This qualitative study explored caregivers’ perceptions of factors influencing early childhood development in low-income, urban South African settings, from a social ecological perspective. Individual interviews were conducted with 15 caregivers of 3–5-year-old children; a reflexive thematic analysis approach was adopted. In the family and home context, caregivers spoke about their role in developing, nurturing, providing, protecting and disciplining their children. Risks included low socioeconomic status, dysfunctional relationships and caregiver mental health; resources related to early learning and social support. In the preschool/school context, caregivers discussed the value of early learning, and priorities for selecting early childhood care and education settings. Community risks included violence and crime; resources mentioned were social support, community programmes and infrastructure. The social ecological model provides a holistic and contextually relevant perspective for understanding multiple factors (risks and protective factors) influencing early childhood development in low-income South African settings.