Toddlers in townships: What resources are available to mothers in Soweto?

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A smiling mother holds her two children in the township of Soweto, South Africa.  (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
A smiling mother holds her two children in the township of Soweto, South Africa. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Parents know that physical activity such as play, as well as sleep and time to rest, are important factors influencing a child's growth and developmental outcomes.

Play is defined as engaging in an activity for enjoyment purposes and should come naturally to children.

But when a child is confined in a small space, or lives in an area where outside areas are less safe, how are parents coping, and what can they do to encourage healthy activity and play? 

We asked Alessandra Prioreschi, a maternal and child health researcher who has recently completed a qualitative study reporting maternal perceptions of the importance of play for healthy growth and development in the first two years of life, to help us understand what resources are available to South African mothers who live in Soweto and how they interact with their young children. 

Prioreschi, who focuses on exercise and movement behaviours at the University of the Witwatersrand: Johannesburg in Braamfontein, Gauteng, shares that while there are indeed resources available online, not all mothers have access to smart phones and/or data. 

She notes that Mom Connect is a great, free government resource available and utilised widely, which works using SMS, but a lot of women do not have smart phones and/or data. 

Some local statistics:

  • Smart phone penetration around 51%
  • >80% use cellphones to communicate
  • 4G/LTE subscriptions 22%
  • 4G/LTE coverage 86%
  • 51% use phones to access social media
  • 25% use phones to get health information
  • 59% internet access - education gaps

Moms have access to the regular baby wellness clinic facilities in their area, along with the road to health book and side-by-side services. However, access and health literacy are a problem, she stresses. 

Outdoor play

We asked if children have adequate space to play outdoors, with access to activities, and Prioreschi shared that, from her research, in most cases they do not. 

"In a study of 1451 children in Soweto almost all (91%) children had a safe space to play inside, while just over a third (35%) had a safe space to play outside," she says. 

However, she stresses, indoor space is limited, and these homes had on average four people per room living in the homes. 

"Outdoor play is so important for child development, yet in Soweto it is not safe for kids to play outside. Clinics do not focus on play, but do track developmental milestones," Prioreschi says. 


When asked if Sowetan mothers feel that reading or telling stories is important, she says that most children in South Africa are not read to daily – but it is very context specific. 

Prioreschi's recent research shows that this is a problem area, with only one mother saying that she reads to her child, and that she felt that this helped her child to learn. 

Many of the other mothers said that they did not read, or even own a book. 

For example, a mother of a 17-month-old boy was interviewed during the course of Prioreschi's study and the conversation was recorded as follows:

"[Interviewer]: Do you read books to her? [Mother]: No! (Laughs) those things only happen on TV, those are white people's things, I only see that on TV I've never done it."

Why is TV a problem?

Again Prioreschi says that context is important, but according to international and national guidelines, screen time should be avoided as much as possible in this age group, and alternatives that provide stimulation and opportunity for learning should be incorporated. 

"Literature shows that TV time is associated with language delay in infants, and that toddlers' (aged two) ability to self-regulate media exposure was dependant on their emotional development," she says, adding that screen time has also been associated with weight gain in children. 

Ultimately, she says that children should be provided with opportunities to be active and stimulated, rather than being sedentary and watching screens.

Prioreschi says that one thing she found very interesting in her research is that moms in impoverished communities have so much to deal with, and so many barriers to letting their children play - especially outside. 

"However, they are so motivated to encourage their child's wellbeing and healthy development. Education and resources for these communities are key to helping them raise healthy children," she says. 


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