Making sense of Early Learning Frameworks in South Africa
Early Childhood Development and Learning were featured in the SONA 2018 and 2019, among many other important public forums over the last couple of years. It is important to understand the policies and the framework that govern this sector. Understanding the policies and the impact that this has on settings can be somewhat overwhelming at times, especially when one feels that one is not really part of the system.
I have worked in the sector for many years developing curricula and training programs for practitioners. One of the most common complaints I get from practitioners in the sector is that they do not know what quality provision standards must look like.
Practitioners are overwhelmed by the volume of information available but do not know or understand how to plan and provide quality learning experiences to the children in their care. My standard answer to these questions often includes an explanation of the age, stage and needs of children – our focus needs to be on the child, and on what the child needs to develop and on how to acquire the necessary skills to progress to Grade R.
Settings must have standards that allow for learning opportunities that address the needs of children according to their stages of development, not their age necessarily. Practitioners must be guided to observe and monitor children development and not focus on the activities or themes we so often push to “show” to the parents what their children did at school. Instead of turning to social media for activity ideas practitioners must be guided to turn to developmental standards based on the National Curriculum Framework.
Children can and will never be developed in a holistic manner if a curriculum is not followed to observe and monitor learning outcomes. Understanding the holistic development of children and the effective implementation of the framework in the class is even more essential now that the migration of the ECD sector from Department of Social Development to the Department of Basic Education is taking place in South Africa. Settings will be required to get their house in order. This being said, let’s look at the framework that the South African Government developed for the sector.
The first document that we need to consider is The National Early Learning Development Standards (NELDS) 2009 – a curriculum-related policy initiative focusing on the early learning needs of children from birth to four years. NELDS provides early learning standards and desired results of expected learning achievements for young children in a designated age range. NELDS must be used to develop curriculum and other learning materials for the sector. The NELDS document is in fact the overarching document that gave birth to the National Curriculum Framework (NCF).
The purpose of the NCF is to facilitate learning and development in a holistic manner. The NCF focuses on the first 1000 days and highlights the windows of development and opportunities for intervention or support to children in the age group birth to 4. For practical purposes the NCF suggests that children must be divided into the following age groups:
- 0-18 months
- 18-36 months
- 36-48 Months
With provision for the next age group 48-60 months by assuming they will move to Grade R.
If one studies the document, it also identifies Early Learning Developmental Areas (ELDAS). These are the domains of development. Within the classroom the ELDAS must be included in the daily program or the overall schedule of the setting. Each ELDA has aims or subheadings that must be used as the guidelines to plan activities according to the age and stage of individual children.
The aims will guide the adults to plan and facilitate learning experiences and the ELDAS should guide one to understand the holistic development of the child. Activities in the class can therefore not be theme-orientated or “loose” from one another. Activities must be planned holistic and support the different aims and developmental areas.
The NCF provides guidance on how to develop a curriculum appropriate for babies and young children. When we look at the image below it requires from us to use the NCF document to plan learning opportunities that are developmentally appropriate around individual children by interacting and providing opportunities that boost confidence in young children. An integral part of building confidence is to allow children opportunities to explore and take control of their own learning by providing free play or child-initiated activities.
The Six Early Learning and Development Areas (ELDAS) are:
- Identity and belonging
- Exploring mathematics
- Knowledge and understanding of the world
As discussed earlier the ELDAS are the overarching domains or areas in which we need to plan experiences for children’s holistic development. Your curriculum must focus on all of these developmental areas. We like to use the umbrellas analogy to explain the developmental areas or ELDAS. The handle of the umbrella is the ELDA or the developmental area. If you hold onto the umbrellas handle and you open it, you see the true value of the umbrella or in this case the opportunities. You cannot use an umbrella if you do not open it. If we open the developmental area and look at each in more detail it provides us with 1000’s of opportunities or activities to support children to develop certain skills within the developmental area.
Let’s look at the umbrella that is now open – it has wires that support the fabric that makes it useful. The same way the aims or subheadings within the ELDA will support the development of the child. Let’s look at the ELDA ‘Well-being’ as the handle of our 1st umbrella. In this case our umbrella has 5 wires or aims that provide us with the aspects or aims that we must use to plan for the child’s development within this area. Our 5 wires or aims are:
- Being well-nourished
- Having good health
- Being safe and secure
- Developing physical abilities and interest in physical activities
- Building resilience
Each one of these wires in our umbrella will support the fabric to be effective. The fabric of our ELDA umbrella is the activities that you need to plan to develop skills in the 5 aspects of learning.
A practical example to explain our Well-being umbrella – as a practitioner I need to develop the physical skills of children in my class. For this I need to open my Well-being ELDA umbrella. I need to choose one aim or aspect – in this case physical abilities; what support or fabric do I have that support me from which I can choose? I have fine motor skills, I have gross motor skills, etc. I can now plan one activity, let’s say playing with play dough, and make sure that I wash the children’s hands before playing with the play dough (Aim 2), that I provide safe tools to cut or manipulate the play dough (Aim 3) and I can encourage and interact with children during the activity giving praise (Aim 5). In this activity I used my umbrella effectively to support and develop many skills within this specific developmental area.
It is important to note that the umbrellas are not individual but interconnected. This activity also supports all the other ELDAS, because we need to develop children in a holistic manner.
Our second umbrella or ELDA is Identity and belonging. In this developmental area we have only 4 aims. If we use our play dough activity in this context it will also support this ELDA and its aims as follows: While children are playing, they will explore the different tools and use it confidently (Aim 1), children will then ask to wash their hands after the activity or during the activity (Aim 2). Children will interact with their peers and teacher during the activity (Aim 3).
Our third ELDA or umbrella is Communicating. I think it is rather obvious that our tried and trusted play dough activity will support our third ELDA.
Working towards our fourth ELDA we need to think a little outside of the box to extend our play dough activity. How can we do this? Roll little play dough balls, count the balls, show me the big ball, etc.
The fifth ELDA will really push us to interact and ask questions while we are part of the play experience. Play dough is not to keep children busy or to only develop fine motor skills. To teach children problem solving skills and creativity we need to ask open ended questions – allow children to lead and take charge of their own learning to a certain extent. ‘Who can make an umbrella with the play dough? What will you need to make an umbrella?’
Our last ELDA often flows from play or is supported by the other developmental areas. Using a rolling pin to roll our play dough is technology. Also, allowing children to explore and investigate through free play activities how umbrellas look and work will provide them with valuable understanding of the world around them.
This is all good and well, and we all enjoyed playing with the play dough, but how do we now develop proof, or document the learning and development that took place? By observing and assessing against the guidelines provided by the NCF.
What is assessment and observation?
The topic of assessment and observation is a topic for another day, as it is complicated and must not focus on what the child cannot do but rather on what the child can do.
A final thought and one that connects with my previous post on how technology and the use of artificial intelligence (AI) can support practitioners to keep up with the demands and changes in the Techno world that left the Early Childhood Sector lagging far behind, is to understand that choosing the correct software will integrate learning frameworks and developmental standards in an easy to use application for practitioners. This is the way to move the sector into the next generation by providing quality care and connectivity to parents, administrators and practitioners in a safe and controlled environment. The recently launched Parent Software is the only application that offers a direct link to the NCF and assessment standards.
*We would like to give credit to the Department of Basic Education for all diagrams used in this document. We used the South African National Curriculum Framework for Children from Birth to Four, dated February 2015 © Department of Basic education, as the basis for this article.
Magdelize Janse van Vuuren
Early Childhood Specialist and Management Consultant