MIRANDI NEL talks to Andrew Rudge of The Reach Trust about the importance of early childhood development and a new game to stimulate it.
The Reach Trust is a Stellenbosch-based non-profit organisation that, since 2012, has helped more than 10 million southern Africans transform their lives by enabling them to access education, health and counselling services via their cellphones. Its current focus is early childhood development and the tools it uses to stimulate young brains include novel games like Finding Thabo and learning apps.
It was in 2009, when the trust’s CEO, Andrew Rudge, and his wife moved back to South Africa from Scotland, that they had a nanny helping with their first-born child while they were expecting their second. Andrew realised this young woman knew a lot less about maternal health than he did because he had been exposed to much more: antenatal classes, gynaecology appointments and books on pregnancy. It was a classic case of information asymmetry. “She was well educated and fully trilingual, but she just didn’t have access to that information.”
What the nanny did have access to – and made frequent use of – was her cellphone. That was when Andrew recognised the value of maternal health information being accessible on a phone. He set up a project where a daily text message would link to a person’s stage of pregnancy. “It was a simple model, just trying to improve people’s knowledge of maternal health.”
But as the project grew, so did its costs, because of the price of text messages in South Africa. One of Andrew’s friends pointed out that MXit (an early instant cellphone messenger service) was also based in Stellenbosch and they should work together. “We used MXit and suddenly it was costing us next to nothing. Within a matter of weeks we had more than a 100,000 subscribers,” says Andrew. The team then established the MXit Reach Trust as a way of using MXit for social good. “We had lots of different programmes with all sorts of partners. MXit was eventually phased out but the work we’ve been doing goes on. And that’s when The Reach Trust began to take shape as a stand-alone non-profit.”
With appalling education and youth unemployment statistics, South Africa is experiencing an education crisis with far-reaching implications, both economic and social. “If we intervene early, we have the opportunity to make a difference,” says Andrew. “Children need high-quality stimulation before they start Grade 1. It’s not about teaching them to read or do maths at a young age but about play-based learning.
Educators across the world have found play helps to enrich learning and develop key skills such as inquiry, expression, experimentation, teamwork and bonding. With this in mind, the team developed Finding Thabo, an interactive game that stimulates key parts of the brain and builds a foundation for lifelong learning, giving children the early stimulation they need to thrive. It also encourages parents and caregivers to engage with their children in meaningful ways and fosters a relationship that can nurture the physical, emotional and social development of the child.
“It boils down to responsive caregiving,” says Andrew. “You’re not just present, you’re responsive to what’s happening with the child by being an engaged parent.” That’s why, he adds, the app they built had to work as well for adults as for children. “We wanted to produce something more innovative, something that combined ‘old school’ and modern technology.”
In a discussion with an occupational therapist friend one day, Andrew learnt the longer the wait before she could begin to work with a child, the more difficult it was to make progress and that very often, especially in rural areas, her assistance came almost too late. “The problem with the traditional system is it takes time to identify that a child is struggling, then the child is isolated and taken for remedial lessons. If this doesn’t work, he or she ends up with an occupational therapist,” he says.
“We thought if we could give parents activities to do with their children, less remedial attention would be necessary. We came up with a list of activities, but we realised it’s difficult to get parents to change their behaviour. We started to structure the activities around everyday situations – like when you’re cooking supper and you need to figure out how many potatoes to boil for a family of four, talk to your child about it. Fundamentally, you can do an exercise with your child while you’re preparing supper.”
The team structured the themes around different scenarios. Then one day Andrew arrived home and found his second daughter (five at the time) looking at a Where’s Wally? book. “She was completely engrossed, trying to find the different characters. That’s where I got the idea of creating pictures that represent the different situations.” The child can be stimulated directly and the parent can learn through the process.
That’s how Finding Thabo came to life. The clue to finding five-year-old Thabo is that he’s always the boy with the book. At his age he can’t necessarily read, but reading is the big theme – the team wants kids to be familiar with books well before they can actually read them.
The game focuses on high-quality brain stimulation that can be implemented in low-resourced environments. It is fun, free and interactive, and it helps to guide parents or teachers through a range of activities with their child or class. It also involves long-term behavioural change in parents and caregivers to enable them to learn the value of stimulating their children all the time and are given the tools to do so.
You can play the game via WhatsApp on 060 055 4269 or by using a Facebook Messenger chatbot. Just go to the ‘Finding Thabo’ Facebook page, click on ‘Send Message’ and type ‘Join’ to start.
Facts about the brain and learning
- 90% of brain development happens before the age of five.
- Age three to five is the golden period for stimulating and strengthening neural pathways which affect vision and hearing, habits, emotional control, language, understanding symbols, social skills and numeracy.
- Areas that have been stimulated process information more quickly.
- Well-established neural connections form the brain architecture that enables a child to achieve its full potential and lays the foundation for education.
How to get involved
Find The Reach Trust online. If you donate, the trust can provide you with a Section 18A tax certificate. And while donations are gratefully received, Andrew points out: “For us a big thing is spreading the word about why early childhood stimulation is so important and getting resources into communities.” Owing to the nature of the game, which combines a physical picture and digital technology, the team needs to try and do as large a print run of the pictures as possible; the more are printed, the lower the cost. Let’s help send Finding Thabo all over South Africa!