Too safe for fun

Forgotten the good old days of sands, swings and slides? Traditional playgrounds reflecting local culture back then are slowly usurped by plastic imports today.

Ask any kids of their impression of playgrounds, what comes to their young minds are plastic slides and metal spring riders mounted on fall proof rubber floors. They have no memories of the sand and the swings, which were all part of the childhood for kids in the olden days of Singapore.

Modern playgrounds found in newer estates.

A generation of locally designed playgrounds back in late 1980s were demolished after they were deemed unsafe for Singaporean children. The last few of such playgrounds standing are very much appreciated by the grown up kids of those times today.

Fancy a bumboat ride? No need to go to the Singapore River, just come by Elias Mall in Pasir Ris. This playground is one of the designs that reflected local themes.

 Playing with the dragon was not a legend for kids who grew up in Elias Mall. The playground that was built after the statue of a dragon, was one of the many designed locally by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) for Singapore’s public housing estates. The design of these playgrounds was inspired by nursery rhymes and children’s games like “Snakes and Ladders.”

An old clock inspired playground located at Boon Lay.

Other playgrounds resembled common objects like fruits, fire engines and clocks. As part of nation-building efforts, playgrounds also reflected Singapore culture — some were shaped as Chinese bumboats, attap houses and trishaws. By the late 1980s, as more public housing estates were built, playgrounds also reflected the history and geography of a location. For instance, those in Pasir Ris, which were built on reclaimed land, took inspiration from the sea.

However, a decade of local playground design came to an abrupt end in 1993. Just months after the local papers ran stories about the public playgrounds’ poor state and lack of safety standards, a five-year-old boy’s thumb was severed while playing on a faulty slide. The boy regained the full use of this thumb, but that marked the end of the play areas. Foreign safety experts were flown in to inspect the playgrounds, which were subsequently declared unsafe.

A massive upgrading exercise was carried out. Concrete structures in sandboxes were replaced with plastic modular ones sitting on rubber mats. The HDB also stopped designing playgrounds and bought them from international suppliers instead. Not only did they meet international safety standards, these playgrounds were cheaper to maintain.

Peter Ng, 50 taking a walk at the park near his house as he reminisced the good old times in the playgrounds.

Missing those times of the unique playgrounds, 50 year old Peter Ng recalled role playing on a palace-like playground at Ubi before it was demolished. “Those were the happiest times of my childhood moments. I role played as the king waiting to be served by my other four friends who used sand as rice. Then I had a warrior who rode the horse spring rider to defend me from the invasion of other countries.” With his eyes glowing as he reminisced, Peter added “It was so real because the playground really resembled a palace!”

Also another girl who grew up with the generation of locally inspired theme parks, Adele Tan, 39, really missed the sands in it. “When we get down to the playground, we take out our slippers and bury ourselves in sands. We get ourselves dirtied and injured, then get scolded by our parents. The playgrounds designed for kids these days are too safe and convenient for fun. Kids play on rubber grounds and they can roll about without getting too dirty, but they will never get to experience what is it like to roll about in sand. I can’t imagine a playground without sand.”

Mandy (second girl from the right) and her group of school friends playing at a playground in Punggol.

13-year-old Mark Mandy grew up in Dakota, where one of the last few traditional playgrounds still stands. Playing a huge part in her growing up memories, the playground is still her favourite hangout whenever she needs to relax. “Besides hanging out at the playground near my house, I do play in the newer playgrounds with my friends. I like both the old and the new ones as it brings about a different playing experience. The newer playgrounds have more up-to-date facilities which are more fun to play with while the older playgrounds has swings which are no longer found in newer playgrounds these days.”

Today, Singaporean children play in spaces designed like anywhere else around the world. As for these remaining old playgrounds, they will one day be erased in a city that never ceases to upgrade itself.


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