Today's playgrounds get kids to take risks, fall and toughen up. More parents and childhood experts are advocating less coddling and more freedom for kids to explore, problem solve and create their own play - even if it means bruises.
At Playgrounds, Luke Rodrigues finds himself challenged to navigate stairs that are higher and slides that are steeper than usual, plus obstacles more complicated for a child of his age. His parents are constantly on the lookout for playgrounds and areas around Singapore that challenge their only child’s “physical, thinking, social and emotional skills”. Their favourite so far – at Tiong Bahru Park, an adventure playground rigged with a flying fox and a merry-go-round “which teaches children to cooperate with one another”.
The Rodrigues are among a growing number of parents and early childhood educators who believe that playgrounds should be a place where children can learn to take risks, overcome the limits of their fear, problem solve and play with minimal supervision. And if that means scraped knees and muddy shirts, well, that’s part of the process. parents should step back from supervision and rulemaking, to allow their children to socialise, fail and figure things out on their own. When we make rules at the playground, little do we know that we’re making our children conform. So the question we have to ask ourselves is if we want them to be creative – or if we want them to conform and be the same.”
Both the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the National Parks Board (NParks) have in recent years upped the ante in playground design. In 2018, for example, the extension of the Jacob Ballas Children’s Garden will feature a rainforest adventure, where children can go “exploring a network of canopy tree huts and rope bridges nestled in the tree tops”, and attempt a flying fox down while then trying to “climb up, over and under a log challenge”, according to NParks’ group director of parks Chia Seng Jiang.
Said Mr Chia: “Our more popular playgrounds with a greater diversity of play sets include Sembawang Park, West Coast Park and Pasir Ris Park. In recent years, NParks has also put in place features in our parks to encourage exploration and stimulate the imagination of children.” These other spaces include the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve Extension and Coney Island Park, while plans are in the works also at Jurong and Admiralty Park to allow more exploration play, Mr Chia added. As for playgrounds in public housing estates, in his post, Prime Minister Lee mentions a forest-themed playground in Bukit Panjang and a military-inspired design in Choa Chu Kang.
Mrs Sharon Pereira has mixed feelings about letting her two-year-old roam unsupervised in a play area. Said the mother of six: “Some playgrounds have an element of risk and danger which are not positive, such as those in some shopping centres with no proper barriers around the play area, especially when it is crowded with strangers. “Obviously I want my child to take risks, make new friends and learn how to share and take turns … but when you have a two-year-old, you find yourself being a bit more cautious.”
Another mother of a two-year-old, Ms Lydia Ng, 38, said: “I am definitely slightly concerned about the risk of injury and cultivating too much of a risk-taking mindset in a young child who doesn't understand danger. My son uses butter knives to cut things and nowadays, grabs bigger, sharper knives whenever he sees them.” But, Ms Ng also believes that being overprotective can be detrimental, and overall, “I would still prefer more adventurous risky play over safe play any day, because I think the benefits outweigh the risks”.