Understanding Barriers to South African Caregivers’ Engagement in Play for Early Learning
In partnership with the Department of the Premier at the Western Cape Government, we identified behavioral barriers that prevent caregivers in the Western Cape, South Africa from engaging in play-based activities to promote early learning with their young children. Behavioral diagnosis revealed six distinct yet interconnected behavioral barriers that affect caregivers, thereby illuminating opportunities to design impactful interventions that help promote young children’s development and improve the effectiveness of more traditional early childhood development programming.
Evidence shows that engaging with caregivers in play-based activities for early learning can help to improve young children’s cognitive development and prepare them to succeed in school. In South Africa, however, official statistics suggest that caregivers are not regularly engaging in play with their young children. For instance, as many as two-fifths of caregivers report never reading, drawing, or coloring with their children (Statistics South Africa, 2018). Children living in poverty are at especially high risk, meaning that children living in low-income communities may fall behind their peers even before school, further entrenching inequality.
In partnership with the Western Cape Government and local nonprofits, we identified behavioral barriers that prevent caregivers in the Cape Town metropolitan area from engaging in play with their young children. This diagnosis is the first step towards our ultimate goal of leading caregivers across the Western Cape to engage in activities that help promote young children’s development and improve the effectiveness of more traditional early childhood development interventions.
Behavioral diagnosis revealed that caregivers may miss opportunities to engage in play because of how their environments affect their decisions and actions, and illuminated six distinct yet interconnected behavioral barriers. For example, caregivers regularly see trained teachers playing with children, leading them to lack confidence in their own abilities to engage in play. We also found that busy caregivers are frequently present-biased, meaning that they prioritize actions that provide immediate rewards (i.e., sleeping) or must be completed (i.e., cooking) over playing with their children. This is in part because it can take years for caregivers to see the benefits of engaging in play. Caregivers are especially likely to act in a present-biased way when play presents immediate costs (e.g., amount of time spent, feelings of emotional pain, etc.). And finally, for caregivers living in the context of poverty, meeting children’s basic needs is top-of-mind. Caregivers can tunnel (or intently focus) on meeting basic needs and may never consider engaging in play.
More details on the behavioral barriers and how they affect caregivers can be found here.
This project demonstrates a clear opportunity to improve early learning outcomes in the Western Cape by focusing on encouraging caregivers to engage in play with their young children. Furthermore, our diagnosis insights suggest how interventions can be designed to directly target barriers for optimal impact. We look forward to a continued partnership with the Department of the Premier at the Western Cape Government as we endeavor to complete additional work focused on designing and evaluating solutions to support caregivers. In addition to being relevant for the Western Cape, insights generated into the behavioral barriers which prevent caregiver engagement may be relevant in other, similar contexts where a lack of caregiver interaction may contribute to poor early learning outcomes.
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