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Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Peculiarities of Play

There are many things that you encounter when you become a parent. There are the less-than-mundane experiences such as waking up in the wee hours of the morning to feed your child, getting vomit and other odourous substances on your clothes while travelling on the plane or in church, and then there are the unique parent-child experiences such as going with your children to the indoor playground.

Last month we went with our two boys to no less than six indoor playgrounds during our trip to Korea. In a season when the sky turns dark at 5.30 pm accompanied by a sudden dip in the temperature, we decided that our evenings would be safest spent in indoor locations such as shopping malls. And most large indoor malls in Korea are equipped with a sizeable indoor playground.

The lovely safari-themed rooftop playground at Shinsegae
Centrum City, the largest department store in the world.

I have explored various aspects of play in my previous posts. This entry will however focus on three additional aspects following our visits to the indoor playgrounds.

The Rigidity of Play vs The Creativity of Play


While our boys have a deep love for the outdoors, there is also no denying that they thoroughly enjoy their time at the indoor playgrounds. In Singapore, our older son Z would on occasions request a visit to his favourite playgrounds, and we would indulge him from time to time. Z has a particular fascination with one of the play elements involving ball play. His favourite play area consists of a huge bucket high above the ground, one that fills up gradually with balls as the children throw them into a vacuum-operated machine. When there is sufficient volume of balls in the bucket, it then empties over the waiting children, Z included, who squeal in delight at the feeling of the balls falling on their heads.

I must admit that the designers of the ball play area have put in lots of effort to design such an entertaining experience for the children. I have however observed that in Singapore, most indoor playgrounds have similar play elements, and children are often seen engaging in similar activities. In such a context, the activity of play becomes too structured, and children are not completely free to interact and play in a creative manner.

Sand play area with its make-believe play elements.
In comparison, we have discovered many interesting play elements in the Korean indoor playgrounds. For a start, these playgrounds often differ from each other, each possessing a distinctive component. For instance there was a real car in one of the playgrounds, and children would be encouraged to pick up their paintbrushes to paint the car as they pleased. Another playground included a huge play sand area, complete with lovely sand toys and even an extensive cooking set, for the children to explore elements of make-believe in their play. There was also the playground with a machine that generated human-size bubbles which expanded to engulf the child, allowing him or her to explore movement and space within the bubble environment. And did I mention the children's train which operated every half hour to allow interested parties a ride round its massive tracks?

The child is engulfed in a "bubble machine" during play. 

The Commodification of Play vs The Freedom of Play


One would imagine that such innovative indoor playgrounds would probably cause a large hole in the pocket. After all, isn't it opportunistic to charge parents for their children's use of these creative facilities? We discovered this was not the case. On the contrary, Singapore playgrounds charge double the price for less than half the innovative play facilities. And Singapore parents are still willing to fork out such sums of money for their children to play. Perhaps we have been conditioned to accept that everything needs to be commodified - even the basic aspect of child's play... 

A case in point. Singapore Changi Airport vs Jeju International Airport. Over the Christmas season, Changi Airport brought in a huge indoor playground complete with a bouncy castle for the children to play. There was only one catch. Parents had to spend a certain amount of money at the airport in order for their children to use the facilities. When we were preparing to leave Jeju, we noticed that the airport had also provided an indoor playground. As such, the Singaporean in us was looking for signs that would tell us how much we needed to spend to use the playground. There were none. We realised that the area was a service for parents to soothe the nerves of waiting children before the flight; and it was not long before we joined the cosy company of Korean parents and their children - almost missing our flight as a result...

The Outsourcing of Play vs The Intimacy of Play


It is our belief that play is essential for the development and growth of children. Numerous research studies suggest that children who fail to play during childhood grow up ill-prepared for the challenges of adult life. For instance, these children fail to learn creative problem solving skills that would help them to resolve a difficult work situation. Moreover, there are also the social skills embedded in the play among children, aspects which translate to the effective people and communication skills crucial in adulthood.


Daddy with Z at the "cooking" area, with the little one
offering to serve coffee and tea and fried fish.
There is however something more important than merely allowing your children to play alone at the playground - this is the powerful intimacy that a parent and a child share when they play together. Children enjoy play; and the times they treasure most are often associated with play. Imagine then if these memories do not involve a parent. In Singapore this is a common occurrence - in both the HDB and indoor playgrounds alike. I have witnessed many situations when I see a child playing with the family's domestic helper. In such instances, it is the helper who "chases" the kid round the playground, either getting him or her to eat dinner, or ensuring that the child does not fall from some of the higher elements. In other less-than ideal cases, the domestic helper is completed uninvolved with the child, choosing instead to gossip with a friend or to actively engage with her handphone. 

I often feel sad when I see such situations; for I know that these children would have a childhood devoid of the precious parent-child memories that define who they are. This is in stark contrast with Korea. Over there I actually had a number of opportunities to talk to the fathers at the indoor playgrounds, even though we did not share the same language. We shared a common love for our children; and that's all that matters. 

I personally do not like indoor playgrounds; but I know that as long as my children do so, I will be there despite my preferences.

For we create the memories our children will one day remember and cherish. 

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