My family have played for years in the Watten Heights Playground here in Singapore. It is beautifully shaded and provides for a great play space for many sections of the local community – from tai chi at sunrise, to that last-minute swing once the heat has gone out of the day.
Last Saturday, it was also the perfect spot for a pop-up adventure playground!
As we disgorged a carload of cardboard, fabric, string and other quirky loose parts under the trees, regular visitors to the playground looked on in wonder and (possibly) amusement. Gradually, those brave enough stepped forward to find out what was happening. Invitations to play were made, and still children and parents seemed unsure, preferring the secure expectations of the playground’s climbing frame and swings to the openness of cardboard and fabric.
While the adults may have been able to, the children could not hold back any longer and came to explore the materials. Tubs of small palm logs were emptied, cardboard boxes were climbed into, a bedsheet was used as a parachute, ribbon was unravelled and stretched in a game of tug-of-war to test when it would break. It was as if everyone needed to play with the physical possibilities of the materials, to get to know them.
Slowly, children joined forces in their explorations and the play became more social. Suddenly cardboard boxes had a shape, a mission, a purpose. They became beds, shops, a way of supporting decorations. Accompanying parents still stuck close but had started to get into the playful swing of things now, and many joined forces with the children in their vision for their box/pot/fabric.
Then came a turning point. The adults were suddenly redundant (well, apart from me – I had the tape and was in high demand!) as they realised that the play was being completely led by their children. Many hung around in the playspace, chatting with other adults, but no longer involved in their children’s play. Maybe we were all unsure that it was really ok, to just leave them to it? It was at this point that my husband pointed out that even I remained in the playspace, even when no-one was asking for tape. And this from me, a playworker-in-training, who knows that sometimes my adult presence alone can pollute play! Tsk, tsk.
We started to point out the shady spots on the edge of the playspace, and slowly the adults stepped back. A remarkable thing happened – surrounded by a tide-line of parents, the play got deep. Really deep. An incredible hush came over the playspace as children played; focused, determined, no longer distracted by an adult presence. It was now theirs.
A house and a shop were built side by side. After around 15mins of play, the occupant of the house said to the shop owner, “I’m moving on, so long, friend.” The crestfallen shop keeper gave a sad look, whereby the mover said, “I won’t be moving far, I’ll still come to your shop.” Smiles all around, and the play continued…..
A cardboard slide that had been constructed down the hill slope now became peppered with squeals of delight, as children surrendered to the properties of cardboard without an adult to hold it still.
Shops now had customers who were children, not adults. The view through the telescope was what the children saw, not what the adults thought would be fun to see. The strategy to keep a cardboard tube standing upright was what the child thought would work, not an adult solution.
It turns out the adults were busy doing their own playing. Many of them were discovering new members of a community who also wanted to give their children more time, space and permission to play. Not only had the pop-up playground given the children permission to play in the way they wanted, but it gave parents the permission to sit back and let it happen, knowing they were surrounded by a bunch of people who were happy to do the same, without fear of judgement.
One parent commented how he had always felt like he was intruding on “bonding time” between other parents and their children when visiting the park and interacting with other families. But here, everyone could playfully engage with their surroundings – whether it was by lying under a sheet of fabric, or starting a conversation with someone you’d never met before, for no obvious purpose other than to chat and enjoy the moment. Hooray for play – for both children and adults!
Slowly, as the day warmed up and bellies started to demand lunch, families said their goodbyes and headed off. Creations were abandoned or taken home, with some of the most precious memories of play being taken home so they would continue to live on.
As we began to clean up, the play continued for some. Baskets of collected materials were quickly put on display in an abandoned shop window, the shop-keeper somewhat disheartened by a lack of customers.
Another child staged a sit-in protest, hiding inside a box to make it all the more difficult to leave.
Yet eventually, everything was swept up and the park was returned to the quiet collection of trees it usually is in the middle of the day. All of those beautiful, powerful moments of play were just a memory. Poignant memories for me in particular, on this playful learning journey in supporting children’s play.