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“The Buddies”, a child-to-child learning group in deep rural KwaZulu-Natal helps safeguard young children’s right to development through play

UNICEF/South Africa/2009/Hearfield
© UNICEF/South Africa/2009/Hearfield
“The buddies are a powerful example of how child-to-child interventions between older and younger children can support early learning and development in a very effective manner,” says Andries Viviers, Education Specialist at UNICEF South Africa.

CRC 20th Anniversary Articles 28 and 31:  The right to education and the right to play.

He is only nine years old, but already, Mandla (Not his real name) is practicing virtues others twice his age have yet to learn.  Mandla is a “buddy”, one of a special group of children ages 8-13, who, every day after school, bring their unique brand of nurturing, care, fun and learning to younger, more vulnerable children living in deep rural communities in the remote interior of KwaZulu-Natal province.  

Mandla and his friends read, teach, play traditional games and songs and tell stories to their younger charges, often taking a load off sick and elderly adults with whom many young children live.  He is part of a recently introduced child-to-child component of the LETCEE (The Little Elephant Training Centre for Early Education) programme, which provides accredited training to community-based ECD practitioners and volunteers annually.

“The buddies are a powerful example of how child-to-child interventions between older and younger children can support early learning and development in a very effective manner,” says Andries Viviers, Education Specialist at UNICEF South Africa.  “The older children gain an extreme sense of self worth, whilst the younger children experience positive care, stimulation and fun with older kids,” he says

Vast majority of children have no access to ECD
Early Childhood Development aims to protect the rights of children from birth to age 7, 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 of the Child which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. 

According to UNICEF, investing in the development of children in their early years builds human capital and benefits families, communities and whole societies.  Notable longitudinal studies with children who had participated in early childhood development programmes have registered improvements in health, cognitive ability and academic performance, and later in life, higher incomes and greater productivity (World Bank, World Development Report, 2006).  

Yet, despite proven benefits, only about sixteen per cent South African children have access to organised centre-based early childhood development programmes, and where these do exist, attendance remains low for multiple reasons, including limited infrastructure and lack of money.  

The remote Amatimatola Valley area where Mandla lives with his extended family, is no exception.  The rich green mountain slopes belie an entrenched poverty and a slew of daily social challenges that impede young children’s ability to access social services including quality early learning programmes. 

According to LETCEE founding director Mary James, about eighty per cent of the families in the Amatimatola area live below the poverty line - the lowest level of which is about 800 rands per month.   And, about 95 per cent of families are affected by HIV and AIDs and its associated health and social challenges like stigma and discrimination, lack of access to proper health care, clean water and sanitation.   In circumstances like these, a parent may die, become incapacitated, or may just be too hard pressed to find the time to give their child the physical and cognitive stimulation needed to help them grow and fully develop. 

“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 expert ECD specialists trains family facilitators and supports volunteers who work closely with poor rural families, visiting children in their homes and facilitating exposure to learning and development through play.   That’s where the buddies come in. 

UNICEF/South Africa/2009/Hearfield
© UNICEF/South Africa/2009/Hearfield
The buddies are a more than just playmates.

More than just playmates
As children who have “graduated” from the LETCEE ECD programme run by community-based family facilitators, the buddies know exactly how to mix learning and play to help younger children have fun while learning.  They also become trusted allies and child helpers who can enter homes and bring out children, including handicapped children who are sometimes hidden away, for fun and games.  The positive effects are visible in the bright smiles on young faces and the joy of the parents and caregivers when children return home. 

“The buddies are a more than just playmates,” adds Viviers.  “These wonderful children are also serve as important conduits of information about the social conditions within a home that can hamper that a child’s development.   They can be the first to notice warning signs and alert family facilitators of possible child hunger, illness, abuse or neglect.  While the younger children learn, ECD providers also learn much more.  They can then set about working with partners to bring needed social support services to that family and child.”

Promoting cost-effective forms of ECD 
UNICEF supports ECD programmes as a priority development area within South Africa and is working with partners on the development of a National Integrated Plan for Early Childhood Development.  The Plan aims to increase national, provincial and local understanding of integrated early childhood development in a practical and accessible manner. 

UNICEF works mainly with the national Departments of Social Development, Basic Education and Health in executing this mandate and to promote cost-effective forms of ECD, with emphasis on community and family-based IECD models, especially in poor and disadvantaged communities.  UNICEF believes that giving children the best start in life is one of the best investments a country can make.
The LETCEE ECD community-based model is seen by UNICEF South Africa as a national best practice model for learning and scaling-up of similar types of programmes nationwide.





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