Early Childhood Development in South AfricaSingakwenza, derived from the isiZulu for “We can do it,” is a truly inspiring organization that has been making a significant impact on early childhood development in South Africa since its establishment in 2010. By training parents, educators and caregivers, Singakwenza is empowering the lives of underserved children and fostering hope for a brighter future. 

In the first five years of life, the human brain develops over a million neural connections each second, more than at any other phase. These crucial early years lay the foundation for essential learning skills that shape a child’s success in school and beyond. This is why UNICEF calls early childhood development “one of the most powerful and cost-effective equalizers we have at our disposal.”


Tragically, an estimated two-thirds of the 1.2 million South African children between zero and 5 years old live in poverty. Of these, less than a quarter are enrolled in a meaningful early learning program. Even among those enrolled, only 44.7% will meet the necessary emotional, physical and mental development markers by the age of 5. In the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, where Singakwenza operates, this number is below 30%, the worst rate in South Africa.

Despite the urgent need for resources and curriculum development, early learning programs make up only 1-2% of the South African government’s education budget. Recognizing this gap, Singakwenza’s founders started the organization with a mission to change these disheartening statistics and improve early childhood development in South Africa.

Shaping the Future With Training and Mentorship 

Singakwenza’s Training and Mentorship Program teaches practitioners in underserved communities a play-based philosophy of early childhood development. As of 2023, Singakwenza is mentoring 22 preschools and 61 caregivers, impacting over 700 students annually. By training dozens of teachers, each responsible for several hundred students throughout their careers, Singakwenza significantly multiplies its positive influence. 

An offshoot of the Training and Mentorship Program, the Basic Bookkeeping Program equips preschool owners with the tools to develop sustainable businesses. By providing a coach to work closely with owners for several weeks, Singakwenza assists them in managing their expenses, income, invoicing and other essential tasks. This ensures that practitioners mentored by Singakwenza will remain a crucial part of Kwa-Zulu Natal’s education network.

Waste 2 Toys Making for Sustainable Play

The inability to access expensive toys creates obstacles to early childhood education in underserved areas. That’s why Singakwenza’s Waste 2 Toys program teaches practitioners and donors how to make developmentally appropriate toys from recycled materials. In their 511 workshops, Singakwenza has trained almost 12,000 people to make toys. It estimates that over 200,000 children have benefitted from this training.

Not only is making toys from recycled materials environmentally sustainable, but it is also economically viable for South Africa’s poor families. If a toy gets lost or broken in play, parents and teachers can replace it for free, making Singakwenza’s program far more impactful than a one-off toy donation. 

Singakwenza provides hope for early childhood development in South Africa. In doing so, it contributes to breaking the cycle of poverty and invests in the country’s future leaders.

– Faye Crawford
Photo: Unsplash

Hope of ToysSmall towns do not often get credits for great deeds, but some of the best things in life come from the most unexpected places. This is the case for the Happy Factory which began in the small town of Cedar City, Utah. What started out as a hobby for the founders after retirement has grown to help children in poverty, children dealing with sickness and children living in the midst of violence. These toys have brought happiness to many when everything else seems so dark. The hope of toys could mean all the world to every child they reach.

About the Founders

Charles and Donna Cooley retired from Southern Utah University in 1995, where Donna worked as the head cashier at the university and Charles worked in the sports department. After retiring Charles took up woodwork, making animal cut-outs which were donated to Primary Children’s Medical Center after Donna painted them.

The couple saw the hope of toys for the children who received them and felt so much happiness. The Cooleys knew they had to continue their work. The hobby became a full-time project and job. The happiness that the Cooley’s toys brought to children inspired the name, “Happy Factory.Charles Cooley died in 2011, but Donna and thousands of volunteers continue this work today.

Making Happy

From its humble beginnings, the Happy Factory has grown immensely. The motto of the founders is “We may not be able to make a toy for every child in the world that needs one-but we’re going to try.” And their efforts have made a sizable impact in the world.

All of the organization’s work that goes into creating the toys is done by volunteers and the wood that is used to make them is donated and repurposed. The toy donations have expanded from the original local hospital. Since 1995, over 1.5 million toys went to different organizations and countries all over the world. In 2017 they made donations to the ravaged communities of Iraq and Afghanistan with help from the U.S. military.

This is all help to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Humanitarian Services (LDS Humanitarian Services). The Happy Project was able to go worldwide via the LDS Humanitarian Services as they provide relief efforts in areas hit by natural disasters.

Making an Impact

The charity has also moved towards making steam shovels, which have been sent far and wide, according to its website. The conception of this came when the Happy Factory’s owners visited a hospital in Salt Lake City. The hospital needed to acquire specialty wooden items that would help children dealing with bone, muscle and joint difficulties. The physical therapist at the hospital called Charles and when asked about it he promptly asked for plans.

These toys have made a particular impact on disabled children. They have stimulated the children to do things they thought were previously impossible. In some places, this is the only form of therapy available for children. Since their introduction to Happy Factory’s production line over 2,610 of these steam shovel toys have been delivered all over the world.

This organization is giving the hope of toys and making an impact in the lives of children, but also in the hands that take the time to make the toys, as well as the people that deliver them. Every helping hand and penny makes a difference. In the words of Robert Workman, a man who helped inspire Happy Factory, “One toy makes a drop in the bucket and it’s a pretty big drop for the child that gets it.”

– Kelsey Jensen
Photo: Flickr

Toys for ChildrenFor kids of all ages, making a list of toy requests for Santa is one of the most exciting times of the year. Yet for children living in the world’s poorest regions, there is no Santa, presents or toys. UNICEF estimates that across the world, nearly one billion children live in multidimensional poverty. That equates to 13% of the global population. During the holiday season, three organizations are working to make sure that impoverished children have toys to call their own.

Samaritan’s Purse

For more than 25 years now, the Samaritan’s Purse annual “Operation Christmas Child” has provided toys for children living in poverty. Franklin Graham, the president of this organization, began the tradition in 1993 by sending gifts to young kids experiencing the violence of war in Bosnia. Since then, the project has grown to spread gifts all across the world to more than 150 countries, including some of the poorest areas. Samaritan’s Purse asks donors to fill a shoebox with various gifts for either a boy or girl which then gets distributed to congregations located in these impoverished nations.The initiative has brought more than 178 million children toys throughout the years. In many cases, the gifts provided by Samaritan’s Purse will be the only toys these children receive in their childhoods. The work done by this organization embodies the true meaning of the holidays and acts as a Santa for the poor.

Play Well Africa

One of the most successful companies in the toy industry is Lego. Lego’s plastic colored bricks are educational and creative opportunities for children. Play Well Africa is dedicated to bringing these Lego pieces to the less fortunate living in Africa. Unlike other toys, which can break, stop working or require electricity, Lego’s offer a unique ability to allow children to play in any circumstances. Young Micah Slentz, a child himself, started Play Well Africa when he asked his father to buy his favorite toy, Lego bricks, and donate it to children in Africa. A simple kind gesture has grown into a massive project that receives both new and used Lego bricks and sends them to impoverished children in developing countries. With offices in both the United States and Australia, Play Well Africa is a multinational organization. Thousands of children in countries such as Uganda will build, create and have fun with Lego bricks, all thanks to a boy who wanted to share his favorite toy with the world.

The Toy Foundation

For decades now, the Toy Foundation has strived to create avenues to bring children of the world toys to play with. One of its most successful campaigns has been the “Toy Bank” which started back in 2003. The foundation relies on donations from top toy companies and in turn spreads these gifts to existing agencies located in impoverished countries. Donations come from all sorts of brands, including Hasbro, Lego and Mattel. Children surviving some of the worst living conditions receive brand new toys, an opportunity made possible by the Toy Foundation. Children with diseases, orphans and those in war-torn nations are the top priority for the Toy Bank, making the organization’s work imperative. Ensuring toys for children in the most vulnerable situations is the organization’s focus.

Toys for the Most Vulnerable Children

Toys can be a healthy outlet for children who live in some of the world’s poorest regions. Toys can provide both emotional support and stress relief. Whether it be a teddy bear to hug, a doll to dress up or Legos to build, the psychological benefits of playing with toys are something all children need. These organizations all help to make dreams come true for the young children who need toys the most.

– Zachary Hardenstine
Photo: Flickr

Italian photographer Gabriele Galimberti spent months traveling the world and captured children at their most vulnerable and innocent. His efforts were compiled into the project Toy Stories which documented children with their toys. For each child, Galimberti had them spread out in a very organized fashion all or some of their prized possessions and then photographed them. The toys even reflected not necessarily the socio-economic situations of each child but their geographical location or family’s occupation.

He also noted their demeanor and interaction with both him and the toys. Children in richer countries, he found, were more possessive with their toys while those from poorer countries were much easier to quickly interact.

But don’t be quick to jump to a pessimistic view that rich children are spoiled and don’t have the decency to appreciate what they have. Though it is true, it seems, that Galimberti’s experience illustrates such a pattern but keep in mind that they are just children. However, what this project shows and will hopefully stir up is a parent’s ability to help their children, no matter how young, to become aware of their luxuries and way of life and how those aren’t the same for everyone.

The notion that children are not able to understand such serious topics is completely unfounded. In fact, their strong sense of curiosity already creates the foundation of fostering care and awareness of poverty related issues, especially when it comes to other children. By starting with them at a young age, we can have a chance at making sure the next generation is internally wired to act and think differently about poverty to help end what perhaps this generation may only come close to doing.

Alessia- Catiglion Fiorentino, Italy



Enea- Boulder, Colorado



Chiwa- Mchinji, Malawi



Keynor- Cahwita, Costa Rica



Bethsaida- Port au Prince, Haiti



Taha- Beirut, Lebanon



Cun Zi Yi- Chongqing, CHina



Pavel- Kiev, Ukraine



Maudy- Kalulushi, Zambia




Shaira- Mumbai, India



Arafa & Aisha- Bububu, Zanzibar



Stella- Montecchio, Italy



Tangawizi- Keekorok, Kenya


– Deena Dulgerian

Source: feature shoot, gabriele galimberti