The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1896] The Real Playground - A Park Dedicated to Children in Singapore


Singapore yesterday was a young nation struggling with the double onslaught of political changes and modernisation. Both city and rural life were fraught with the pains of transition. Riots and problems in residential housing plagued the urban fabric.

Singapore today commands the image of a garden city coupled with a vibrant, cosmopolitan urban life. We pride ourselves on our clean streets infused with rich greenery, our wealth of cultural diversity, and our superb facilities and transportation system. It is the picture of a First World city that offers a seemingly desirable urban context where our children enjoy a quality of urban life that lacks nothing.

However, is this true reality? Underneath the façade of a positive urban environment, most children are living in staid high-rise flats whereby the only avenue for social interaction or play in the community is the small and static constructed playgrounds. These limit the creative expression of children in their play. Moreover, void decks – wide, porous spaces below each block of flats – which I feel do offer more freedom for various sorts of activities, have signs and barriers erected to warn and deter the children from playing there. The result is a paucity of spaces within their immediate community where children can freely and spontaneously play and interact. This is further compounded by the growing emphasis on education which creates a highly stressful atmosphere for children whereby play is a second priority. Hence, the reality is that with modernisation, the children of Singapore are left with a clean, affluent but highly sterile environment whereby they are increasingly robbed of the joys of childhood.

This effect is especially evident in the school-going children, particularly those in primary school aged 6 to 12 years, who are the target of my proposal.

These children experience what I did not too long ago – a study-oriented, play-impoverished childhood – which is unbalanced, unhealthy and even miserable at times. This is a scenario that contrasts starkly with the Singapore of yesterday where most people and their children lived in kampungs (villages) – which were not merely dwellings but collectively, were also closely-knit community spaces. There were no constructed playgrounds; children improvised their own games like playing with marbles, catching spiders, and kite-flying amongst many others. But they were happy and carefree, and there was a strong sense of community and belonging that cemented their relationships. Sadly, these kampungs were demolished in the 1960s to make way for the high-rise flats that characterise the Singapore of today. These replacements, while indeed improving the quality of living conditions, could never recapture back the warm and carefree community spirit of the kampungs and the uninhibited, spontaneous and creative play that those children enjoyed.

The objective in my proposal is to study the nature of these yesteryear kampungs and hopefully derive from them elements that can be applied in today’s context of Singapore to once again create spaces where children can play with their natural creativity and spontaneity uninhibited, as well as to have a strong sense of belonging within their community. All these even in the midst of a highly stressed education-centred environment.

Kampungs are essentially villages composed of clusters of attap (thatch) houses in the suburban regions of Singapore of old. They are usually raised on stilts, have verandas, and are composed of local materials like timber and thatch. Thus, the materiality and design of these houses create a light and porous architecture. This, coupled with the low-rise nature of the houses, result in a scale and visual appearance that is neither intimidating nor monolithic but rather welcoming and open.

Furthermore, each house has a compound which functions as an important social and work area. This is where the children play as well as where a garden might be planted. The significant thing here is that there are no fences in the kampungs which means that there are no physical boundaries and barriers dividing individual houses. As such, the families intermingle with one another freely. Also, the kampungs were largely inaccessible to vehicular traffic hence children were free to run around safely. Children in the kampungs played together in the compounds where they came up with their own games. There was an exercise of creativity amongst the children, not taught but simply borne out of the nature of the environment they are in. In comparison to today’s constructed playgrounds where the children’s games are limited to the furniture and equipment there, the kampung children had dynamic “playgrounds” that fostered ingenuity.

The kampungs were not merely residential in nature, the families living there carried out their economic activities within as well. Most of the villagers there depend on agriculture or animal farming as means of livelihoods. As such, these farms would be situated within the kampungs as well. In effect, this means that the kampong was like a self-sustaining unit and there was activity occurring throughout the day. Since most of the villagers lived, worked and played in the kampong, this naturally meant that the whole community was closely-knit. There was great team spirit or gotong royong which meant that everyone living in the kampung was part of one big family. Community ties were very strong and there was a sense of belonging there. This also meant that there was an informal but nevertheless existent internal surveillance system where they looked out for one another hence there was a sense of security for the residents. As such, it can seen that for them personal privacy was not as highly valued as it is today and this attitude helped in fostering closer relationships between the neighbours.

The kampungs had their own schools within which were usually set up by the richer villagers. Primary education then was not compulsory, neither was it seen as a necessity by many families. For those children who went, it was not something stressful but rather a chance to learn about life beyond the kampung. School was about learning, not about exams and tests. It was also another place for more social interaction amongst the children.

For all the positive aspects of the kampungs as has hitherto been analysed, there were admittedly problems that came with living there as well. These were issues common to areas yet untouched by modernisation – that of poor sanitation, hygiene, pests, and wild animals that plagued the kampungs. Today, these concerns have been eradicated but with them, the positive aspects of the kampungs as well. Therefore, as the Singapore of today where we are both free from these problems of the kampungs and have the privilege of learning from their positive aspects, we ought to attempt to integrate the desirable elements of the kampungs into that of today’s context.

In order to do that, we must take a closer look at the present conditions faced by the primary school-going children in Singapore today. They spend the majority of their time in school and at home. Most attend what is known as neighbourhood schools which are situated in the heartlands. Each township will have several primary schools meant to serve the children living in the surrounding area. In terms of urban context, each primary school is surrounded by blocks of flats and where its students are most likely living in. Hence the children usually walk to school or in cases where the school is further away, school or public buses are the common means of transportation.

Schools in Singapore today have come a long way from that of the kampungs. They are usually modern in design, with good facilities. They are essentially composed of several blocks of buildings and open areas with game courts and a large field. However, they are all fenced up and are locked after school hours. In effect, this means that in the larger urban landscape, the school is a dead space come nights, weekends and the most part of school holidays. This is undesirable as it disrupts the urban fabric of the neighbourhood.

The children are allowed some form of play in school during physical education classes and during recess times where most will engage in some games. This is one positive aspect where, like in the case of the kampungs, due to lack of any constructed edifice that dictates their games, the children are compelled to use their own creativity to come up with their own games. This is true during recess times only since physical education classes are conducted by a teacher. However they are free to do this for only a very short period of time. After classes and extra-curricular activities, they return home. Their time is spent mostly on schoolwork and watching television. The playground does become monotonous and uninteresting over time because the activities there does not vary much. Also, children in Singapore today tend to prefer watching television than playing outdoors. This is a sad trend since outdoor play certainly does more good for a child’s physical and social development than the individualistic and sedentary activity of television does.

In the light of all these conditions and with the model of the kampungs in mind, I would like to propose a children’s park for every primary school in Singapore. They are to cater to the children living around the area, not necessarily just those who attend the particular school. These parks aim to create a child-friendly and versatile environment with open spaces conducive for them to play freely, spontaneously, safely yet without adult-centred restrictions. They are to be conceived as wide belts of green, open spaces around the school compound that open out to the surrounding blocks and pathways. The idea is for the fences around the school to be removed and these parks to act as a soft edge to more subtly define the school’s boundary. Spatially, the openness of the parks will allow a more fluid flow from school to the block of flats and pavements. As such, this creates a neighbourhood where there is no physical barrier between school and flats thus it would be a more open urban landscape reminiscent of the kampungs. This allows the children to feel less inhibited by the environment and also softens the strong separation of school from home. Also, the school will be more integrated into the neighbourhood and will not just be seen as merely an institution but a part of the life of the community.

Furthermore, this will add life and vibrancy to the school space on weekends and school holidays and at night. This will certainly foster more social interaction between the families that will use the parks as well as create more buzz in the neighbourhood since the parks flow out into the residential areas. The focus is on the neighbourhood in order to create a stronger sense of community. Also the facilities of the school, especially the open areas like the field, can form part of the parks when school is not in session. It can accommodate soccer games - a very popular pastime among young boys who have hitherto been hampered by the lack of such facilities – as well as other games, limited only by the children’s inventiveness. What this does is that existing resources are being made use of, which greater maximises the space as well as reduce construction costs.

The parks themselves will be designed as wide, green open spaces that allows for visual continuity throughout. There should not be many structures in order to maintain a more organic and natural character which then will give the children a free canvas on which to create their own games with refreshing spontaneity. There will be the provision of cosy outdoor alcoves though, to cater for gathering spaces of smaller groups for the children, either to rest, to talk, to play board games or even to do project work. The pathways – for walking and cycling – within the park can be paved with a material primarily made of recycled rubber used in playgrounds nowadays, which is safer in times of accidents. Nevertheless children will be allowed and even encouraged to move anyway they wish through the parks, not necessarily by means of the pathways. There, the rules of regular parks do not apply, accept for basic courtesies like no littering or destruction of public property. Other than that, the children are allowed free reign, in order not to hamper their creativity and fun. The children will also be encouraged to take ownership of the park in order to foster a sense of belonging there. They can grow their little gardens there which mean that they take charge of their environment. Efforts like this will inevitably foster greater social interaction and corporation amongst the children like the gotong royong spirit of the kampungs since they see it as a space collectively owned by them.

These are thus the fundamentals of the parks’ design but it is flexible, adapting to the different needs and desires of the children of each township which should be involved in the design process. It seeks to engage the children by creating spaces that respond to their feedback, as well as a place they can call their own to play, to interact and grow, even in the face of a stressful school life.

However, urban design and the creation of the parks alone will not be effective without the input of the community themselves. This is especially true with regards to issues of safety and security. While the proximity of the parks to the school and their open nature does ensure a sense of safety during the day when the schools are operation, teachers and stay-home parents must be conscious to look out for any suspicious characters or any children in trouble. At night, the onus now falls on the residents and parents. Perhaps as a neighbourhood, the residents can form a watch group committee specially to cover these parks. As for the security of the school, it must be willing to share its open, unsheltered facilities like the field and game courts with the park and only lock up the buildings. Support of the community is thus necessary to implement these parks that will benefit the children.

This support is also necessary in financial backing like the kampungs where the richer villagers build the schools. Instead of merely relying on governmental financing, the whole community can also come together to raise perhaps some portion of the funds. Through that, a sense of togetherness and ownership of the parks will be instilled within the community which will bind everyone closer. While there will inevitably be some who question the economic cost, it cannot be denied that children are the future of Singapore hence they are a worthwhile investment. This will certainly be appreciated by families too. Those who lived in the kampung days will know what children today are missing. Moreover, the long-term societal benefits of well-rounded, balanced and happy children will certainly more than outweigh the cost.

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