The play's the thing at this centre

Yumin Primary School pupils Jack Lim (left) and Brasen Mavis Sayson, both nine, having fun racing toy cars at Playeum.
Yumin Primary School pupils Jack Lim (left) and Brasen Mavis Sayson, both nine, having fun racing toy cars at Playeum. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

At a time when tuition and enrichment centres are proliferating, a non-profit group called Playeum has opened a centre to encourage children to just play.

Called the Children's Centre for Creativity, it opened at the Gillman Barracks arts cluster in September and is described as a "dedicated creative space" for children and families. It will have a series of installations for hands-on exploration.

The centre is a response to how children in Singapore and large cities across the world are increasingly deprived of play.

"Children are increasingly having more hurried and busy lives. And this leaves less and less time to play, tinker, day-dream and create," said Ms Sumitra Pasupathy, a Cambridge-educated chemical engineer turned social entrepreneur. She co-founded Playeum in Singapore six years ago to advocate for more play among children.

"Additionally, many of our environments for children do not offer enough opportunity and freedom for children to engage in high-quality play experiences as well as wide range of open-ended play."

Ms Pasupathy, who has three sons, added: "We conducted a study a few years ago which demonstrated a play gap of nine hours per week for our children compared to their parents' generation.

"In addition, the quality of play experiences is diminishing with less open-ended play opportunities."

The centre aims to plug this gap. It works with guest artists, designers and technologists to have installations organised around a central theme or concept, which is refreshed three times a year.

The centre has baskets and drawers full of recycled materials, ranging from cardboard tubes to bottle tops and straws to encourage children to experiment and create.

Inspired by the Formula 1 race held in Singapore in September, the current main installation called The Art Of Speed encourages children to build their own toy cars using Lego parts or recycled materials, and test them out on special ramps.

Children are invited to ask questions and discover the answers as they create their own cars and figure out how they can adjust the ramps to make their cars go faster.

There is also a dark room with audio and visual media for children to explore how light and shadows work. Children are encouraged to use props of various shapes and sizes to tell their own stories using shadow play.

Toddlers are not left out. There is a dedicated space with padded play mats, giving toddlers a variety of textures to play with, while also showing parents that they do not need expensive or specialised items to get creative with their kids.

Workshop space for more private and structured activities is also available. The centre offers programmes which include artist-led workshops, art jam sessions, holiday camps and birthday parties.

Playeum's executive director Anna Salaman said the installations are designed to encourage exploratory learning and play.

Although there are staff members and artists on hand to guide the children, they act more as facilitators.

She said: "We want children to take ownership of the experience, and so, the team at Playeum is constantly observing children and adapting the programme in response to their experiences. This mindset is core to the philosophy underlying our programme's development process."

Kids are encouraged to leave their creations on display as inspiration for others.

Ms Salaman, who was previously associate director of programming at ArtScience Museum, said studies show children are significantly more "divergent" in their thinking. "They have a deeper capacity than adults to come up with new ideas. They are innately creative."

Parents or teachers accompanying the children still have a role to play. Like the centre staff, they are encouraged to act as facilitators - to ask their children the right questions and get them thinking.

Ms Salaman hopes parents will take away some of the ideas and replicate them at home .

Housewife Doreen D'Cruz, 39, who took her two primary school- going daughters there, said the centre inspired her to come up with ideas for play. "I like the dark room, where they used simple, everyday materials and with some lights turned it into something really interesting for the kids."

The centre's programmes and activities can be adapted for children up to 12. So far, several groups from pre-schools and primary schools such as Yumin Primary in Tampines have visited the centre.

Pupils on school-organised visits are charged only $10 per entry - half the normal entry fee of $20.

Kids must be accompanied by an adult and they can stay for as long as they want. But visits are limited to two hours during peak periods.

Playeum used to run its activities at museums, community centres and void decks.

Ms Pasupathy said Playeum is still committed to providing opportunities for all children to express and indulge their imagination, even though it has now found a permanent home.

There is a donation programme, Play-It-Forward, to fund the visits of children from less-privileged backgrounds to the centre. Individuals, groups and companies are encouraged to contribute to high-quality programming specially designed for underprivileged children. A $20 donation will directly fund a child's visit to the centre.

Its location at Gillman Barracks is a five-minute walk from the Circle Line's Labrador MRT Station.

The centre is open from 10am to 6pm every day of the year except Mondays and Christmas Day. Tickets can be bought at the door. Child admission is $20 and the first accompanying adult enjoys free admission. An additional adult ticket costs $10. Visit www.playeum.com for more information.


SEE EDUCATION

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2015, with the headline 'The play's the thing at this centre'. Print Edition | Subscribe