The challenges of parents, wards in schools without playgrounds

A private school in Lagos

A private school in Lagos

Cases of obesity, even among children, are on the increase in Nigeria. Data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that the prevalence of overweight and obesity increased by 20 percent between 2002 and 2010 in Nigeria. And the figure has not stopped rising.  In this report, JOSEPH OKOGHENUN shows how schools in Lagos and parents contribute to this growing threat.

The January weather was pleasant and fascinating, devoid of usual blazing sunshine or vexatious rainfall. It was a Monday when most school children want to burn out their calories accumulated over the weekend, a day made for outdoor activities.
Such was the day most children were impatient to go out and play, but not the pupils of a private-owned school, Martina Primary School, Ketu, Lagos.

Unlike their counterparts at Expressway Primary School, Ketu, a public college next street, who were busy playing during break’s time, the pupils of Martina primary School were  kept indoor rather idle, beating boredom.One of such pupils in Martina Primary School is Master Raymond Adeyemi.

Adeyemi is not a regular kid. In fact, he is better described as a “precocious child”.    His ability to fix electrical and mechanical faults at home is a surprise to many. And his eloquence is sharper than many of his peers.  He is a kind of child most parents perhaps would wish for, except for his wobbly appearance.

At 10, his handsome look has started to fade away gradually, not by his making, but by the circumstance beyond his control – his weight.
The last time the young schoolboy visited a primary healthcare centre (PHC) in Ketu, his weight count was disturbing. With 30 Body Mass Index (BMI), the young Adeyemi is clearly obese.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), overweight and obesity are defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. A crude population measure of obesity is the body mass index (BMI), a person’s weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of his or her height (in metres).

One will be utterly wrong to think that Adeyemi’s obesity is genetic. His family medical history as shown by record confirms that none in his lineage is obese. The question then is: What is the cause of his obesity?

The Guardian investigation reveals that lifestyle in school and at home may have contributed largely to Adeyemi’s problems.
Like many school children in Lagos, Adeyemi hardly has the opportunity for physical exercise. The space in his school is too small for any physical exercise.  Martina Primary School is a rented apartment with a ‘playground’ that is barely more than the size of a room.  Being a concrete floor, the ‘playground’ was not designed for children who often like to engage in rough play.

So, during the break time, Adeyemi rather sits in class along with his mates to devour his meals, mostly made of fried plantain, fried rice, fried chicken, candies, bread, and tea.

According to nutrition experts, such micronutrient-poor meals allow children to accumulate high-fat, high sugar, high salt, energy-dense. But who cares!

After the meal, the children numbering about 20 in the school will sit still in class, for they dare not run around, else they will incur the wrath of Mrs. Okoro Mary, whom the children simply refer to as “Aunty.” Some of them, out of frustration, will sleep off until the break time is over.

Adeyemi and majority of his classmates do not walk to or from school. Dedicated school buses, paid for by parents, are always on the standby to take the children to and from school.

When he gets home at 4 pm, he eats a meal, not much different from what he ingested at school. Then he will begin his homework until his home teacher resumes for the home lesson which lasts untill 7 pm. After the hard work of the day, the young Adeyemi will switch on the television set to see his favourite cartoon programmes or play electronic games until 8 pm when his parents must have returned from work. The young boy eats his dinner, served by the house girl, Ronke, in front of the television and then sleeps off. And the routine continues the next day.

A weekend is a good time to play outdoor, but not for Adeyemi. His compound at Aladelola Street, Ketu area of Lagos is filled with all manner of vehicles. And the concrete floor of the premises does not encourage physical activities for children.

Adeyemi is not the only child in Lagos whose lifestyle is constrained by the ill-designed school premises and poor parental care.   Many are children battling with overweight and obesity.

Many private schools in Lagos lack basic facilities such as playing ground where the pupils can engage in outdoor activities.
Yet, these are schools that several parents are attracted to because of their beautiful building.  The falling standard of quality education in public schools has been the major cause of this trend, says a parent.

She may not be wrong. According to African Research Review, an international multi-disciplinary journal, public school enrollment in Nigeria is on the increase, while the education standard continues to fall.

It is noteworthy, that in choosing private schools, parents hardly take into consideration the need of a playground for their children.
Experts say this situation may have contributed to the high incident of obesity and overweight in Lagos.

There are fears that if nothing are done; schools may continue to produce obese children who may increase the burden of caring for the 42 million children under the age of 5 who were overweight or obese in 2013, according to WHO report.

United Kingdom (UK) is one of the many countries battling with effects of overweight children. The UK government is already putting programmes in place in schools to reduce the weight of school children.Already, experts have started calling for a change in the architecture design of private schools.

The global children rights advocate, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said playing is not a luxury, but a necessity for children.
Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child states that, “children have a right to leisure and play. It helps in their development. Play, which often times involves physical activities, is essential for the physical, mental, psychological and social development of children and adolescent.”

UNICEF Communication Officer, Mrs. Blessing Ejiofor, told The Guardian that playtime for all children is very important to their development.
Director of the University of Port-Harcourt Sports Institute and Professor of Sports Science, Ken Anugweje, blamed education authorities for allowing schools to operate without a playground.

Anugweje said: “Every human being, especially young ones, need exercise for general well-being. You find out that it is not only lack of playgrounds for those private schools. An additional fact is that most of those private schools are attended by children of the people from the upper class. So, they do not even have the opportunity to exercise at home or in school. At home, they are faced with computer games or the lesson teachers will be waiting to take over from where the children stopped in school. So, it is not surprising that we are having a rise in the incidence of childhood obesity, which is most obvious among children of the rich.

Anugweje said suggestions have been made to the government through the Ministry of Education about how to give operating licenses to schools.
“One of the suggestions is that such schools must show evidence of playground. But to my surprise, authorities in the Ministry of Education still go ahead to give license to schools without a playground.”

He said most proprietors of schools in Lagos are influential or know a powerful person in government who help them circumvent the rules and regulation.

When children do not engage in physical activities, experts say they accumulate excess calories, which over time leads to overweight and obesity.

According to experts, growing up, an obese child will face the possibility of chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, cancer and stroke at an earlier age.

WebMD, an American online journal, reported few months ago that “the single biggest cause of type 2 diabetes in children is extra weight.”
The Science Daily, a medical online journal, reported in 2014 of a study led by a University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine researcher who found little to cheer about the fight against childhood obesity. The study, published online   in JAMA Paediatrics found that all classes of obesity in U.S. children have increased over the last 14 years, as a result of lack of physical activities among children.

Prof. Ngozi Nnam is a professor of Public Health Nutrition affiliated to the Department of Home Science, Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN).  She is also the President of the Nutrition Society of Nigeria (NSN).
She told The Guardian that feeding children with refined meals in an environment devoid of physical activities is a time bomb waiting to explode.

Dr. Idiat Adebule

Lagos State Deputy Governor and Education Commissioner, Dr Idiat Adebule: : Every school approved must have a playground for children 

“Energy intake needs to be balanced with energy output. Excessive intake of energy giving foods without exercise leads to accumulation of fats, which will predispose the child to obesity,” the National Committee on School Meal Planning and Implementation stated in a report, adding that, “if the child is involved in exercise, he will be using up some of the fat deposits to reduce the incidence of obesity.”

Nnam advised that “Parents should provide an adequate diet for their children to provide all the food nutrients in quantity and quality. Excessive consumption of refined and processed foods should be avoided in order to minimise the incidence of obesity. They should encourage children to take exercise at home. Children should be involved in household chores as a way of taking exercise to avoid obesity.

“Government should approve a free use of government parks by school children to provide an opportunity for them to take exercise. Visits to such parks should be part of the school timetable under the supervision of teachers.  Subsequently, the government should ensure that schools have enough space for play facilities before granting them approval.”

But the President of Lagos Chapter of National Association of Proprietors of Private Schools (NAPPS), Mr. Kamaru Akande, has a defence for his members.

He debunked the claim that schools do not provide an opportunity for children to exercise.
“If a school does not have a playground, it may have a nearby place or recreation centre where the school owners can move them to for exercise. Most of the schools you are talking about in developed area of Lagos are approved by the Lagos State Ministry of Education after the schools must have provided evidence of playground. There is no private school that will be approved without playground facilities in place; saying private schools in Lagos are endangering the life of children by not allowing them to play is untrue.”

When children do not engage in physical activities, experts say they accumulate excess calories, which over time leads to overweight and obesity. According to experts, growing up, an obese child will face the possibility of chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, cancer and stroke at an earlier age.  WebMD, an American online journal, reported few months ago that “the single biggest cause of type 2 diabetes in children is extra weight

A parent, Mr. Linus Awe, told The Guardian that education authorities might approve schools, even when such schools do not have a playground. “Approval of schools is like what happens with Ministry of Transport (MOT) Test Certificate. How many drivers had their cars tested before acquiring the certificate?” he asked, adding that  once school owners part with money to officials of Lagos Ministry of Education, such schools would get approval whether the school has a playground or not.

But the Director General of Office of Education Quality Assurance in Lagos Ministry of Education, Mrs.Ronke Soyombo, denied such allegation, adding that the ministry has put stringent rules, including the rule for possession of playground, in place.

Soyombo told The Guardian that her agency is aware of the challenge of an inadequate playground in private schools in the state.
“There is no doubt that we have schools with playground and some schools without a playground,” Soyombo, whose office is in charge of quality education in Lagos State, said. “It is part of our requirement that every school that we approved must have a playground for children because if a school is not having a playground for children, then it is not suitable for school purpose.  We are not here just to develop children’s academic skills; we are here to develop a whole child, that is the spiritual, moral and physical aspects of the child and to make a child a critical thinker. So with that in mind, there is no way we can actually operate schools without à playground.”

Dr. Mojisola Adewunmi of the department of Kinetics and Health Education, University of Lagos (UNILAG) told The Guardian that some schools in Lagos State do not have adequate space for the playground.

A sports psychologist, Adewunmi said some schools come to UNILAG to make use of the field for inter-house sports. While some do not have facilities for physical activities, others have very limited space for such. They might want to be organising exercise programme, but when they do not have space, it becomes a problem.”

Adewunmi added that “exercise is very important for our children so that they will not in their later years be nursing diseases.”
Speaking further, Adewunmi said: “In the past, we hardly heard of youths becoming hypertensive. But go to our hospitals, they are being diagnosed with hypertension. I saw a girl of about 15 years being diagnosed with hypertension at the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH).”

But some parents do not see the danger of not providing opportunities for their children to play. Mr. Adams Okoro, a parent of two, told The Guardian that he is not worried over the lack of playground for his children, even though the children’s school lacks adequate space for play, you can never really deny children the opportunity to play. Somehow, they will find ways to play,” he said.

But the revelation of little Miss Rachael Fatokun, a primary five pupil of a private school in Yaba, Lagos, counters Okoro’s argument.
She told The Guardian that her schoolteacher prevents them from playing around in school. “Even during breaktime, we are only allowed to go out of the class when we want to urinate or pass faeces. Even at that, we are timed,” she said.

A paediatrician with the LUTH, Dr Uche Anene-Nzelu, explained to The Guardian that Rachael and her classmates are being cheated of quality childhood.

“All work and no play, they say, makes Jack a dull boy,” Anene-Nzelu said. “This saying is true and worthy of full acceptance. Outdoor play is vital to a child’s wellbeing and development at all ages.”

In an attempt to make schools comply with the law on the playground , Lagos State Government under the administration of Mr. Babatunde Fashola, shut down three Private Schools in 2014.

The affected schools are Honesty Private School located in Surulere; Heibenah Montessori Schools in Surulere and Elyon Ambassador Private School at 3, Mabayoje Street, located in Oshodi.

According to the then Lagos Commissioner for Education, Mrs. Olayinka Oladunjoye, the affected schools operated in residential and converted structures, wherein some shops were attached to the building in question without provision for special rooms and other required facilities for students to engage in physical activities.

Prof. Mopelola Omoegun, a former Dean of Faculty of Education, UNILAG, who have mentored many teachers and schools, told The Guardian that by not providing opportunities for play, school managers are shortchanging pupils.“We are not just cheating these children by not providing a playground for them, we are shortchanging them.”

Human Resources Manager at Hope Worldwide Nigeria, Mrs. Bunmi Adefolu, condemned the act of establishing schools without a playground. She the nation would be raising weak workforce if children are denied the opportunity to engage in active exercise.

“Health is wealth. If you are not healthy you cannot stay long at work.  We will be short of a long-term workforce because people will not be stable at work.  And succession plan will be very difficult to implement because healthy people may not be there to succeed the current workforce.”



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