Ask nearly every one of my students, and at some stage they will have heard about the pet sheep we had growing up. They loved to hear stories of how I would regularly walk our sheep on leads, much like you might walk a pet dog. Their favourite story was the one of how, during a terrifying night of bush fires, I had planned to evacuate these much-loved, rather large and well-fed, pet sheep on the back seat of my car.
I spent most of my growing up years in the most perfect natural playground. When I was seven, my family moved to the outskirts of the suburbs, to a small property which was bordered by a nature reserve. It was a blissful upbringing – we made the most of our ‘backyard’ by spending hours and hours, in all kinds of weather, outside in free play.
There were giant rocks for climbing over, a creek for daming, areas of thick scrub perfect for hiding in and creating cosy dens, open spaces for running, trees for swinging from, and fruit trees for stealing from. The landscape I had to play in as a growing child was a dream come true, and one I would love to replicate some day for my own son.
Here in Singapore, people almost glaze over with incomprehension when I talk about this. Space is at a premium on this tiny island, and natural spaces often seen as a commodity to be exploited. There are a couple of “nature-themed parks”, but none that come close to the playscape of my childhood.
At least that’s what I thought, until we found Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park.
This 62-hectare park has been cleverly rejuvenated. An old concrete canal ran along one side of the park, and in 2011 the walls of the canal were taken down and the Kallang River returned to its former glory. Now a naturalised 3km river, you are able to walk down the sloping river banks right to the water’s edge.
Stepping stones give you the opportunity to cross the river, and so many little paths invite you towards the water.
There are rocks for climbing on and hills for running down at speed.
There are trees for hiding behind in a game of hide-and-seek (though none I have found so far great for climbing) and open fields for running in.
An Adventure Playground provides challenge with the beautiful texture of wood.
There are dry creek beds to play in, and waterways of varying depths to wade into with your fishing net. (Let the Children Play love dry creek beds! as much as I do!)
By far and away, our son’s favourite place in Bishan Park at the moment is the Water Playground. This is the most thoughtful, well-designed water playground I have seen in Singapore. Water naturally gurgles through broad, shallow streams across the area. There are hills to climb up to survey the land, and sluice gates to dam up the water flow.
Rocks are embedded into the concrete to add texture, and there are ropes to change the direction of the water flow.
Nearby sticks and leaves are perfect for sending down the water streams, watching as they float. Flowing water is the ultimate sensory experience – the gurgling sounds, its wetness, its movement, its strength. (Read The Mud Kitchen’s article about the benefits of water play).
As I watched my son and his friends this past weekend, running to find ‘special sticks’ from beside the pond to bring back into their ‘swimming pool’ of shallow collected water, I was reminded of the rich imaginary play that my sisters and I used to have with pools of water in the rocky creek in our backyard. While there may not be a place for pet sheep in this park, it is as close as I have come, here in Singapore, to giving my son the same playscape I had in my childhood.
Days of Play rating for outdoor play: 8/10 (great for climbing through dry creek beds, water play, rock climbing, open space for running and rolling; yet a lack of collectable loose parts, like seed pods, and trees for kids to climb)
Nearby coffee: Grub is close to the Water Playground in Bishan Park 1; Canopy Garden Dining is in Bishan Park 2 on the other side of the road. Bring lots of water as there are not many places to refill bottles (though there is a tap next to the Water Playground).
Other things to love: There are great shady outcrops for parents to shelter under, and a restroom close by. Flashing signals warn of incoming high water levels when you are exploring the river. You can park close to the Water Playground. Wide paths travel through the entire park, making it perfect for those learning to ride. Please note the Water Playground is only open in the mornings and late afternoons Thurs – Sun.
Want to read more? See Sengkang Babies post with lots of great pics of kids playing in the river.
Here is the National Parks’s guide to the park.