|© UNICEF South Africa/2009/Hearfield|
|A ‘buddy’ reads a story to delighted young children in their first language, Zulu, in rural KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa.|
By Yvonne Duncan
In the run-up to 20 November 2009, the 20th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF is featuring a series of stories about this landmark international agreement on the basic human rights of all children – including progress made and challenges that remain. Here is one of those stories.
KWAZULU-NATAL PROVINCE, South Africa, 16 November 2009 – He is only nine years old, but Mandla (not his real name) is already a mentor. Every day after school, he meets with younger, more vulnerable children in his rural village and teaches them through traditional songs, stories and games.
Mandla is a volunteer in the new child-to-child component of the Little Elephant Training Centre for Early Education, which provides annual training to community-based early childhood development (ECD) practitioners and volunteers. The role played by Mandla and the programme’s other ‘buddies’ – volunteers aged 8 to13 – is to help take some of the load off sick and elderly adults who are caring for young children.
“The ‘buddies’ are a powerful example of how … interventions between older and younger children can support early learning and development,” says UNICEF South Africa Education Specialist Andries Viviers. “The older children gain an extreme sense of self worth, whilst the younger children experience positive care, stimulation and fun with older kids.”
Investing in the future
Evidence shows that children who participate in ECD programmes register improvements in health, cognitive ability and academic performance – and, later in life, enjoy higher incomes and greater productivity.
ECD aims to protect the rights of young children to develop to their full cognitive, emotional, social and physical potential. These rights are enshrined in Articles 28 and 31 of the Convention on the Rights on Child, respectively, as the right to education and the right to play.
However, only about 16 per cent of South African children have access to organized ECD programmes. And where these programmes exist, attendance remains low because of poverty and limited infrastructure.
The remote Matimatolo Valley area where Mandla lives with his extended family is no exception. According to the Little Elephant training centre’s founding director, Mary James, about 80 per cent of the families in the area live below the poverty line.
|© UNICEF South Africa/2009/Hearfield|
|A handicapped child shows her joy at being part of the ‘buddies’ after-school reading and colouring group in KwaZulu-Natal Province.|
“We all need to do our best for our children. The vast majority of young South Africans living in under-resourced communities still have no access to early education,” says Ms. James.
Her team of ECD specialists trains facilitators and supports volunteers who work closely with poor rural families, visiting children in their homes and exposing them to learning and development. In order to engage younger children, the ‘buddies’ are trained to mix learning and play. They also become trusted allies and child helpers.
“The ‘buddies’ are a more than just playmates,” notes Mr. Viviers. “These wonderful children also serve as important conduits of information about the social conditions within a home that can hamper that child’s development. They can be the first to notice warning signs and alert family facilitators of possible child hunger, illness, abuse or neglect.”
A model of best practices
UNICEF South Africa sees the Little Elephant centre’s community-based approach as a model of best practices for similar early childhood programmes nationwide.
In support of expanding these programmes, UNICEF and is working with partners on the development of a National Integrated Plan for Early Childhood Development. UNICEF also works with the national Departments of Social Development, Basic Education and Health to promote cost-effective forms of ECD, with an emphasis on community and family-based models – especially in poor and disadvantaged communities.
In South Africa and around the world, UNICEF believes that giving children the best start in life is one of the best investments a country can make.
‘Perspectives’ essay series
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