“I’m selling ice-cream. What flavour would you like?”
“Do you have vanilla?”
The little girl swerved her clenched fist upwards, then held it in front of me like she was holding on to an ice-cream cone. My order was ready. I played along, taking the cone from her and licking the side of my imaginary ice-cream swirl. She smiled cheekily and ran away, her wavy black ponytail bouncing in the late afternoon sunlight.
It was my first time at Toa Payoh Lorong 1. A friend of mine had told me that a group of children was having an art exhibition at a playground there, after spending a few weeks working with several artists and design students. I was expecting a museum-esque exhibition, where artworks would be neatly arranged around a playground, accompanied by didactic panels that explained the concept behind the artworks. Perhaps the artists and students would be there to guide visitors through the exhibition space. Maybe several children would take turns to present. I didn’t think they would want to stay at the playground for too long when there could be other things to do on a weekend afternoon – outings with their parents, extended family gatherings at home, tuition classes.
Clearly, I hadn’t had the slightest clue what I was in for.
Roughly thirty primary school-going age children turned up at the playground on that day. Some were chasing each other, weaving in and out of the crevices between the slides, ladders, poles and low rope obstacle courses they had installed themselves. Some were taking turns lying on the giant sheet of brown paper on the playground floor, enjoying the ticklish sensation of a marker against their skins as their friends traced the outlines of their bodies. Others were measuring up against the height chart they had created on a lamp post. A few were gearing up their competitive edge for an upcoming soccer match, to be held on the small field beside the playground.
Titled Seeing the Obvious, the exhibition was a culmination of a series of weekly sessions at the playground over a period of two months. Visual Communications students from Nanyang Polytechnic, with their lecturer Ms Ong Guat Teng, worked with the children and several artists to design physical interventions for the playground. For two Saturdays, the public was invited to see what the children had created. Despite it being an exhibition of sorts, the children were given free rein to play and anybody who was interested was welcomed to join. For the uninitiated like myself, the chaotic scene before me was rather overwhelming to the senses. However, for the estate’s residents, it was not a rare sight. Rather, it had become a Saturday afternoon norm for the past two years, with children and artists gathering for Let’s Go PLay OutSide!’s (LGPO) weekly session.
A young boy attempts to cross an obstacle course, constructed by Nanyang Polytechnic's Visual Communications students, during "Seeing the Obvious"
An obstacle course built on existing sheltered passageway.
Roy Payamal was invited to LGPO to perform.
LGPO is the brainchild of arts producer Lin Shiyun. In July 2016, Shiyun, along with several women running a single-parent network, went around knocking on the doors of the estate’s rental flats. They were informing parents of play activities that Shiyun had planned for their children. Since that Saturday afternoon, LGPO has accumulated a loyal pool of children from Toa Payoh Lorong 1, most of whom live in the rental flats, who turn up at the playground every week. They undertake a variety of creative explorations along with Shiyun, making full use of their seemingly mundane environment. The activities range from drawing on the pavements using chalk, to hanging Christmas balls on the bushes, to constructing obstacle courses by attaching nets onto pillars.
Cardboard play, cardboard being the most easily accessible materials from provision shops nearby.
These explorations of play are not always pre-planned. In fact, most of what happens at LGPO is improvised – and paradoxically, improvisation is part of Shiyun’s overarching plan. Shiyun explains, “[at LGPO] I wanted to create a theatre [where] you wouldn’t predict what happens. The premise for this theatre to happen is there is a time and there is a space. When you come in, you already choose to be an actor. When people are at LGPO, everybody is an audience. Everybody is a director, everybody is an actor. Whatever you do will influence the way things will turn out.” The children have since become experts at initiating creative endeavours on the spot, using their surroundings as raw materials. Shiyun recounts how a group of girls once built a house out of cardboard they had found in the recycling bin. She highlights how these activities normalise creativity and make it part of daily life for the children, who often do not have the opportunity to attend art events outside of their neighbourhood. According to Shiyun, “it’s to tell the children that you don’t have to go all the way out to play. You can be very creative in your environment too.”
“I wanted to create a theatre [where] you wouldn’t predict what happens. The premise for this theatre to happen is there is a time and there is a space.”
The LGPO community consists not only of the young ones, but also of artists invited to play with them. Storyteller Balakrishnan Matchap has made several appearances at LGPO. On one occasion, he facilitated a theatrical exploration centred on the story of Sang Nila Utama’s arrival in Singapore. During Seeing the Obvious, storyteller Regina Foo teamed up with musician Jevon Chandra to present a participatory puppet show. More recently, artist Zai Kuning, actor Lim Kay Siu and actress Neo Swee Lin brought their ukuleles to LGPO. Artists are given complete freedom to conduct workshops and engage with the children to their liking. Shiyun remains open to accepting any ideas that artists come up with – no terms and conditions to comply to, or KPIs to meet.
A storytelling session with Balakrishnan Matchap.
Artist Marla Bendini heads a group of children in a roleplaying
game where the animals try to stop Sang Nila Utama and his soldiers from entering their island
LGPO’s first birthday party where the community brought
food to share.
In fact, when Shiyun first started LGPO, she only had one condition. “You have to be there every week. I think that is the only very concrete term that I [agree on] when I do this project. That you have to be there every week, or every two weeks. At 4.30 on Saturday. This is known to all the kids [and] people who know LGPO. [We don’t necessarily know] what we are going to do, but we are there. You know the story of the Little Prince. There’s a chapter where the Little Prince meets the Fox. The Fox [tells] him how he can tame the Fox – he has to be [there] before every sunset. So you build that routine, you build that ritual,” she explains. This very ritual has become the bedrock of LGPO, making it a constant the children keep coming back to.
Fun and friendly competition awaits every Saturday, at 4.30pm till as late as 8pm!
Beyond becoming one another’s dedicated playmates, the children’s shared weekly experiences of artistic exploration, silly fights and plain, raw, fun have allowed them to build a culture of trust where they offer their support to one another in times of personal problems. Shiyun recounts, “[one] day when I was looking for this person, this girl, they [the children] said, “oh yeah, her father wanted to kill her mother yesterday.” Then you can see, there’s a support group among the children. And in that way they find a way to help each other.” Not only are the children familiar with their peers’ playing habits, but they have also opened up to each other about their families and lives at home.
Shiyun emphasises that the support system LGPO has become for the kids was only made possible because of their continued commitment to show up at the playground weekly. “The element is time. You need that two hours every week to be there, to know each other, [gain] trust… In the past, neighbourhoods [had] this little van that goes around at a certain time of the day. And people would go out and buy something from the van… That became the routine or ritual when people would come out to see each other.”
The children’s consistent presence in each other’s lives has created a strong sense of community amongst them, even extending to outsiders like me – welcomed through soccer matches and imaginary ice-cream cones.
Founder of LGPO, Shiyun (sitting in the middle, in glasses), and the LGPO family.