By | June 26, 2016
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Sooter Tombowua

M.W. Wombo

Department of Early Childhood Care and Education

College of Education, Katsina-Ala







Children love to play and learn a lot through play. Play is such a significant factor in children’s development and learning that the National Policy on Education (2004) categorically stated that Government shall ensure that the main method of teaching at the Early Childhood level should be through play. This paper therefore, discusses the importance of play in the early years of life (0-5) to children’s growth, learning and holistic development, since, children’s development depends on the quality of early stimulation and experiences offered to them. However, nearly all the pre-primary education in Nigeria is provided by private proprietors. It also identified the inability of most schools to recruit competent and qualified teachers and provide appropriate play facilities among other aimed at ensuring that the policy objectives are achieved. Finally, it established that the provision of early childhood education with competent and qualified teacherswill have positive influence on the overall development of children in later life.


Keywords: Play, Children, Development, Early Childhood Education





The early years of human life present a unique opportunity to lay the foundation for healthy development. It is a time of growth and of vulnerability. Research on early childhood has underscored the impact of the first five years of a child’s life on his/her development. According to David (1998), good early childhood education through play is vital to help a child develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. This is a time when children particularly need high quality care and learning experiences. The preschool years require positive early learning experiences as the foundation for later success in intellectual, social, language and emotional development (Abiodun, 2011).

According to Tombowua (2012), early childhood education is a unique field of study and practice where play lies at the heart of learning and instruction. It makes a major contribution to the physical, social, emotional, intellectual and language development of children. In a good childhood institution, the development of skills and competencies is promoted largely through play, supported by a variety of play materials.

In our society, play is often not respected because it does not seem to be productive. Parents often scold their children for playing too long and always, yet, the creative achievements of scientific thought involve sustained attention, imagination and innovation, ways of perceiving, imagination and innovation are the basic characteristics of play (Tombowua, 2012).

The National Policy on Education recognises that learning at the early childhood level should be basically through play-way method. Play is therefore a veritable tool in Early Childhood Education. Children spend most of their wake time in play. Children learn and grow by playing. “All work without play makes Jack a dull boy.” While this ancient proverb may seem trite and cliché to modern scholars, it however, still holds true value when discussing children and play.


Conceptual Clarifications

There are many different definitions of play. Adults, children and young people may each have their own. Beihler (1981) defined play as self-selected activities through which children have opportunities to discover many things at their own pace and in their own way. Similarly, Hildebrand (1997) in Kolo (2010) defined play as any action that an individual chooses to do, which is fun and self motivated.

In play-work, the following definition of play, based on the work of Bob Hughes and Frank King is widely accepted: play is freely chosen, personally directed, intrinsically motivated behaviour that actively engages the child (National Playing Fields Association, Children’s Play Council & Play-link, 2000). This means that play is:

  • Freely chosen–Children choose what they do themselves.
  • Personally directed–Children choose how they do what they choose to do.
  • Intrinsically motivated–Children choose why they do what they choose. Children’s play is performed for no external goal or reward (Play Wales & Play Education, 2001).

By playing, children learn and develop as individuals, and as members of the community. All children and young people play, unless they are living in extremely difficult conditions (forced into child labour, or to be child soldiers) or they are critically ill (Lindon, 2002). Some children with disabilities or long term health problem may need additional support to enable them to participate in play activities. No wonder Abiodun (2011) saw play as a universal activity for all healthy children. He further maintained that it is a form of recreation that has great educational values and that children practice some of the roles they will later be called upon to play as adult.

The word ‘play’ is also used to describe the activities of children from babyhood until the early teenage years. There is no neat definition that will cover all the meanings given by parents, early years and play-work practitioners and other adult commentators – let alone how children talk about play when their opinions are invited. Yet there are some common themes. As outlined by Lindon (2002) in the following descriptions:

  • Play includes a range of self-chosen activities undertaken for their own interest, enjoyment and the satisfaction that results for children.
  • Very young children, even babies, show playful behaviour when they explore sound and simple actions and experiment with objects of interest.
  • Play activities are not essential to meet basic physical survival needs. But play does seem to support children’s emotional wellbeing as well as a wide range of learning within their whole development.
  • Children can play alone, but often they play with other children and with familiar adults. Even very young children engage in simple give-and-take or copying games with their peers, older siblings or with adults.
  • A playful quality in activities is shown by the exercise of choice, enjoyable repetition and invitation by children to others to join the play.
  • Yet children’s play can look serious. Players may show great absorption in the activity and disagreements can result from a difference of opinion about how the play should progress.


The Child

A precise meaning or definition of a child may prove difficult. According to Mallum, Haggai and Ajaegbu (2004) a child is a young individual between birth and adolescence.  A child could also mean a human being from conception to adolescence. The age at which a person ceases to be a child depends on the culture, purpose and law of the land. In some countries, a person may remain a child as long as he is in school. In other countries, the child is anybody who is not yet 14 years. At this period before 14 years, their criminal activities are termed juvenile delinquency. The child starts as a an organism which develops into a human being with flesh, skeleton, body fluid and grows in a social environment. He/she is born into a family from where he/she grows and goes to school.

Though the child is helpless at birth, he/she is equipped with all genetic potentials for growth. As he/she grows physically through feeding, he/she also grows psychological through maturation and learning. Because each child is endowed with different genetic potentials and grows in a different environment, he/she is different from every other child, a concept referred to as individual differences.


Child Development

Development according to Mallum, Haggai & Ajaegbu (2004) refers to quantitative and qualitative changes. In human beings, development is defined as a progressive series of changes in an orderly coherent manner. “Progressive” means that these changes are directional that is they lead forward rather than backward. Orderly and coherent suggests that there is a definite relationship between the changes taking place and those that precede or that will follow.  Child development is the process of progressive changes in the child. For example, child development is not just what children can do at each age level like sitting at five months or walking at 13 months but the conditions that cause these changes and determine the environmental factors that can facilitate such changes. Child development therefore emphasises the role played by environment and experience. In a nutshell, child development can be defined as the orderly coherent changes taking place in the child from conception to adulthood. These changes are both physical (increase in size and structure) and also mental changes in perceptual and conceptual capabilities (Mallum, Haggai & Ajaegbu, 2004).  Child development refers to the biological, psychological and emotional changes that occur in human beings between birth and the end of adolescence, as the individual progresses from dependency to increasing autonomy. It is a continuous process with a predictable sequence yet having a unique course for every child. It does not progress at the same rate and each stage is affected by the preceding types of development.


Early Childhood Education

Early childhood education is referred to as the foundation for children’s growth and development. It encompasses the clear development and education of children below the age of six. Similarly, the National Policy on Education (2004) defined early childhood education as the education given in an institution to children 0-5 years prior to their entering the primary school. It includes the Crèche, Day Care Centres, Kindergarten and Nursery (FRN, 2004).

Children’s Play

Historical and cross-cultural evidence shows that all children play, unless their living circumstances are very harsh or the children are very ill. According to Lindon (2002), children’s available or chosen playthings and games vary across time and culture. Yet some playful activities seem to be very common. Some examples include play with dolls and similar figures, construction activities with whatever is available and imaginative play that recreates what children see in their own families and neighbourhood. According to Lindon (1998), children who have disabilities or a continuing health condition still want to play and are often bored and distressed, if circumstances severely limit their opportunities. Children create play and materials from whatever is available and certainly do not require expensive, commercially produced toys in order to play or learn. Children develop social games with each other sometimes absorbing a wide age range of children, even under very deprived circumstances. Only severe circumstances such as these prevent children from playing: abusive restriction of their freedoms, being part of the labour market from a very young age or when children are forced to become active in war as soldiers (Lindon, 1998).         The pattern of children’s play reflects the society in which they live, including social changes over the decades. In the United Kingdom now, commercial interests promote a huge array of toys for children, including many resources linked to ICT (Information Communication Technology). This change has led some commentators to claim that children nowadays ‘‘demand’’ expensive toys and many are promoted as ‘‘essential for your child’s learning’’. Yet objective observation of this younger generation shows clearly that they are very happy to explore simple play materials including large cardboard boxes and home-made sound makers, craft activities and lively physical games (Davy & Gallagher, 2004).


Play Types

Different types of play can be organised for children so as to ensure an over-all integrated development. According to Abiodun (2011), different types of play could be organised for children depending on their age and interest. National Playing Fields Association, Children’s Play Council and Playlink (2000), identified some range of play types to include;

  • Communication play – play using words, nuances or gestures (e.g., telling jokes, play acting, singing, and storytelling).
  • Creative play – play allowing new responses, transformation of information, awareness of connections with an element of surprise (e.g. enjoying creative activities arts and crafts, using a variety of materials and tools).
  • Deep play – play allowing the child to encounter risky experiences, to develop survival skills and conquer fears (e.g., balancing on a high beam).
  • Dramatic play – play dramatising events in which the child is not a direct participator (e.g., presenting a TV show, religious or festive celebrations).
  • Exploratory play – play involving manipulating objects or materials to discover their properties and possibilities (e.g., playing with bricks, sand, water, clay, play dough).
  • Fantasy play–play rearranging the world in the child’s way, in a manner unlikely to occur in real life (e.g. playing as being an astronaut or King /Queen).
  • Imaginative play – play where conventional rules of the real world are not applicable (e.g., playing to be a dog or a super hero).
  • Locomotive play – play involving movement in all directions for its own sake (e.g., playing chase, tag, hide and seek).
  • Mastery play – play involving control of physical aspects of the environment (e.g., digging holes, building dens).
  • Objective play – play involving hand-eye co-ordination to manipulate objects in an infinite variety of ways (e.g. examining novel uses for a paint brush, bricks).
  • Role Play – play exploring human activities on basic level (e.g. doing simple domestic chores such as sweeping with broom, making telephone calls, driving a car, with or without play equipment).
  • Rough and tumble play – play involving discovering physical flexibility and demonstrating physical skills (e.g., play fighting, chasing).
  • Social play – play involving social interaction that requires following certain rules or protocols (e.g., games with rules, conversations). (The sequence of social play involves; solitary play, parallel play, associative play, and cooperative play).
  • Symbolic Play – Play allowing controlled, gradual exploration and increased understanding without risk (e.g., using a piece of wood to symbolise a person).

These play types according to Tombowua (2012), can be grouped into three main areas of play as follows:

  1. Physical Play: Play activities that promote opportunities for children to develop their physical skills. For example, locomotor play, mastery play, rough and tumble play.
  2. Explanatory Play: Play activities that provide opportunities for children to understand the world around them by exploring their environment and experimenting with materials. For example, exploratory play, creative play, object play.
  3. Imaginative Play: Play activities that provide opportunities for children to express feelings and to develop social skills. For example, communication play, deep play, dramatic play, fantasy play, imaginative play, role play, social play and symbolic play (Lindon, 2002).


Early Childhood Education’s Role on Play and Children’s Development

As what is observed in Nigerian cities and towns today, that is early as 2 to 3 years old child starts going to nurseries or kindergarten. These types of preschool setings are muchrooming at an alarming rate, and located anywhere and everywhere in garages, in flats, in two-room houses, in terracas, in rooms on top floor of multi-storaged buildings, were aside for play. Children have no provision even for free movement and are confined to rooms only. They are encouraged only for indoor play with dolls, blocks or small machine toys. Another phenomenon that is overtaking the metropolitan child is the video games and television (T.V.). Electronic play inhibits intellectual stimulationnor fulfils any physical or emotional needs, rather restricts young children from active games affecting their physical and mental development (Chowdhiry & Choudhury, 2002).

Moreover, slow children in urban areas are mostly devoid of play activities in Nigeria as they are to engage in work to supplement family income. For these, children the age of play is cut short or done away with altogether so as to turn the child into a miniature adult expected to engage in subsistance activities before he has even learn to play. Not only children lack spale or play facilities, but they lack parental understanding regarding the velue of play and natural play materials as sand, mud, water, flowers, leaves and so on, which are so crucial for the emotional development of the child.

In rural societies particular in Nigeria, young children play with climbing trees, plucking flowers, running in fields, playing hide and seek, bath in water pools or tanks. Children become very familiar with their ecological environment vegetable, insects, birs and repitiles.

Play in tribal culture have a host of naturalx stimuli available to them for play such as sticks, grass, rocks, insects, and so on. Climbing  trees is a favourute play activity, sliding down a slope, using animals like dogs, goats as their friends and learn to mimic their voices and dancing are pass time play activities among tribal children.

Hence, play of children gets moulded according to the environment. Tribal children play facilitate physical environment, whereas urban child’s play contributes to intellectual development. On the whole, as play is an instrument of total development, variation must be taken into consideration and efforts must be made to ensure that play prpomote the overall development of children in all culture.

Play lies at the heart of early childhood education and is a means of learning and instruction (FRN, 2004). The National Policy on Education recognises that the main method of teaching at this level shall be through play. One of the key elements that guide early childhood education according to Abiodun (2011), is that it foster physical, social, emotional, intellectual and language development of children ages 0-5 years. Early childhood education can produce significant gains in children’s learning and development. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) United States of America suggested a number of reasons why early childhood education cannot be overlooked in relation to child development. For example, one reason is that children spend most of their time playing and working with materials in early childhood education. They do not wander aimlessly and they are not expected to sit quietly for long periods of time. According to Olayinka (2004), most children in Nigeria that are not in school at early age are made to sit in one place and to remain quiet or sleep so that teachers themselves can do their own personal work. Secondly, in early childhood programmes, children have an opportunity to play outside every day. Outdoor play is never sacrificed for more instructional time; whether at home or in the school, children use most of their time playing which may be meaningful to them (Banjo, 2000).


Play and Children’s Social Development

Social development is the ability to behave in accordance with the expectations of the age group and society. Since no human is born social, there is need to provide enabling opportunity for children to learn especially through play in early childhood education (Abiodun, 2011). Play aids children to cooperate with others and develop friendly relationships from social manners, behaviours and solve problems with their friends. Moreover, they learn competitions, tolerance and reciprocity with their peers. They also learn sex-role identification and how to behave in the society with same sex group as well as opposite sex groups (Heninnger, 2005). Through socio-dramatic play in Nigeria, children define the role of each actor. Leadership role may be assumed by one if the children or collective discussion approach is used. Improvisation is made for “food” in the case of family modelling. Shells of coconut may be converted to caps or plates. A short stick becomes a spoon and so on.


Play and Children’s Physical Development

Play helps children to increase ability to perform more complex physical activities, involving gross motor skills, fine motor skills and co-ordination (Lindon, 2002). Gross motor skills involve whole body movements. Examples include walking, running, climbing, jumping, skipping, etc. Children need strength, stamina and suppleness to become proficient in activities involving gross motor skills. Fine motor skills involve whole-hand movements, wrist action or delicate procedures, using the fingers. For example, the ‘‘palmer grasp’’ (grabbing and holding a small brick), the ‘‘pincer grip’’ (using the thumb and index finger to pick up a pea) and the ‘‘tripod grasp’’ (holding a crayon, pencil or pen). Examples of fine motor skills include drawing, painting, writing, cutting with scissors and so on. Children need good concentration to become proficient in activities involving fine motor skills. Coordination involves hand-eye coordination, whole-body coordination and balance. Examples of hand-eye coordination include drawing, painting, using scissors, writing and threading beads. Examples of whole-body coordination include crawling, walking, cycling, swimming and gymnastics. Coordination plays an important part in developing children’s gross and fine motor skills.

At the time of play, different parts of the body of the child are activated. Due to these activities muscles, glands and body cells are properly developed. Play also serves as an outlet for surplus energy. If the energy is not spent properly, it could make the child irritable and nervous. Outdoor play, especially gives scope for exercises in the fresh air and thereby improves health and strength and the development of large and small muscles of the body is not a wholly natural occurrence, and through specific play activities proportionate muscular development can be attained.

          In Nigerian preschools, physical activities such as running, climbing, skipping and jumping of rope, sliding down a slope contribute to physical development. However, only few preschools that have facilities like slide, swing, merry-go-round among other equipment.


Play and Children’s Intellectual Development

Intellectual (or cognitive) development involves the process of gaining, storing, recalling and using information. The interrelated components of intellectual development are: thinking, perception, language, problem-solving, concepts, memory, concentration and creativity. To develop as healthy, considerate and intelligent human being, children and young people require intellectual stimulation as well as physical care and emotional security. They are constantly thinking and learning, gathering new information and formulating new ideas about themselves, other people and the world around them (Lindon, 2002). All these can be greatly enhanced by play as it helps children to observe, concentrate, experiment and have a sense of achievement. Play helps children to observe, concentrate and experiment.

          Children in Nigerian preschools take part in play activities such as playing with sand, water, beads, stones, bottle tops among others. These materials are engage in different forms of play such as building, sorting and arranging, filling pouring, mixing, observing, drawing, weight, grouping and so on through these children develop cognitive abilities such as counting, patterning classification, weight, volume among others which explored them to mathematic skills, reading skills and so on.


Play and Children’s Language Development

Language development is the key factor in all children’s development as it provides them with the skills they need to communicate with others, relate to others, explore their environment, understand concepts, formulate ideas and express feelings. Children use a variety of ways to communicate. These modes of language are essential from being able to communicate effectively with others to being fully involved in a wide range of social interactions. Play provides opportunities for children to develop the necessary skills to become competent at communicating using different modes of language such as writing, reading, speaking, listening, thinking and verbal communication (Tombowua, 2012).

          In Nigeria, children engage in speech play. They talk to one another in the process of play. Speech play is another term for playing with language. In playing with domestic animals for instance, children are known to “talk” to the animals, as if they are talking to a fellow human being. They even order, caution, question or warn an animal, the way a senior or a parent had done to the child. They also memorize and recite poems, riddles and songs in preschool.


Play and Children’s Emotional Development

Emotional development in children consists of a gradual growth in the ability to recognise, label and appropriately respond to their feelings. Stimulus from the environment causes physiological responses in the body that lead to feelings such as anger, affection, fear, sadness, happiness and grief (Dyang, 2009). A variety of play materials and activities in the early childhood institutions can help children learn about dealing with feelings. Art materials, clay, play dough and paints are all examples of play materials that many children use regularly to express their feelings. Playing with a lump of play dough or painting a picture can be a healthy release for many children. Stories can be used to support and develop emotional regulation and self-control; play games also encourage children to control their body parts and find way to stay calm while encountering a strong emotional response. For instance, demonstrating emotional regulating techniques with puppets and role-play to practice emotional regulation, separating emotions from actions by letting the children know that all emotions are okay but not all behaviour are acceptable. For example, it is perfectly normal to get angry but not okay to hurt one another (Abiodun, 2011).

Most preschool in Nigeria engage children in a singing and dancing activities, such dancing competition which enable the children to display their talents, beauty and culture. It thus makes the whole activity lively, fun but educative.


Early Childhood Teacher’s Role

The early childhood teacher is the facilitator of play in the classroom and outside the classroom. The teacher facilitates play by providing appropriate indoor and outdoor play environment. Safety is, of course, the primary concern. Age and developmental levels are carefully considered in the design and selection of materials. The teacher should ensure that all the appropriate environments and materials are in place, and should carry out regular safety checks and maintenance of equipment to ensure that they are sound and safe for continued play.

Teachers should also facilitate play by working with children to develop rules for safe indoor and outdoor play. The teacher should ensure the appropriate use of play materials, the safe number of participants on each piece of equipment, taking turns, sharing, and cleaning up and provide the children with information to begin their play activities. This discussion needs to be ongoing because some children may need frequent reminders about rules and because new situations may arise ( equipment).

By providing play materials related to thematic instruction, the early childhood teacher can establish links between the children’s indoor and outdoor play and their programme curriculum. Thematic props for dramatic play can be placed in the dramatic play centre or stored in prop boxes and taken outside to extend the dramatic play to a new setting.

As a facilitator of children’s play, teachers should closely observe the children during play period not only for assessment purposes, but also to facilitate  appropriate  social interactions and motor behaviours. It is important that children be the decision-makers during play, choosing what and where to play, choosing role for each player and choosing how play will proceed. Occasionally, however, some children will need adult assistance in joining a play group, modifying behaviour or negotiating a disagreement. Careful observation will help the teacher to decide when to offer assistance and what form that assistance should take.

The official recognitions given to early childhood education in the National Policy on Education (FRN, 2004) combined with a number of factors to give rise to an unprecedented expansion in the provision of early childhood institutions in the country, however, the provision of these institutions is made by private individuals and groups for mainly commercial purposes, and this has promoted certain shorcomings in the implementation of the policy on early childhood education and problems in the realization of the objectives of such a policy.

Much of the short comings lay on the failure of the Federal Government to put into effect most of the measures it stated in the National Policy on Education aimed at ensuring that the policy objectives are achieved.

There is an approval curriculum developed by Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC) and the play method of teaching that is advocated in the National Policy on Pre-primary Education is not effectively used in most of the schools, as most of the instructors are not trainined on the use of it. Proprietors and teachers provide the children with toys to play with, mainly for recreational purposes and not for instruction. Very few, if not all, nursery school teachers in the country have not received formal training in use of the play method or any othe type of learning activity to inculcate social norms in preschool children as advocated in the play document (Tombowua & Wombo, 2011).

Early childhood care and education has been included in the Bachelor’s degree curriculum of the Faculty of Education of some Nigerians Universities. The concept has also been integrated in the syllabus of Colleges of Education throuhout the country. However, inservices training on the early childhood development concept and learner centered pedogogy for handling children can help teachers/caregivers in ECC/preschools.



          In Nigeria, though, appreciable progress has been made in early childhood care and education in the past years due to government policy requiring every public school to have the preprimary school linkage. However, the proportion of children enrolled in pre-primary early childhood care centre still remains low at approximately 2.3 million children (Abiodun, 2011), representing about 21 percent of the population of children in this age group. This can be attributed to a number of reasons, such as the caregivers of these centres are generally unqualified since about 85 percent do not posses basic qualification. Another major issue in Nigeria’s early childhood care and development is the poor state of the infrastructure, equipment, facilities and nonchalant attitude of parents towards this development. Therefore, the paper wish to conclude that competent and qualified early childhood educator should be recruited by both Government and private school proprietors to guide and teach the pupils at this level of educational so as lay a strong foundation for each child future career. It maintained that guided play which involves a lot of activities is better for child development.



The following recommendations are therefore proferred to help caregivers, teachers, parents and other child care providers to use their skills of observation and communication to be alert to what will work well for children in play setting and whether they may need some attention for change in Nigeria. Moreso, competent and qualified early childhood educations in Nigeria should be recruited by both the Government and private school proprietors to guide and teach the children to this level.

  • Early Childhood educators in Nigeria should always considers the level of the learners, thereby employing the pupils centered technique of teaching. So much so, that the pupils are given the opportunity and encouragement to express and manage their social and emotional status effectively.
  • Early childhood educators in Nigeria should be paid special allowance, to encourage the recruitment and retention of qualified early educators (teachers) in teaching profession.
  • Government at all levels, community based development on education and concern parents should ensure that there is serious supervision so as to make sure that earlychildhood educators do what was expected of them.
  • In as much as there are a lot of benefits in children attending early chilhood education in Nigeria, parents should not relent in sending their words to early childhood education so as to boost their social and emotional status.




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