Jozi City Feature

Finding the balance for children in the city

Children living in the inner city are not offered a wide variety of sports at their schools, but they are discovering new play spaces and games and creating opportunities to play in between the time spent at school and fulfilling their responsibilities at home.

Elsina Nhacule (12) attends Fordsburg Primary and lives with her mechanic father Albert Nhambirra and younger sister Madalina (6) in a Hillbrow flat. Elsina says she and her sister excel in athletics, but the only opportunity they have to showcase this is at the annual sports day organised by their school. The primary school does not offer sports during the year.

Walking from school in the afternoon, Elsina, Madalina and a few of their friends make a pit stop to play for an hour or less on the paved Mary Fitzgerald Square in Newtown. They play games such as “Touch” and “Ovi”– where you have to catch a ball when your name is called, then aim to hit another player. “We play maybe three times a week – sometimes we talk or do our homework,” says Elsina.


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The ball used to play “Ovi” is made from plastic bags.



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Elsina Nhacule takes a duck during a game of “Ovi” at Mary Fitzgerald Square, Newtown.


Why play is important

Play is an important aspect in children’s lives, especially during their early childhood education. Professor of early childhood education and author Rebecca Isbell says lots of play at an early age enables children to develop the extensive and integrated foundation required for future academic success.

Educational psychologist Tshepiso Matentjie, of Roodepoort, says neurobiological research has shown that the brains of children who play differ from those who are isolated. “When you engage children in play, you stimulate the brain and different neuro-pathways connect and become stronger.” Play develops various characteristics in children, such as cognitive, emotional, language and motor aspects. Matentjie says cognitive aspects, which includes perception, memory and reasoning, are often overemphasised. “Your child may be intelligent – they might know how to spell their names, and count to 100, but if they’re not emotionally adjusted, they’re not school ready.”

Emotional development allows a child to communicate their needs, listen to other people’s needs and change their behaviour to accommodate those needs. It also allows for children to relate to what they are feeling.

Another important aspect of play is motor development. Motor (movement) development consists of two different categories: gross and fine motor development. In play, gross motor development happens when children run, jump and swim. These activities develop the “big muscles”. “A child needs this for them to move, sit up straight on a chair and for a long period in the classroom. It also helps them know the difference between left and right, and use that knowledge,” says Matentjie. Fine motor skills (holding a pen, cutting, recognising when you need to go to the loo and holding it in until you reach a bathroom), develop small muscles. “Fine motor skills also allow your eyes to follow a straight line and move them up and down.”

“When these skills are not properly developed, you find that a child struggles to cope at school. In developing those areas, it develops the child’s executive functions – that is your ability to pay attention and sustain your concentration. Nobody can teach you these behaviours, it is play that teaches you these skills,” says Matentjie.

Matentjie says language is another key aspect developed through play. Literary and visual perception are established. Literary perception allows children to differentiate and recognise different sounds, and follow one’s voice when they’re spoken to. Children are also taught to label objects by what they’re told, even though they are unable to spell out the object. Visual perceptual aspects, however, allow children to see different shades of colour, outlines and form.

When the above functions are not fully developed, children demonstrate behaviour similar to hyperactive children and become clumsy and unorganised teenagers and adults.

The experiences children have during play mould them into the teenagers and adults they become. Their strengths and weaknesses are explored and they also learn to communicate their needs, correct and reflect on their behaviour, and see if their actions fit into social norms.

When play time is threatened

Situations that occur at home may interfere with a child’s play time. After “a big fight” between Elsina and Madalina’s parents this August, Elsina has had to take up more responsibilities in the home because their mother, Joahna Nhacule, is living elsewhere with their 6-month-old brother. She cooks and cleans every day, then washes and irons the family’s laundry during the weekend. “Sometimes I don’t play [at all] on the weekend because I have to finish everything in the house before I play with my friends at the flat.”

In the inner city, children have to juggle play with responsibilities at home, especially because their parents work late. Many, like Sphumelele Mncwango (12), take care of their younger siblings before and after school. She’s responsible for feeding her three-year-old brother and taking care of him until their parents return home from work – just before 6pm. On some days, Sphumelele must clean the house.

Her mother, Minky Cele, works as a debt counsellor. When Cele returns from work at 5.45pm, Sphumelele may go and play with her friends until 6.30pm – provided she’s completed her homework. She and other children in their block of flats play in the concrete courtyard with a basketball/netball hoop. Sphumelele and her friends engage mostly in role-play.

How much is too much responsibility?

According to Matentjie, responsibility is not a bad thing. Children should be taught responsibility from as young as the age of two. However, too much responsibility is harmful because it takes one’s childhood away. Children who don’t have a healthy childhood are affected at a later stage. A balance of responsibility helps solve the problems of children overindulging in what they were once deprived of. Balance also prevents a want for instant gratification.

Nondumiso Motloung, a public social worker, says she often finds that in black households, girl children are taught how to cook and clean at a young age, to prepare them for marriage. She says children can be given chores that will help develop their gross and fine motor skills (such as washing dishes), but “a 12-year-old cannot be allowed or made to cook. What if the child burns the house or herself? That person [the guardian] will have to be charged with gross negligence. No child is allowed to do family laundry irrespective of family circumstances – that is child labour. The parents should find alternative means to get those chores done.”

Typical developing children will speak out when they feel they have too much responsibility at home, says Matentjie. Elsina says she feels that she’s been given too much responsibility. “It’s difficult living with my father. Every day my father and I fight there at the home, there is no peace. I tell him that he makes me do too much, but he hits me with a belt.”

Complaining to her mother has also proved futile. “My mom she says I’m disrespectful and have an attitude when I complain, I don’t know why”.

Matentjie says teaching independence “and not necessarily appropriate independence can be dangerous … having to be a carer while you yourself have to be cared for causes great psychological problems. But we also know that these children are extremely resilient and do bounce back.” She says children like Elsina are fortunate to still be surrounded by a support structure, unlike child-headed households where children may have to resort to crime and prostitution to provide for their siblings.

In the case of younger children, it can be dangerous for a child to always play with older kids or adults. It’s important for the play to be appropriate for the youngest children.

Free-play versus supervised play

Children need to be exposed to play with their peers and their caregivers equally. Unstructured play allows children to define their own rules. “The opportunity to learn and discover new things about themselves, their peers and the world is even more intensified.” In structured play, parents often define the rules and constantly limit and correct behaviour. When this happens, play is not as rich or stimulating for children.

Emmanuel (12) and Tsako (9) Khumalo have fewer responsibilities at home which allow them more time to play. The only chore they have is to wash the dishes in the morning. They live in a three-roomed flat on the corner of Jeppe and Troye streets with their older brother, mother and four other tenants.

When their mother works the morning shift, their 15-year-old brother Mbongiseni helps them prepare for school. In the mornings, they catch a taxi or bus to school and walk back home in the afternoons. The only opportunity for play at school is during their one-hour break. They play soccer or “Touch” with friends. After school, they sometimes visit the Sci-Bono centre or Museum Africa in Newtown. They’re also allowed to play at Nugget Park. Tsako says he enjoys visiting the Sci-Bono centre and Museum Africa because he’s able to learn in an informal environment.

“After school, they must come [home] and take off their uniform. If they want to go to the park, they must call me first so I know where they are,” says their mother Nomsa. “I don’t like for them to play at other flats because no one is watching them. They’re allowed to play at Nugget Park because there are security guards in and around the park.”

Nomsa says she encourages her children to play as often as possible so that they can stay away from trouble. She says children in the city love money and are often used as drug mules and she wants to keep her children far away from that.

“They like to play computer games here in the house, but I prefer them to go outside and run and play soccer.”

Nomsa says she plays with her children when she is not working. She says she often needs to mediate, because when they play, they fight physically. It doesn’t take them long to reconcile their differences.

Matentjie says children need their parents to interact with them in order to learn social rules. Social rules are taught through mediation – a practice where someone more experienced, who knows the rules and social norms, communicates them to the children. “You don’t have mediation when everybody is on the same level.”

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Tsako Khumalo enjoys several spins on the merry-go-round at Nugget Park, Hillbrow.


Finding balance

It seems that inner city children are playing; whether or not they have responsibilities at home. Motloung says there is no specific amount of time a child “should” be allowed to play and that it depends on how long one’s body can carry him or her. So surely it’s easy for a child to be deprived of play because of their responsibilities at home?

Play is crucial in creating the overall make-up of children, which is why more of it is encouraged. When the typical development stages are missed, children never fully develop and will struggle in some areas of their teenage and adulthood.

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About Thato Motaung

Thato Motaung is a journalist and budding radio producer. She completed her BA degree in print production and organisational psychology at the University of Cape Town and will complete her honours degree in journalism and media studies at Wits University in 2011. In 2010, she wrote, designed and edited a magazine title, Beautiful Black Soul, for her undergraduate research project. The magazine aimed to empower, teach and entertain young black women. Linda Mabena, lawyer and online magazine editor of Africa Be, featured on the cover. Thato is curious about the world and has a special interest in social development as well as music and the arts.

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