How ‘morning play’ is boosting quality learning among pupils in Sokoto

Four-year-old Fatima Sani sang and clapped so excitedly with her mates as her teacher taught them. They formed a big circle; they would stand, sit, dance, clap or respond to any instruction from their teacher.

“I am being taught how to read and write. I enjoy learning here. In future, I want to keep studying,” Fatima said with a big smile on her face.

At the Magaji Abdullahi Early Childhood Care, Development and Education (ECCDE) centre in Shagari, Sokoto State, it is routine for teachers to gather children mostly between the ages of three and five at the school’s playground to teach them the scheduled topics for the day through songs, rhymes and local instructional materials such as stones, sticks, among others.

When our reporter visited the school during a field trip facilitated by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the Federal Government, the children formed a big circle with their teacher in the middle; they sang songs about the types of food they eat at home in the Hausa Language. It was gathered that the children always look forward to this session which usually lasts for one hour and 30 minutes (8 am-9.30 am). It is called morning circle- a play-based form of learning. After the morning play, the children go back to their classroom to continue learning.

Zara’u Modi, one of the teachers, explained that the essence of the play was to get the children ready for class work, as the pupils first learn the scheduled topics for the day through play. According to her, the pupils assimilate faster and perform better when they engage in this process than when they don’t.

Modi disclosed that a training organised by UNICEF and other non-governmental organisations exposed her to the importance of play-based learning in early childhood education.

“From the trainings, I understood that the children have to play outside to activate their minds and brain for class work. So, learning actually starts from outside when the children play before they go into the class for assimilation to take place properly,” she said.

“The morning play outside is great in helping them to understanding whatever they are being taught in the class. Before, now, we would just lump the children up together in class and begin to teach. But, we realised that once they play outside, their performance is always better than when they are being sent straight to the class. They practise what we would learn for the day outside through play, so when they move to the class it will be easy for the children to pick it up. We introduce the topic to them through songs before they go inside; so class work is a follow up,” she explained.

Similarly, Kabiru Dandi, a father of one of the pupils in school, said his four year-old daughter is always sad anytime she cannot make it to school because of how much she enjoys the morning play.

“Anytime I visit the school, I see the teacher engaging the children on the playground. My child feels very happy whenever they are going to school, and I am impressed with her performance,” Dandi said.

According to a 2018 advocacy brief by LEGO Foundation and UNICEF titled ‘Learning Through Play,’ Early Childhood Education (ECE) also known as pre-nursery is the foundation of all learning and critical for the development of a child, educational outcome, and essential tool for achieving Universal Primary Education and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

But despite this importance, only 36 percent of children in Nigeria attend early childhood education, according to data from UNICEF. The UN agency disclosed that at least 10 million children are not enrolled in ECE, despite the fact that it is a critical foundation for all forms of learning, and development of a child.

Read also: How Headstart School is championing creativity for total education

Data from the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) show that there are currently 3.7 million children in 33,214 public Early Childhood Care Development and Education (ECCDE), while 3. 5 million children are enrolled in 48,348 private ECCDE.

Yetunde Oluwatosin, UNICEF education specialist, speaking at a media dialogue on ECE organised by the Child Rights Information Bureau (CRIB) of the Federal Ministry of Education, in collaboration with UNICEF in Sokoto, said a major consequence of this low enrolment is that 2 in 5 children are not on track in development.

Oluwatosin expressed concerns that the situation is worsening inequalities. She disclosed that only 8 percent of the poorest children attend early childhood education, but 78 percent of the richest children are enrolled. According to the education specialist, research has shown that children who attend ECE perform better and have better earnings potentials.

Education experts opine that play-based learning can boost enrolment and even tackle the menace of out-of-school children especially in northern Nigeria. Princewill Anyalewechi, a retired director at the Federal Ministry of Education, said play-based learning makes school attractive to children and will sustain their interest, and also stimulate demand for ECE.

The 2018 LEGO brief describes play as an essential strategy for learning. It notes that the most important period of human development is from birth to eight years old, during which the cognitive skills, emotional well-being, critical skills are developed.

According to the brief, “When children choose to play, they are not thinking ‘Now I am going to learn something from this activity.’ Yet, their play creates powerful learning opportunities across all areas of development. Development and learning are complex and holistic, and yet skills across all developmental domains can be encouraged through play, including motor, cognitive and social and emotional skills.

“Play sets the foundation for the development of critical social and emotional knowledge and skills. Through play, children learn to forge connections with others, and to share, negotiate and resolve conflicts, as well as learn self-advocacy skills.”

To this end, several education experts have urged the Nigerian government to prioritise early childhood learning and address the challenges.

The dearth of trained teachers is major challenge; according to the 2018 National Personnel Audit, there are 154,000 teachers for 7 million learners. Also, the teachers are poorly motivated. It was gathered that teachers at the Magaji Abdullahi Early Childhood Care, Development and Education centre earn N19,000 per month, which is even below the minimum wage.

Some other bottlenecks to ECE in Nigeria, include insufficient supply of trained teachers, limited infrastructure, poor planning, low demand, inadequate funding, lack of data, among several others.

Farouk Umar, director of Early Child Care Development, SUBEB, Sokoto, informed that the state is looking towards addressing some of the challenges of early childhood education.

According to him, the state is reviewing its plan for Basic education in the state with lots of sensitisation activities under the ECCDE to ensure that more awareness is created in centres.

“There’s a need for orientation so that parents and community members are fully informed on the importance of education. In the last two weeks we have been doing training for five days where we review the plan,” he said.

Education experts stress that Nigeria needs to take ECE seriously to improve the learning and economic outcome of children and the nation at large.