All the world’s a playground!

Children's Garden Photo Courtesy of Playpoint Singapore

Children’s Garden
Photo Courtesy of Playpoint Singapore

While walking back from our kite flying adventures yesterday, my little one tripped and skinned his knees and elbows. The sight of the grazed knee distressed him more than the actual pain. I belong to the ‘brush it off’ camp – skinned knees, bruises and bumps all come with the territory. They will survive and the memories of these hurts will fade faster than the scars themselves.

This episode took me back to a time in my life full of grazed knees, endless falls, scraped elbows and muddy clothes. My earliest memories of play involve being outside with a bunch of different-aged kids and playing at the park right across from my house or playing neighbourhood games with friends. We rarely played with toys and video games were not a part of our childhood. Parents accompanying kids to the park was unheard of, it was our territory, as were the many nooks and corners behind buildings, on the terrace, all those little hiding places and the many trees we regularly climbed (what else are trees for!)

Most people now would take a very dim view of the playground, where we played religiously every single day. My favorite part of it was the heavy set of wooden-seat swings, with the red pain chipping off them, where we would spend countless afternoons pumping it, until its joints creaked and the chains rattled in protest. We would swing standing up, sometimes two of us together, we’d jump off mid-flight to see who lands the farthest, swing sideways and twist the chains around, feeling our bodies swirling when released. These would really have scared the bejesus out of Rachel.

The old-fashioned see-saw, the planks of which were bent and cracked from overuse, was also a popular place. Our most satisfying game on it, and which could quite possibly be illegal now, was to jump of the end of the seesaw sending butts on the other side slamming to the ground. Then there was the ‘clothes-ripper’ metal slide, launching us down at (what then seemed like) lightening speeds scorching our bottoms on hot days, but didn’t bother us the least. We walked up the slide, came head down on our tummies, we jumped off it, there were no mommycopters crashing down on us with requests of ‘lets take turns’ or ‘go the right side up’!

The monkey bars were a way to earn respect – who can zip fastest to the other side skipping two or even three bars – extra points for a stylish landing! These manic bars bear the liability of many a broken bone. The moment the cast came off, kids were back on it again – bruises, broken bones were considered par for the course. A regular tetanus shot and some boric powder and we were good to go. The good ol’ merry-go-around gave us valuable lessons on centrifugal force!

Common playgrounds found in every other neighborhood

Common playgrounds found in every other neighborhood

As much as I would have loved to raise my kids around woods, meadows and open fields, living in a city means being confined to specific play areas. Admittedly, it would be next to impossible to replicate the carefree life that we were lucky enough to have, but I had always imagined my kids enjoying outdoor play, as much as I did. Boy, was I mistaken!

Most days I struggle to get the boys out of the house! These rounded plastic brightly colored safety-enhanced playgrounds which you would find in every condo, HDB area and most public parks are just a giant versions of the Fisher Price toys at home, and fail to keep the kids interest for longer than 15 minutes. On the other hand are the exorbitantly prices and excessively padded indoor playgrounds, sold as the best alternatives for play on hot and rainy days, which incidentally are the only two types of days in Singapore! Most of the traditional playgrounds do not have swings and merry-go-arounds, to avoid the liabilities of injuries. The see-saws don’t touch the ground, the springy ride-on things barely wobble and where swings are available, they provide minimal elevation and slides feature deathly slow-descents.

Reading the piece in the Atlantic Magazine ‘The Overprotective Kid‘, had me nodding in agreement throughout. Briefly, he article posits ‘A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery—without making it safer’. Among other things, the author is asserting that the current dumbed down play areas (thanks to the litigious nature of our society and modern culture of risk-aversion) haven’t managed to up the safety levels over old-schools ones, like the playground of doom from my childhood.

Birds Nest Swing at Elite Terrace park

Birds Nest Swing at Elite Terrace park

While exploring different playgrounds in Singapore, in the hope of finding ones that could replicate my experiences for my kids, I came across some unique structures and interesting designs at some slightly newer public playgrounds. Like a bird’s nest swing at this Elite Terrace Playground, where more than one kid can pile in together, making swinging a communal event! I also found zip lines, spinning disks and this geodesic dome in some parks.

Geodesic Dome at the Telok Kurau Park

Geodesic Dome at the Telok Kurau Park

Playpoint Singapore is one of the companies responsible for designing and bringing innovative euro-style equipment to Singapore, including the provocative treehouse inspired FEO Children’s Garden at Garden by the Bay.

Children's Gardens Photo Courtesy of Playpoint Singapore

Children’s Gardens
Photo Courtesy of Playpoint Singapore

Nothing like this treehouse, it was still a great improvement on the sanitized playgrounds which have been the norm of the past few decades. Disappointingly though, the last time we were there at least two of the most fun areas, including the steep metal slide and the angled rail-less merry-go-round had an ominous yellow tape around it with a sign reading “This play area has been decommissioned”. I spoke with Jason Sim, MD, Playpoint Asia, he simply stated that the those rides have been deemed too dangerous for kids. He told me, “Our mission is to push the boundaries of play and bring innovative ideas on play equipment and landscape design to Singapore”. At the risk of sounding cynical, I think this worthy goal can only be successfully achieved if we can alter the collective risk-averse attitudes that permeates our current culture.
Climbing at the Children's garden

Climbing at the Children’s garden

The Atlantic article also quotes a recent paper by Sandseter and Kennair (2011) which talks about risky play allowing children to cope with commonly experienced fears in a relatively safer way. The authors present that by preventing kids from experiencing fearful and risky situations, somewhat counterintuitively we hinder their ability to cope with fear, which in turn gives rise to increased levels of anxieties down the road.
Metal slide at Elite Terrace Park

Metal slide at Elite Terrace Park

Our kids are padded and protected just like the playgrounds they are exposed to. The common theme across most parenting boards is advice on dealing with daily battles with kids, struggles with aggression in kids, support for sibling rivalry and so on. I may be taking some liberties here, but I wonder how much of it has to do with the complete lack of thrilling and exciting forms of play for our kids these days. With our misguided focus on organic foods and hand-sanitizers, are we forgetting the most basic need of our kids, the need for unstructured and challenging play? This insightful blog post by An Honest Mom is what got me thinking about this.

We know kids learn through play, it is serious business for them. Tuning motor skills through play is also important in developing their minds for reading, writing and creative thinking. Here’s to more skinned knees and boo-boos – let the kids play, before life takes over..

4 thoughts on “All the world’s a playground!

  1. Love this post. In fact, I’m going to link to it on my post about letting kids play alone, because I think you make a lot of complementary points here.

    My one disagreement is about sibling rivalry and challenging parents. I grew up in the 70’s and played on lots of dangerous structures like the ones you remember. I rode bikes in the street on a regular basis and had massive water-fights with the neighborhood kids in the summers. But I still remember quite a bit of sibling rivalry and arguing with parents. I think the frequent conflict today has more to do with hovering than with letting kids get the thrill of fear. Also, my Kid spends plenty of time climbing trees and having adventures, and she talks back just as much as any other kid her age I know. But it’s an interesting thought.

    And I definitely agree that kids need to face fear (in controlled settings) to learn how to deal with fear. I’m also a big believer in giving kids opportunities to fail/lose, because we all have to learn how to deal with that.

    • Thank you for your insightful comment! You’re probably right, sibling stress and friction with parents is not completely avoidable, but if I could keep my kids busy with challenging play, I’m pretty sure I’ll see a drop in the challenging behaviour incidents.

      This is most obvious when we are on holiday where the kids can play in the sand and sea or lounge in the pool all day.

      Thank you for linking to my post, I find the concept of free range parenting very interesting.. Although I still haven’t figured out how to practically apply it in my life yet..

  2. Pingback: The Kid Project

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