Report from South Africa
Last July, Laura Zellerbach ’11 and current student Emily Soong journeyed to South Africa to observe and report on the workings of early childcare centers there. Here is their report from the field.
Report from South Africa:
Data Collection for the INNOVA Project- Developing an Environmental Rating Scale for Group Care for the “Under Threes”
Laura Zellerbach (Bank Street College, M.S.Ed Infant and Family Development/Early Intervention ’11)
Emily Soong (Bank Street College, M.S. Early Childhood & Childhood General candidate)
Our arrival in the black African township of Mangaung in Free State, South Africa since July 16th has been observably marked by evident lingering divisions between the old world and new. Early care and education, which also reflects existing race and social class tensions here, serves as an insightful lens into the disjointed, but still-evolving, amalgamation between this country’s historical strife with development and advancement work. Tasked with observing infants and toddlers in the local crèches (childcare for children under five) as part of an Early Childhood Development (ECD) project, we have nonetheless concretely realized the universality of basic human emotions, responses and development within an educational context, which form the basic tenet of our work. However, this is a country in which experience and consciousness of human deprivation is still gained too early in life, and accrued with too great expediency. It is here in which staggering rates of poverty, crime and segregation among the youth are equally met with opportunity for early intervention and educational growth, and thereby, hope for a new generation.
Building upon the need for early intervention and opportunity for advancement in the ECD sector, there is clear demand for a resource that addresses the concerns of ECD institutions in a developing world context. Led by Bank Street faculty, Virginia Casper and Faith Lamb-Parker, and consultant Monica Hayes, we are responding to this need through the development of a “Global Rating of Environments” scale (GROE-u3) for the examination of group care settings for infants and toddlers in a developing world context, funded through a Bank Street Innova grant. In development since 2010, the initial version of this scale aims to capture a holistic understanding of these settings, taking into account physical space, materials and toys, programming and interaction through an indigenous lens. As part of the pilot phase of this project, we have been tasked with implementing the initial version of this scale in South Africa for a total of three weeks. This is made possible through the existing partnership between the Developing Families Project (led by Casper & Lamb-Parker) and the Mangaung University Community Partnership Program (MUCPP). Working hand-in-hand with MUCPP, we have been fortunate enough to be invited to observe a number of crèches in the community in which we can determine whether or not our scale appropriately reflects and captures the holistic and cultural elements of these ECD institutions. They range in size and age ranges, but we are focusing on the youngest children at each crèche, generally known as the “under-3s.” A further description of our findings thus far can be found in our “Preliminary Findings” section below.
We are currently residing at the Bed & Breakfast at MUCPP, and are very grateful for our large space heater, as it is winter down here in the southern hemisphere. The days are pleasant, especially in the sun, but the evenings are frigid, with the temperature dropping to about 28o Fahrenheit. During the week, we each visit a different crèche daily for approximately four hours, observing the various elements of the environment and the day’s activities. This allows us the incredible opportunity to be welcomed into each center, and spend the day with very young children. We observe free play, meals, outdoor play, and nap time, so as to see what a full day is like for these children. Additionally, we are also taking note of local cultural practices, such as the innovative use of existing resources, as the scale has the capability to capture this. We have observed old coffee cans being used as blocks, rice sacks used as play materials, tires used as outdoor active physical play equipment, and a mobile created from a plastic bottle with candy wrappers hanging from it. Thus far, we have each visited six crèches, twelve in total, and we have taken notes so the group can refine the scale to reflect more accurately the environments we have seen.
We will visit about five more crèches each before we depart to other destinations in South Africa, and then back to New York. We are very much looking forward to sharing the remainder of our findings with Bank Street College following the completion of our trip, and hope that the relationships and work developed here during our three weeks will help pave the way for continued and sustainable early childhood development within the Mangaung community and ultimately in other places in the Global South.
The physical environments of the crèches in South Africa reflect the developing context in which they are situated. Unlike the average American preschool, these spaces have been found to be primarily determined by prioritized needs, functions and convenience, rather than quality of safety and infant/toddler-friendliness or educational focus. However, much of this is due to economic and social constraints, such as lack of capital for technological advances in heating/cooling or high levels of enrollment leading to crowding, which ultimately result in a minimal quality of environment. The majority of the crèches that we have visited to date are typically set up in rooms adjacent to small township homes, and mainly consist of concrete or cinder block foundations and tin roofs supported by wooden beams. A typical room may be around 12’ x 16’, which is often not proportionally sized to the number of children in care. Most crèches purely rely on opening windows or doors for ventilation and portable heaters or furnaces during the winter.
Interest areas, such as designated book, block or cozy areas, are for the most part non-existent. Interestingly, we have observed a few “Book Area” labels within the crèches, but they often lack the books themselves. This represents awareness for these areas, but further reflects the inability to provide (understandably so, given economic constraints). This speaks to the division between training and practice.
Materials & Toys
Similar to space, the quality, variety and quantity of free play toys and learning materials reflects the crèches’ lack of resources. Approximately 75% of the crèches that we have observed thus far have had an inadequate amount of toys for free play, sometimes leading to peer conflicts or idleness. When the crèches do have an adequate amount of toys, they are often only in fair condition, meaning that certain components may be missing or some dirt and grime may have accumulated.
The quantity and variety of pictures and/or other materials displayed throughout the room ranges from crèche to crèche. We have observed some with posters of numbers, shapes, letters and colors, while others have nothing on their walls with the exception of a vaccination poster.
Generally, the children’s days consist of breakfast, free play indoors and/or outdoors, lunch, nap, and perhaps some sort of activity in between, such as singing or arts & crafts, but the latter has been rare. Practitioner supervision typically consists of reactive behavior, rather than proactive behavior to prevent conflicts or adjust activities based on children’s interests. Practices relating to sanitation, napping, and maintenance of space are often uneven as well.
One cannot judge a book by its cover; this is true in South Africa. We have observed a wide range of practitioner-to-child interaction practices, and have found that having larger and better-repaired facilities does not translate to having more positive, individualized interaction with the children. The majority of practitioners observed thus far are bound to care-taking responsibilities, such as nose-wiping, diaper-changing and cleaning. Occasionally, we have observed practitioners who are proactive in their positive interaction with children, playing “dog chase” with them on the floor or leading inclusive and engaging games. Often times, it is the staff-to-child ratio that either inhibits or enables the practitioner’s engagement.