Resourceful Young Children

Resourceful Young Children
Learning Brief


Implementing a non-centre-based ECD programme using early learning playgroups and toy libraries

Category: Resourceful Young Children | Formalisation of human resource development | 23 July, 2014 - 09:05



In December 2012, Cotlands services to young children made a strategic decision to shift the organization’s focus from health care to early childhood development (ECD). This transformation effort has resulted in community-based programmes reaching children outside of Cotland’s existing institutions, and reaching children not in formal ECD programmes. This is done through an integrated community programme that focuses on health, psycho-social and education outcomes delivered through playgroups, home visits, and supported by a toy library programme.

In this learning brief we discuss how we developed a cost effective, non-centre-based ECD programme that involves children aged 0-4 years participating in early learning playgroups (ELGs), which are linked to local toy libraries.


Each day the children each attend three early learning groups. This is for four days of the week. A Play Facilitator and an assistant run the ELGs twice a week for 2 hours.  A maximum of 15 children are accommodated per group. Parents or primary caregivers can accompany the very young 0 – 2-year-old children. The Toy library provides all the toys and program equipment needed for the children.

A cell phone based electronic data collection and monitoring tool was developed to enrol the children, capture attendance, as well as conduct assessments.  A nurse and social worker visit the groups and assist with interventions. This information is also captured on the cell phone. 

In order to implement our new programme, Cotlands had to:

  • Reskill 32 community caregivers as early learning facilitators
  • Constitute the groups in the communities
  • Develop a learning plan and
  • Source funding


The first ELG started in May 2013. Since then we learnt that the following implementation strategies work well.

We provide health and psychosocial services at the playgroups and in the toy library. This allows the nurse and social worker to reach out to the children in a place where the children feel comfortable. We also learnt that once the nurse or social worker identify an issue with a child that needs to be addressed professionally then it’s critical to have strong referral networks that can provide the quality services needed.

The toy librarians were originally tasked with training the learning group facilitators, with providing resources to the group, with monitoring implementation, and with running the toy library. We soon realized that all this responsibility was far too much and that the programme is better served if we hire an additional person to manage the toy library.    

We provide a meal to the children participating in our programme, as well as the playgroup resources and materials. It is important to carefully plan all the logistical arrangements such as securing safe, regular venues for the ELGs, and delivering the course-kits and food. This necessitates having a detailed and thorough-minded manager.

We built in continued training, monitoring, and on-site support for the ELGs because this is critical to the success of the programme.

Securing funding for this innovative programme requires creative approaches such as arranging experiential visits and using video footage to explain the programme. Adopting this approach has helped us raise funds to run the ELGs.


When implementing a new programme there are always challenges to overcome, but it is important to learn from mistakes, and to keep the management flexible and adaptable. For instance we noticed early on that setting up 3 groups per day was not realistic in farm and rural communities because there are not always enough children of the target age living close by who could attend all these sessions. And so we adjusted our schedule to suit the few children in these communities.

Next, we noticed that regular attendance at ELGs is impacted by factors such as the primary caregiver’s understanding of the importance of early learning, the weather, school holidays, and community events. Our facilitators needed to understand these issues and adopt the daily curricula to suite fluctuating group size, but they also needed to help parents better understand the need for early learning.

We also realised early on that our learning group facilitators needed an assistant, so we set out to recruit and hire assistants from the local community.

Finally, we had challenges registering ELGs as “partial care facilities” due to restrictive regulatory requirements. This is a hurdle we are still trying to overcome.


The wider ECD community can learn from our implementation lessons that non-centre-based ECD programmes can reach children who do not have access to early learning opportunities if they are able to:

  • Secure funding
  • Replicate the model through partnerships or social franchising
  • Include non-centre-based service aspects in their training programmes
  • Raise awareness in communities with regard to the importance of early childhood development.


In light of what we have learned Cotlands will, in the future, host the ELGs in venues that will be accessible to more children. This will increase impact and minimize the logistical challenges we have been facing. We will also work in collaboration with the Department of Social Development to review the registration and funding requirements for non-centre-based services. We hope to explore ways to replicate this model in partnership or through social franchising with other organisations, and we will continue to promote establishing toy libraries in communities.

134 Stanton Street Johannesburg Turffontein Gauteng South Africa

 011 683 7200

In Short

This learning brief discusses how Cotlands developed a cost effective, non-centre-based, ECD programme that involves children aged 0-4 years participating in early learning playgroups that are linked to local toy libraries. This approach shows how to reach young children not in formal ECD programmes or schools.

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