These old HDB playgrounds built in the 1980s take inspiration from local sights and items, intending to convey a sense of identity. Slides built in the designs or shapes of bumboats, trishaws, watermelons, pelicans, clocks, and dragons quickly filled newly built public housing estates, providing hours of fun for the bourgeoning population.
Till a child was injured, and international rules for playgrounds were created. People also complained about dangers of unhygienic sand and inconsiderate passers-by who threw sharp objects, spit and cigarette butts into the sand pits. Then HDB stopped building these slides in 1993 and made the switch to a supposedly safer modular style found in many cities. Many people are nostalgic about the old playgrounds. Besides the National Heritage Board's summary of their history, there're many blog posts about it. (More information over at Jerome Lim, Singapore Memory Project/Justin Zhuang, Delphine Wee, Susan, CNNtravel and SilverKris.)
Playgrounds didn't thrill me as a kid. My caregivers were mean. They brought me to these playgrounds for a bit of a run and interaction with other children, but I wasn't allowed on the slides or hang off the rings or do any sort of jumps and flips. Those were supposedly to be properly done at the dance studio or gymnasium. While I don't feel a big sense of loss to see these old playgrounds gone, I'm glad to have seen them. These unique structures win anytime over cookie-cutter foam and beams. Playgrounds are as safe as only the caregivers' vigilant eye, and luck.
What is sad, we lack these actual playgrounds, and what happens is we get 'fake' ones. During the month-long June school holidays, we see inflatable slides and temporary plastic structures in the exact shapes of the dragons, pelicans, watermelons and all sprouting up at the front lawn of the National Museum and the indoor event space at Marina Square Mall...the sorts. I also see mini versions of the slides to be used for display at the National Day Parade performances at the Padang. THE IRONY.
After finishing an assignment in the area, and not wanting to de-brief in an office or a cafe, the work associates and I went in search of a quiet nook in the nearby HDB housing estates with loads of public space. Found one. Bought packets of cold homemade barley and lime juice from the kopitiams and went to chill out at the playground in front of Blocks 241 and 242 at Toa Payoh Lorong 1. It's one of those old ones- a baby dragon slide with new foam instead of sand. Perhaps it's the time of the day; the playground was empty. We hung out there close to an hour, enjoying the serenity. Under the shade of the trees and a light breeze, we were shielded from the sun at its zenith, this hottest hour of the day.