More than 40 per cent of households surveyed have no books at home

Department of Basic Education and UNICEF South Africa commissioned study, released ahead of World Play Day, provides an insight into how caregivers engage in play-based learning with their children from birth to 6-years.

26 May 2023
Anele Masinga (Grade 1), reading in class following the UNICEF-supported REALS SA programme in Tholisu Primary, Umlazi township in KwaZulu-Natal.
UNICEF/UN0752425/Sheldon Moulton
Anele Masinga (Grade 1), reading in class following the UNICEF-supported REALS SA programme in Tholisu Primary, Umlazi township in KwaZulu-Natal.

PRETORIA, 26 May 2023 – The number of households who reported having zero access to books at home reached 43%, according to a new study released ahead of World Play Day on 28 May. Some 58% of caregivers surveyed noted that they have books available, but only 32% use them regularly, and storytelling is rarely used in play and learning with their children.

The Department of Basic Education and UNICEF South Africa study on ‘Caregiver knowledge, attitudes and practices on play-based learning in children from birth to 6-years old’ included responses from 1,422 participants across South Africa’s nine provinces. The findings come on the back of the ‘Progress in International Reading Literacy Study’ (PIRLS), which noted that 81 per cent of Grade 4 learners in South Africa are not able to read for meaning. 

“Access to books and in-turn reading and storytelling is critical because it sets the child up for foundational literacy in formal school,” said Muriel Mafico, UNICEF South Africa, Deputy Representative. “The first 1,000 days of life are when a child’s brain develops the fastest. Listening to stories and playing is an essential part of a child’s development to get the best start in life,” added Mafico.

Despite the reading challenges, 92 per cent of respondents agreed that it’s important to play with their children but there is more limited knowledge about the link between learning through play and positive early childhood development. Parents and caregivers’ attitudes suggested that they largely believe that learning happens at school, or a creche, and teaching is the responsibility of teachers.

“To survive, thrive and meet the challenges of tomorrow, children need more play today. The skills they will develop, the people they will become and the kind of world they will make together depends on it. So, on World Play Day, let’s play,” said Mafico.

This year’s theme for World Play Day is ‘playing towards sustainability’, to encourage caregivers and children to discover and consider the environment around them and the toys and tools with which they play. Some 68 per cent of households in the survey indicated that they bought toys and 40 per cent referred to using homemade toys during play. Drawing and painting were not common, with 33 per cent never engaging in art activities with their children, while 71 per cent of caregivers noted that they rarely engage in traditional game playing. These activities can help to develop problem solving skills among young children.

The study also highlighted the scarce or non-existent safe spaces for children to play. This includes at home, where children can be exposed to domestic violence and physical punishment as a form of discipline. The lack of safe spaces may in part relate to the 71 per cent of participants reporting that their children often spent their time watching TV or on e-devices. The study notes the need for creative ways to provide safer spaces in the community, such as at churches, parks and in play groups.

UNICEF South Africa continues to work with the Department of Basic Education and other partners to promote the power of play as essential to positive early childhood development. This includes through:

  • Encouraging parents and caregivers to engage in play with their children as an essential early stimulation and child development approach through the roll-out of the ‘National Parenting Programme’.
  • Scaling up the ‘Foundation Phase Initiative’, or six bricks approach, that uses manipulatives to enhance learning through play in the foundation phase, from Grade R to Grade 3 in public schools.
  • Rolling-out the ‘ECDmobi App’ that provides caregivers, ECD practitioners and teachers with a one-stop shop to support children’s learning through play with easy-to-follow activities. 
  • Empowering and building the capacity of ECD practitioners through the ‘Powerful Learning Around You’ training course. 

UNICEF reiterates its thanks for the generous support provided by the LEGO Foundation, European Union and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation towards strengthening play-based learning, early childhood development, foundational learning and working to improve the quality of education across South Africa.

Media contacts

Toby Fricker
Chief of Communication & Partnerships
UNICEF South Africa
Tel: +27 61 418 7486
Sudeshan Reddy
Communication Specialist
UNICEF South Africa
Tel: +27 82 561 3970

Additional resources

A young girl at Cenyu Public School in Stutterheim, Eastern Cape, uses the LEGO six bricks as part of the Foundation Phase Initiative.


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