Play for All.

Impact Area:

Quality Early Learning Programmes 

Year of Investment and Stage:

2022| Developing and testing to validate problem solution fit

Current Stage:

Early Proof of Concept

Investment Amount:

R750 000

Financial Instrument:



Open, Active

Shonaquip and SmartStart have partnered through their joint initiative, Play for All, to promote inclusive learning opportunities that foster high quality development for both children with and those without disabilities. Children with disabilities remain excluded through societal and environmental barriers, while exclusion from early learning opportunities affects whole families.

Play for All intends to address the existing stigma surrounding disabilities and provide training and support to early learning practitioners in the SmartStart centres. The goal is to influence their perceptions and understanding of disabilities. The initiative works to address the exclusion of children with disabilities from quality early learning programmes (ELP), and promote their full integration into these programmes. 

The Problem

Many children living with disabilities are excluded from quality early development as there is a lack of local, accessible and high-quality learning opportunities, specifically in rural and underserved areas in South Africa. Despite calls for inclusion and non-discrimination, the majority of children living with disabilities are denied educational opportunities, starting at the earliest level of ECD. 

Exclusion of children with disabilities from their peers further exacerbates the stigma of disability in communities while inclusion, especially at a young age, creates community cohesion and a non-discriminatory attitude in non-disabled peers. 

The Innovation

Over half a million children under five years old have a disability in South Africa. Children are referred to special school systems without an attempt to include them in local mainstream schooling. These schools are often far from home and the costs can be unaffordable for many families. 

For many children with disabilities, specialised schooling would not be necessary if appropriate early development were available. Only a margin of children with disabilities need specialised services and care in order to be included in learning, yet the common practice is to group all children with disabilities together, without proper consideration of their needs and abilities. Special needs centres often have a strong focus on basic care which further excludes children from accessing high quality early learning opportunities and in turn impacts their learning and development. 

This initiative combines two proven methodologies that are already sustainable and already exist within the SmartStart network. Shonaquip works extensively with parents of children with disabilities through a programme known as the Parent Network. This online community of over 900 parents across South Africa provides peer-support as well as referrals and access to sites where they can further their understanding of disabilities  and human rights monitoring for advocacy. 

How It works

Shonaquip and SmartStart have collaborated to introduce disability inclusion into the existing SmartStart network, where children with and without disabilities can benefit from quality early play and learning opportunities together. Hundreds of underserved communities (and thousands of children) will benefit from a local high quality inclusive ECD programme. 

Shonaquip and SmartStart have combined their existing high impact, scalable training models to work towards ensuring all children are included in high quality ECD for a fair start to life. Through Play for All, they offer disability awareness at scale to all  ECD practitioners in  SmartStart centres and inclusive ECD training and introductory disability awareness to ECD practitioners. They also provide online disability awareness training materials in multiple languages, and connect  parents with SmartStart practitioners for information sharing and practical advice. 

The partnership also aims to connect the Shonaquip Parent Network with SmartStart’s practitioner network, providing referrals and access to sites where they can further their understanding of disabilities. 

Why We Invested

Children with disabilities remain excluded through societal and environmental barriers, while exclusion from early learning opportunities affects whole families. Disability inclusion training is seen as an “add on”, which ultimately excludes children from access to play and learning opportunities. As a result, developmental milestones are missed and further impacting future learning, and ongoing dependency on care. Caregivers, mostly mothers, lose employment opportunities to attend to unpaid caregiving of their children at home. 

We invested in Play for All to support its aim to promote the inclusion of children with disabilities and their families in ELPs in South Africa’s early learning centres. By connecting SmartStart practitioners and the Shonaquip’s Parent Network, families benefit from peer-support, referral into disability services, information building (including facilitated learning sessions as requested by parents) and data collection for parent-driven disability inclusion advocacy. Through these collective efforts, the organisations work to provide training, change perceptions, and establish a referral pathway for the parents and practitioners. Parents can enjoy being freed up from full time care at home to pursue income generating opportunities while children attend ECD centres. 

The Project Team

Shonaquip was established in 1992 and is a hybrid organisation working to build an inclusive world where children with disabilities are no longer perceived as less valued. Among its four ecosystem areas, they deliver tools and training through a range of programmes predominantly in specialised centres. 

 SmartStart is a social franchise model started in 2015 to close the access gap to early learning opportunities. They work to ensure that every young child has access to quality early learning programmes in preparation for future opportunities. They also provide training and startup support to early learning practitioners with a passion for ECD and a desire to run their own programmes.