How this SA ECD franchise is now scaling faster after pivot into ed-tech

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South African startup Play Sense, which started life as an offline early childhood development (ECD) business, is now quickly scaling after pivoting into the ed-tech arena last year.

Founded in 2016 by occupational therapists and early years experts Meg Faure and Lara Schoenfeld, Play Sense offers training for early childhood teachers and a learning programme that prioritises optimal emotional development in two-to-four-year olds, as opposed to purely skills-based school readiness skills taught in traditional play schools. 

“Our unique model combines small groups of children in a home environment with a teacher certified to teach our play-based methodology to give toddlers a foundation for all other learning,” Faure told Disrupt Africa.

“Our programme uses a combination of styles of play to teach skills of the future such as self-regulation, creativity, and collaboration.”

Faure and Schoenfeld bootstrapped the business for four years, working long hours for little financial reward – “a classic startup business scenario”, Faure says. But in early 2020, everything changed.

“Faced with the prospect of closing our playschools when hard lockdown hit South Africa, we took the opportunity to pivot our business and launched Play Sense Online within 72 hours,” Faure said.

This was done with support of Enygma Ventures, the US-based VC firm founded by award winning entrepreneurs Sarah and Jacob Dusek. The company launched a fund in 2019with a focus on investing in women entrepreneurs in the SADC region, and Play Sense was its first investment. The startup has been growing ever since.

“Parents recognise the need for change to the traditional schooling and childcare system and our uptake shows the move towards home-based learning through play,” said Faure.

With Play Sense now having a footprint all over South Africa, it is planning expansion to the United Kingdom (UK), the Middle East, and the United States (US). The startup has a handful of revenue streams.

“First is our franchise offering, whereby teachers are trained and fully supported to set up a play school for a one-off fee, and monthly royalties. We also offer our online programmes internationally on a subscription basis,” said Faure.

Much has changed for the company in the last 12 months, and it is still adapting as it grows. Yet at Play Sense’s core is its non-traditional offering in the ECD space, and it is this more than any innovative technology that is the startup’s real “secret sauce”.

“As OTs, we knew that traditional childcare did not optimise development in little ones. Too many children, a large classroom environment creates anxiety and inhibits little ones from learning language and soft skills that will stay with them for life and become the keys to their success,” Faure said. 

“We also recognised the important role that teachers play, but constraints in a traditional school meant that they often don’t reap the rewards of teaching and shaping little minds.” 

Play Sense found a unique niche in the market in that it is “school-less”.

“We’ve traded traditional school infrastructure for a home environment; we’ve capped our groups to a maximum of six children, and we have developed an exciting play-based programme that allows little ones to have rich experiences to play and learn,” said Faure.

And now, thanks for the internet and Enygma’s funding, the startup is scaling faster than ever before.

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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