The situation of play in South Africa

South Africa’s key child related policies explicitly states that play is an important element when working with, and promoting the rights of, South Africa’s youngest citizens – our children.

The Children’s Act No. 38 of 2005 (effective from 2010) dedicates chapter seven to early childhood programmes and clearly states that early childhood programmes must promote children’s right to play and leisure (DSD, 2005).  In 2015, the Department of Basic Education released the South African National Curriculum Framework for Children from Birth to Four (NCF).  The NCF is a framework to be used by anybody providing services to children aged birth to four year (DBE, 2015).  The NCF clearly states that play and hands-on (active) experiences enhance children’s learning and development (DBE, 2015:7).  The Curriculum Assessment Policy for Grade R-12 (CAPS) specifically emphasise that in Grade R,  Mathematics (DBE, Mathematics, 2011:13),  Life Skills (DBE, Life Skills,  2011:13) and Language learning (DBE, Home Language, 2011:20) should be play-based.  CAPS for Graded R explicitly states that children should have time to play and should not be stuck behind desks (DBE, Life Skills, 2011:10).  Furthermore the CAPS for Grade R promotes the pedagogy of  free play (child-directed) and structured (adult-guided activities) clearly indicating that active learning through play as the preferred pedagogy for Grade R’s (DBE, Life Skills, 2011:10-13).  The Draft National Early Childhood Development Policy of the Republic of South Africa, currently being gazetted, furthermore promotes the provision of safe and clean parks (DBE, 2014:64), play (DBE,  2014:69) and play-based learning (DBE,  2014:72). 

However, implementing play-based learning is problematic. The intentions of both the NCF and CAPS is to provide a framework of what is to be included in programmes as well as indicating that the activities should be play-based.  The opposite is being observed in practice (Clasquin-Johnson, 2011 & Smit, 2015).  The studies by Clasquin-Johnson (2011) and Smit (2015) both conclude that early childhood education practitioners are not being trained on how to facilitate play-based learning, that translating the curriculum into practice is not adequately trained and practically demonstrated to practitioners, that resources required to stimulate and promote play-based learning is not provided, and if resources are provided, it is not adequate and practitioners do not know how to use the resources to facilitate and promote play-based learning.  The focus in South Africa should be to determine how to practically train the workforce working with young children on the skills of facilitating play-based learning.

The notion of play is not only linked to play-based learning.  Play, for the sake of play, with neighbourhood friends, in the street, alone or with siblings, is also critical to children’s healthy development.  South African municipalities is responsible for providing open spaces, in the form of parks, for children to play in.  Rethinking how these spaces need to be designed to stimulate early learning is required (Ramjee, 2011).  These spaces are not commonly available, and when available is not regarded as safe.  Targeted and innovate interventions in this regard is required.

The broader public, and parents in particular, significantly promote or prohibit opportunities for children to access play ranging from it being completely initiated and controlled by children, to play in early childhood settings, referred to as free play, progressing to using playful learning to advance children’s development, to include play organised as sport.   Advocacy sharing the benefits of play for children is not prominent enough in South Africa and requires focused attention if South Africa wish to promote South African children’s right to play.