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SPECIAL REPORT: Your children can recite alphabets or numbers? Doesn’t mean they’re brilliant


Forget reciting the alphabet or memorizing the numbers from one to 10 or 100. For children, play is actually a better way to learn than traditional school work. Studies have found evidence that play is the natural way which children learn.

“Asking a three-year-old to recite the alphabet is not learning,” Andre Viviers, early childhood education specialist with Unicef South Africa, told a group of journalists on study tour of the country’s early childhood development programmes.

Viviers argues that children actually need to learn the alphabet but they should do so through songs, to give meaning and understanding to the sound. It is pointless, he says, to make a six-year-old count 1 to 100. “It doesn’t show necessarily that the child is smart or that good learning is taking place,” he adds.

Play-based learning helps children develop cognitive, emotional, social and motor skills. These skills, according to early childhood specialists, are the foundation for later learning. Rote learning has long been the basis on which many schools operate. But evidence from numerous studies suggest that undue emphasis on memorisation is a bad idea; such studies suggest that play should be the fulcrum of early learning.


The official education policy in Nigeria recognises the importance of play-based learning by specifically pointing out that the main method of teaching at pre-primary school shall be through play. To achieve this goal, the policy holds that the teacher-pupil ratio shall be 1:25. But in most public schools, the number of pupils per teacher can be triple of the recommended ratio.

While the official policy emphasises the pivotal role of play in preschool, the actual incorporation of play into the curriculum remains a big challenge. Much of learning in nursery schools across the country still focuses on children memorising alphabets, numbers and the names of the 36 states of the federation.

Swachet Sankey, Unicef’s early childhood education specialist in Nigeria, says the problem is that teachers do not know how to make learning play-based or activity-based. Teacher training institutions do not teach students how to organise play-based learning and the national curriculum does not specify the activities that make up play-based learning.

“There is a very poor understanding of what should be going on in pre-primary class,” Sankey told the ICIR. “So, you go to certain schools – even so-called private schools – and parents are agitating.”

She says parents demand quick, visible results – like evidence that their children can read and write. Rote learning can produce visible results, but children may just be displaying skills they have memorised when they have not really mastered the underlying skills.

The idea of preschool, Sankey argues, is to build in the children concepts and skills that will make them ready for primary school, not to learn how to read and write. “They are supposed to be exposed to pre-reading skills — basic concepts of letters, alphabets and prints.

“They should understand that a book is made of words, and words are made up of sounds. They are supposed to be able to look at pictures in a book and talk about those pictures because they are supposed to be developing oral language skill.”


A study in New Zealand indicates that early formal literacy does not make children better readers. The study compared groups of children who started formal literacy lessons at ages five and seven. By the age of 11, the study found that there was no difference in reading ability between the two groups, but that the children who started at five showed less positive attitudes to reading and had poorer text comprehension than children who had started at seven.

This evidence raises serious questions about pre-primary schools in Nigeria, which selling point to parents is that they teach children to read before entering primary school at age of six. Evidence indicates that pressuring children to start reading at preschool when their neural connections are still being formed may not be in the interest of their emotional well-being and academic achievement.

Essienanwan Bangwell, children and teens coach, told the ICIR that Nigeria’s educational system has failed the children, pointing that the government has to invest in producing learning tools to engage the children in early learning.

“They are sitting in the classroom and the learning is boring,” says Bangwell.  “Nigerian children can do a lot better. They are more intelligent than the academic reflects but they are shaking of boredom.”


Cotlands’ toys library, Johannesburg, South Africa

In South Africa, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are stepping up to fill the gaps in play-based learning. Cotlands, a non-profit organisation based in Johannesburg, has set up toys library where children from disadvantaged background can access toys. The organisation supports more than 12,000 children in 260 play groups.

Monica Stach, CEO of Cotlands, says the NGO is igniting potential of children through play because early learning activities are best achieved though play so that children can build confidence and learn to express themselves in ways that expand their critical thinking.

Questions have been raised on why play-based learning should be about toys and sophisticated tools that the poor people cannot afford. If play is so important in early learning, children should be allowed to play in their traditional ways, rather than promoting the products of toy companies.

Stach responds that the problem with traditional games as learning tools is that they are not structured with learning outcomes in mind and cannot be used to build the important skills that the children need. “Children playing for the sake of play has its great value, but when you think about the skills they need to be successful at school, that is where they have to play differently.”

Brent Hutcheson, CEO of Care for Education, a non-profit organisation in Johannesburg, told the ICIR that manipulation of objects is critical to early learning. In partnership with LEGO Foundation, the world’s leading supplier of early learning tools, Hutcheson has developed Six Bricks which playfully engages children in a variety of skills development.


A common misconception is to think that play-based learning is all about expensive toys, says Swadchat Sankey, Unicef’s early childhood education specialist. She argues that children can still have quality pre-primary education if the teachers are properly trained how to set up play and activity-based learning environment.

The majority of children in preschool in Nigeria still do not have access to play-based learning because most teachers do not know the concept. About 85 percent of caregivers in early childhood centres do not possess basic qualifications, and more than half have no formal education, according to Unicef.

Through her Odyssey Foundation, Stella Uzochukwu is trying to promote LEGO Education: “hands-on playful learning tools that engage every student’s natural curiosity, and help them develop the skills they will need to succeed in the future”. But she faces obstacles from government and parents. Bureaucracy is making it hard to introduce the innovative concepts in the curriculum, she says.

In her after-school classes in Gwarimpa, Abuja, she introduces LEGO products and robotics to her students. But the parents would rather want her to concentrate on teaching the children skills they think will put them at the top of their classes in school.

“We can’t continue to do things the old way,” Uzochukwu quips. “We have moved from chalk and board to allowing the children to even teach themselves.”

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