiston, Gauteng, is bridging the gap between the foundation phase of education and pre-primary.
Its founder, Noetsie Elizabeth Brink, 43, recognises that working parents have to leave home early and opens the crèche at 6am.
Twelve children attend the preschool, which runs from 8am to 3pm. Then, from 3pm to 5pm, Brink runs an aftercare programme for 16 children, which provides special attention for those who might be struggling at school. It is a safe place to learn while playing.
The Solid Early Education Foundation centre is a bedrock for young children. But older pupils who may have missed out on these phases also attend sessions with Brink and a former teacher, Ronel Miles, 37.
“This is supposed to be a crèche and aftercare. But high school pupils have come, even matrics,” said Brink, who explained that the crèche started when a neighbour approached her for assistance with her grandchild.
After Brink recognised that there was a need for a crèche and aftercare centre in the area, she approached Miles, who was unemployed at the time. Miles began training for her level 4 in early childhood development (ECD), an entry-level requirement that comprises a one-year course.
Foundational phase is a place where a child learns to recognize and acquire skills such as numbers and letters and the development of comprehension skills.
But the unsettling reality, according to Spaull and Ursala Hoadley in Getting Reading Right: Building Firm Foundations, is that there is “schooling without learning”. This happens when children are pushed through grades without having gained cognitive skills.
South Africa’s literacy crisis
The problem of schooling without learning can be traced back to the literacy crisis. In the Progress in International Reading Literacy report from 2016, researchers found that “78% of South African grade 4 children could not read for meaning in any language”.
Brink experienced schooling without learning first-hand in her previous teaching position. She was even dismissed for raising concerns when she noticed issues in some of the children’s behaviour, speech and interactions. The private school where she worked responded by telling her that it was not her place to question how it was run.
The difference between traditional schools and Brink’s approach is that she advocates for less structure, more play and more one-on-one attention. This was particularly evident with one of the children at the centre, Musa Zwane.
Even among a group of preschoolers, Musa had an extremely short attention span. While the teacher read the other children a story, Ntsiki’s Surprise, Musa roamed around the room. But when the time came to play with blocks, a game he loves, Musa settled on the floor to make a car. As much as the children are encouraged to take part in the activities going on at the crèche, they are allowed to be themselves.
The crèche has an advantage over a traditional school because it has fewer learners and teachers are able to engage more with the children. Brink said that “even on Sunday, when children see me, they ask, ‘Ma’am is there aftercare today?’”.
Also, having only a few children to teach allows the two teachers to pay one-on-one attention to each child and respond according to their individual abilities. This helps facilitate the learning process.
Miles tested the children’s ability to understand when an instruction is given. The preschoolers were asked to “listen” while she instructed them to run towards her and touch the ball in her hand. Musa decided not to touch and rather pulled the ball out of the teacher’s hand.
Miles took Musa’s hand and said repeatedly, “Musa, you must touch.” During this exercise, he was laughing. Her approach was not forceful, but she engaged with the child, emphasising what was being asked of him.
But it is not all good news. The crèche is run from a converted garage, which leaks when it rains. On wet days, they have to move the children inside the house. “It’s very uncomfortable because children become cramped inside. Their movement is restricted and they get irritated,” said Miles.
In developing the crèche, Brink made the decision to form partnerships with the children’s teachers. Some were sceptical, but she was able to forge links with a few of them.
Her crèche prepares preschoolers for formal schooling and her aftercare is connected to what happens in school. The teachers use this opportunity to assist learners who are falling behind.
For instance, Brink said, “I got a note from one of the teachers that she wanted me to concentrate on time, spelling and how to look at the calendar.”
The crèche runs from Monday to Thursday. But parents asked Brink to include activities on Fridays. She approached Edu Fun, which is in the process of offering sports lessons every Friday for an hour using a school field.
According to founder and head coach Sérgio Katombe, 37, the organisation “tackles two issues that we consider to be a problem in the country at the moment, which is youth unemployment and lack of sports participation by children”.
“Many schools, including crèches and public schools, are not offering an organised sports programme,” said Katombe. “We think this is robbing the learners of an opportunity to maximise the use of the time allocated to sport.”
Coach Banana, as he is known by the little ones, adds that sports lessons are conducted in the same manner as they are done in the classroom.
“We use colours, sound, songs and storytelling to teach a particular skill. We encourage learners to use their imagination to grasp the objective of the lesson. Just like in the classroom, learners must listen to the instructions given, interpret, execute and be receptive to corrections.”
Mental health and wellbeing
Another important aspect that Brink wishes to include in the crèche is the involvement of a social worker. Lebogang Moropana, 38, a social worker, said: “As for crèches, I am monitoring their development, capacitate them and address their training needs. I am striving to ensure the marginalised, poor and disadvantaged communities receive the same services as the well-developed centres.”
People assume stress and depression only affects adults, Moropana said, but children can suffer from mental illness because of treatment at home, school or from peers, and this can result in low confidence.
Brink said having a social worker greatly assists as these children come from different backgrounds and their experiences at school are not the same. This can have an effect on their confidence.
Talking about violence in schools, Moropana said you can’t address it by the time it gets to schools. It has to happen earlier. It becomes difficult when there are no resources in place for these children.
Moropana admitted to the lack of available psychological services and support. “There are a lot of centres that need social workers and, currently, I do not think the government has enough resources to appoint one social worker per ECD.”
Either way, Moropana emphasised that children need to have fun. “Let us not rush them to grow up, because they are only children for a short time.”