The playful child and Nigeria’s early childhood education policy

There has been a tremendous growth in the need and demand for early years centres in Nigeria. Compared to a few decades ago, the sector has seen an exponential explosion in its demand. I wrote about some of the factors that could be contributing to the demand in the sector in my post on “The need for day care and early childhood education in Nigeria”.

In a report by the Daily Trust on the state of early childhood education in Plateau state, some of the core issues that were raised by practitioners in the sector interviewed by the newspaper were:

  • Shortage of qualified practitioners
  • Lack of teaching and learning resources
  • Overpopulated learning centres
  • The need for regular professional development (PD) by practitioners in the sector
  • Excruciating poverty – children going to school on empty stomach
  • Lack of infrastructure
  • Low patronage by parents
  • Early years education policy in the country being private provision centred
  • Curriculum provision

According to the National Policy on Education (2013, p.5)

Government shall: …encourage both community and private efforts in the establishment of ECCDE centres based on set standards…

Hence, it is to be noted that some of the government owned and operated schools do provide early years’ education as a means of attracting parents to register their children in public schools, however, the sector is not considered as part of the compulsory education sector in the country as there is no statutory requirement on any of the three arms of government to make compulsory provision for the sector. This situation further complicates the matter for families that are socio-economically disadvantaged because they are the ones that are more likely to struggle with the financial capability to support their children’s education.

Although, the policy made mention of the general framework on which the sector’s learning provisions should be based on in Sections 14 to 16 (pp.5-6), however, there is need for the government to provide a more comprehensive framework with which practitioners and settings within the sector would operate with. This is because the importance of the sector cannot be overemphasised as there are multiple research evidence that show that children’s neurological growth is most rapid during the early years’ stage, hence, many governments all over the world are beginning to make significant investments in the sector; as the returns on investments in the sector has been deemed to be highly rewarding and cost effective.

While it is important to have a comprehensive framework for the sector, it is also very pertinent that the government provides a comprehensive but flexible curriculum guide for the sector, particularly as it is at its early days in Nigeria, and there are not enough qualified early years practitioners in the country. And along with the curriculum guide should come a series of well designed practice-informed and evidence-based professional development programs and qualifications.

…pedagogical play…include Rousseau’s ideas about childhood innocence and protection; Froebel’s notion of children being at work when playing in the children’s garden; Dewey’s focus of the active learner working on real life problems; Boyce’s embedding of content knowledge in play; through to Piaget’s exposition on the construction of knowledge through active exploration during play.

– Cutter-Mackenzie, Edwards, Moore and Boyd (2014 p.21)

Rightfully, the policy identifies play and learning through exploration as the core methods of educating children at that stage when it says in Section 15e (p.5) that

The purpose of ECCDE shall be to: inculcate in the child the spirit of enquiry and creativity through the exploration of nature, the environment, art, music and the use of toys etc.

This philosophy of early years’ education is in line with some of the principles of early years’ education methods like Reggio Emilia (PDF), Froebel (PDF), Dewey, Montessori and Charlotte Mason. Also, the principle is in line with the traditional system of child upbringing in Nigeria- a system in which children are allowed to learn by playing with their mates and exploring their neighbourhoods.

…playful learning spans both free play and guided play. Playful learning is child centered, constructivist, affectively positive, and hands-on. It can involve fantasy but does not necessarily do so. At the guided-play end of the playful-learning span, “teachers might enhance children’s exploration and learning by commenting on their discoveries, co-playing along with the children, asking open-ended questions about what children are finding, or exploring the materials in ways that children might not have thought to do.
Lillard (2013 p.158) (PDF)

Furthermore, it is important to note that “play” as a way of learning in a typical early years setting goes beyond the perception of some people that it is “just” play. This is why some parents struggle with the idea that their children can attend an early years’ education setting without knowing how to “read” and “write”. Firstly, let us look at the concept of play in early years’ education. Play equals learning and goes beyond that, as it helps children in developing all their different domains of development: physical, social, cognitive, communicative and adaptive. It is based on this premise that it is very important that early years’ practitioners in the country should be well-trained and educated in the different theories and strategies used in educating children at that stage of their development.

Let us look at play from a very traditional lens. A child can be seen playing with: baby dolls, balls, blocks, shapes, sand, crayons, sports bats etc. At times the same child could be seen running, climbing, dancing, singing rhymes, scribbling, drawing, doodling, reading, baby talking, listening to stories or being read aloud to. In all of these different forms of playing, the child would be developing different aspects of his/her domains of development. Hence, it is important that an early years’ practitioner takes into cognisance these factors while designing the curriculum or learning opportunities for children under his/her care.

Likewise, the practitioner should know and accept that children’s development in the different domains at this stage can vary significantly. So, the practitioner should relate with the child with an open mind, and parents on their parts need to accept this and see their investments in their children’s education at this stage as something that would yield immense benefit in the long run and not necessarily immediately. All these factors corroborate the need for the government to provide professional avenues for practitioners and settings within the sector to develop and evolve their practice and fully professionalise the sector.

The saddest part of the report was that some of the children were attending the early years’ centres “on an empty stomach” and poor health. This is a very sad situation and an indelible mark on any government. Unfortunately, the government’s National Home Grown School Feeding Programme (NHGSFP) that has been reported to have been very successful, does not cover all the years at the primary education level and there is no provision for the pre-primary education levels. Thus, children in the early years’ sector are left out of the scheme; at a stage in their young lives that they need the most nutritious food to grow appropriately.

It is obvious that without a statutory provision that would make early years’ education a compulsory service by the government, the feeding of young children, particularly those that are from the most socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, would be left to the benevolence of those at the helm of affairs on education matters in the nation. However, to have a more structured, lasting and inclusive school feeding programme the government would have to include the early years’ children.

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  1. says: Rahmah Gafar

    I enjoyed this article and I look forward to the day in this country when proper attention will be given to the early years sector. In terms of practice, expected outcomes, appropriate materials, practitioners etc.

    Keep up the good work. Jazakallahu khairan

    1. says: Abdulghaniy Kayode Otukogbe

      Hopefully, the policy makers will pay more attention to the sector and improve on both the quality and quantity of the provisions from what is obtainable at the moment.
      Thanks for reading my blog. You’re much appreciated.

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