Choosing an early learning programme for your child

The uncertainty of the past 22 months has delayed many parents and caregivers from enrolling their three-to-five-year-olds into an early learning programme.

However, with 90% of the human brain developed by the age of five, access to sufficient support and stimulation is critical to a child’s future success. For those concerned about safety and effectiveness, knowing what to look out for can provide peace of mind while finding the perfect fit.

“Lockdown restrictions and Covid-19 protocols have limited the opportunities for interactive play. As a result, young children across South Africa have missed out on socialisation and experiences that are critical to their early development.

Understanding the importance of early learning and then choosing the right early learning programme can assist with making up for lost time – setting children up for a successful future,” says Sane Mdlalose, Acting CEO at SmartStart, a non-profit organisation that focuses on increasing access to early learning.

The first five years of a child’s life, especially in the learning phase, between three-to-five-years, are crucial to developing social, cognitive, emotional, and language skills that form the foundations for learning, school performance, and overall life success.

The extent to which these skills develop depends on whether or not children have access to certain types of experience and interactions – which should be provided by an early learning programme.

“The most important thing for parents and caregivers to remember is that play is fundamental to a child’s early growth. It’s crucial to find an early learning programme that values play as a learning tool. Play is something that children do naturally, making it the easiest and most effective way for them to learn new skills,” says Mdlalose.

Mdlalose breaks down the most important factors to consider when selecting an early learning programme:

  1. Curriculum: Based on research and best practice, SmartStart has identified five elements that are key to a successful early learning programme: nurture, talk, play, storytelling, and parent partnerships. Before selecting a programme, parents should ask about their early learning centre’s curriculum and ensure each of these elements are covered.
  2. Safety: 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. In terms of ratios, for every six to 10 children, there should be one practitioner responsible for their care. This ensures that each child is closely supervised and receives the attention they need to feel calm and comfortable – without compromising their safety.
  3. Parent involvement: Parents are children’s first and most important teachers. The programme you choose should value your capability and work to involve you in your child’s development outside of the classroom.
  4. Registration and compliance: Choose a programme that meets the minimum health and safety requirements as set out in the Norms and Standards for ECD Programmes, issued by the Department of Social Development.

SmartStart, which operates as a social franchise, is working to close the gap in access to early learning for local children. The NPO operates in all nine provinces and has built a network of over 90 000 parents and caregivers, whose children are enrolled and active in one of SmartStart’s programme formats. By 2030, SmartStart aims to reach 1-million children between the ages of three and five annually. For more information, visit

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