Make It Hands-On - November 2016

Kids make crafts and more in Singapore’s Playeum Children’s Centre for Creativity

by Michael Switow

Boys and girls from the Yumin Primary school gather around a work table near the far wall of Playeum’s Children’s Centre for Creativity on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Singapore. Two girls wearing red “Yumin Champs” T-shirts dip tongue depressors into a container of white wood glue, while a classmate documents the process on an iPad.

These fourth-grade students are creating unique musical instruments. Their source materials are all natural and recycled products: leaves, twigs, coconut shells, seeds, rattan, fabric, and old toilet paper tubes. They create small drums, shakers, and occasionally instruments that can be plucked or strummed. Before it’s time to go, they hang their creations outside in the Tunnel of Sound.

Playeum, which used to run pop-up attractions, opened the Children’s Centre for Creativity last year to encourage repeat visitation and “open-ended, exploratory learning and play.” The center features two main exhibitions a year.

“We’re the first public-facing center in Asia that is looking head-on at what creativity is … and [how to] ignite the creativity children have within them,” says Playeum’s executive director, Anna Salaman. “Everything we provide, children enter in their own context, in their own way. They work with it how they wish, they go through their own processes, and they come up with their own result. It’s genuinely open-ended and I think that’s got a lot of commonalities with the makerspaces out there.”

Playeum sees itself as part of the maker movement, Salaman explains, though “not the 3-D printers/circuit-board end of the spectrum.”

Play and Creativity

The Children’s Centre for Creativity is situated in a 3,000-square-foot building that formerly housed British colonial infantry. While Gillman Barracks is now largely home to international art galleries, Playeum attracts a steady stream of parents with young children and teachers leading school groups. About 3,000 people visit the nonprofit every month. A child/parent pair pay S$20 per visit; an annual play pass costs S$140.

Inside the center, there are half a dozen installations. Toddlers as young as one and children up to the age of 12 observe, explore, experiment, and create.

The youngest ones enjoy crawling into the Creature Cave, a cardboard structure that would resemble an igloo if we were not in the tropics. Inside, infants and toddlers explore textures, sounds, and lights; occasionally, parents crawl inside for a moment of peace as well. One mother tells Funworld her three sons rarely like to play indoors, though at Playeum they are happily engaged. Plus, here, she adds with a smile, she doesn’t have to pick up after them.

A few steps away, preschoolers and older children pretend to be insects in an immersive bamboo and rattan installation that grows with their constructive effort. They view insects and other creatures from the woods outside the center on special magnified surveillance screens, in “Knock, Knock! Who Lives There?,” then produce their own renderings with colored pencils on paper.

They build imaginary habitats with clay in an exhibit driven by the artist Madhvi Subrahmanian’s love of creating secret dens as a child. The miniature clay pieces created by Playeum’s visitors are subsequently positioned along the sides of towering, curvy white structures to provoke the image of a larger collective “make-believe hideaway.”

When children enter the center, they are not given instructions or shown what to do; this leaves many parents ill at ease, particularly on their first visit. But this is all part of Playeum’s philosophy.

“It’s the process that’s important,” says Salaman, who has more than two decades of experience working with museums and interactive galleries, including stints at the Discover Story Centre in East London and Singapore’s ArtScience Museum. “We want the children to have their own journey. The children get it. The people we need to work most closely with are the teachers and parents, to tell them, ‘Why don’t you go ahead and explore alongside them?’”

“One thing lacking in Singapore was a space where children can go without the agenda of having to be successful in that experience,” adds Playeum’s creative director, Jeremy Chu. “Here it’s OK to fail.”

The Creative Process

To an outsider, Playeum may seem like an arts-and-crafts facility. But there is a big difference. “If you go to an art class,” Salaman explains, “you’re often told what to make. You’re provided with the materials and given instructions. It’s a completely different pedagogical approach. Children create very different things in this space than they would in a traditional arts-and-crafts class.”

With the exception of some motion sensors that trigger insect sounds in the “Dark Space,” there’s very little high tech at Playeum. “We deliberately make everything a little bit homemade,” Salaman says. “We want to communicate that you can do this at home. We try to use materials that are recognizable. The upside is while we have a lot of thinking on how to do things, the actual fabrication is relatively straightforward.”

“Technology is used to enhance the sensory aspect of the experience of seeing and listening. It’s complementary, not the sole element for the work to be realized,” adds Chu, a Singapore-born artist and photographer who works extensively with natural materials.

The installations that together form the “Hideaways: Creating with Nature” exhibit were inspired and designed by artists and creative collectives, some of which include architects, biologists, and other scientists. Playeum also worked directly with a maker in its earlier installation, “The Art of Speed.”

Playeum’s own creative process begins in consultation with a council of advisors, many of whom are not yet old enough to go to school. Playeum’s official Advisory Council includes 16 children, ages 3-10. Playeum tests a concept by first giving the children a set of natural materials to see how they respond. Several sessions later, Chu conceptualizes a brief to send to artists.

After the artists are chosen, Chu works with them to “playimize” the exhibits to ensure that they’re safe and robust.

“I think a lot of artists don’t understand how much wear and tear interactive installations receive in children’s spaces. That’s probably a really long conversation we have with every artist,” says Salaman. “How are you going to make sure it doesn’t get trashed or broken? And, when it does, how’s it going to get mended easily, quickly, and cheaply?”

Maker Faires

The emphasis on exploring and creating at Playeum fits squarely in with the growing popularity, both in Singapore and globally, of the maker movement, which celebrates tinkering and the do-it-yourself culture.

The appetite for maker activities in Singapore is growing rapidly, thanks in part to government support. “All the schools are pushing it. The government is pushing it. Every school has robotics of some sorts. It’s gone big time,” observes Alvin Lee, a successful entrepreneur who frequently speaks at maker events. “I’m the chief cheerleader of the Singapore maker movement, because 30 years ago, inside my HDB [public housing] flat, I made something and then went on to create a successful business around it.” Lee invented and manufactured a kit that makes it easy for anyone to build sand castles. Today, he runs a permanent attraction called Castle Beach in Singapore’s East Coast Park, as well as a training and educational enterprise, Castles Can Fly.

In June, Lee joined hobbyists, artists, tinkerers, and other makers for the fifth annual Maker Faire Singapore at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Playeum was there, too, encouraging children to use natural materials to design a “Bug Hotel” for real insects to call home.

Other museums in Singapore have also gotten into the act. The ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands teamed with the OneMakerGroup last year for a Maker Faire where participants could solder copper sculptures, build a radio, or make armor out of cardboard. The Keppel Centre for Art Education at Singapore’s National Gallery sells a S$2 pocket sculpture starter kit and other activity kits. But Playeum is the only space in town that encourages this type of creativity, without an instruction booklet, on a daily basis.

“Creativity and innovation have been topics for at least 20 years,” says Salaman. “But there are surprisingly few organizations looking at how to get children to think more creatively, unleashing the creativity that’s there. The makerspace is doing that, some hands-on museums are, but schools are [still] working on a Victorian paradigm.”