A Tour of Singapore’s Classic Playgrounds

While we were growing up among mostly plastic slides in ’80s America, Singaporean compatriots of our generation were sliding down their classic dragon, clock, and fruit-themed concrete playgrounds.

Built in the late ’70s by Singapore’s HDB (Housing Development Board) designers, these iconic playgrounds are full of character — but have started getting demolished to make way for newer developments. Now, replacing these unique and artful designs are plastic and pre-fab playgrounds (safer as well), all of which look identical with their bright primary colors. Of the handful remaining, there’s now a vintage quality to these colorful mosaic playgrounds; each one has its own personality. It’s like they sit on hallowed ground, sacred yet somewhat ghostly, frozen in time.

Over the past couple of months, we made it our mission to visit each of these majestic and endangered creations by letting our daughter go wild on them, sliding the slides, climbing the stairs, riding the spring-animals. We wanted to document these, knowing that they may not be there when we come back, victims of progress, urban planning and safety regulations.

In order, playgrounds are as follows:

Toa Payoh — Dragon

Toa Payoh’s iconic Dragon playground

One of the Chinese characters in our daughter’s middle name includes “dragon” so it was a no-brainer to visit this. Plus, this is arguably the most iconic and original of the classic playgrounds in Singapore. Though you could probably fry a dozen eggs on the slide that day we braved the heat and zipped up and down that concrete slide until we could no more. I dare you to find concrete anywhere in the world that is as mirror smooth as that slide, worn slick as thousands of children’s bums made their way down. Notably, the slide itself is much narrower than slides today — we could barely fit. Is fast-food to blame for the ever widening of playground slides now?

Dakota — Doves

Seemingly haunted but unique Doves playground at Dakota Crescent.

Don’t let the hum of Old Airport Road Food Centre deceive you. There is no sign of life at the Doves playground, where the surrounding Dakota Crescent HDBs are uninhabited with grass uncut and wild. So much of Singapore is pristine, and planned, that Doves Playground feels alien. Rusting, covered in weeds and dust, we could barely believe we were allowed in. The surrounding area almost seems like a scene straight out of a Christopher Nolan or Danny Boyle film, but without the psych ward patients or zombies.

That said, this is one of our favorites. The faded blue tiles on the doves create a delicate and ephemeral atmosphere while the red fireman’s pole yearns for the fearless to shoot up and down with reckless abandon. And the tire swing…when was the last time you ever swung on one? Exactly. We swung with no care in the world until dusk started to settle and the mosquitoes started to make their advance. Hurriedly we passed the deserted hallways and uncollected mail; we didn’t dare wait to see if the undead would show.

Tampines — Mangosteens

Baby and Mama Mangosteens at Tampines.

Two mangosteens greet you — and while simple, we fell in love with the dark purple spheres that pay homage to such a divine Asian fruit. It’s tempting to crawl into the fruit to take shelter from the sweltering heat, but we tested our daughter’s strength by letting her hang from the connected bar. That didn’t quite work, so we doubled it as a pull-up bar and threw in a couple of reps. A long time ago, this playground included swings and a sandpit, but such is progress and safety regulations, that those pieces are no longer present.

Tampines — Watermelon

I was salivating for actual watermelon at Tampines’ Watermelon playground.

Just next door to the Mangosteens is the Watermelon playground. It’s almost a cruel design for children and parents alike; in the 90% humidity I found my mouth watering and desiring an iced watermelon mint shake.

Alas, our daughter was in another world. Within seconds she was running up the steps, down the mini ramp, and ripping down the slide. She’d turn left, run down the rubber mat, and repeat about a dozen times more. If you’re looking to score some points with your kid, the Watermelon playground can give you an hour’s worth of love. Plus, who can say no to walking around inside a giant-sized watermelon? It’s a testament to the design, that in a park with many other plastic pre-fab playgrounds, the Tampines Watermelon is still bustling with kids.

Bishan — Clocks

Bishan Clocks playground, where time is like handfuls of sand…[insert other time and life metaphors]

The hands of time, marching forward. The clock set to 10:10 (double death in Mandarin). Is the Clock playground trying to tell us something? Or is it just a cheerful little playground nestled between a food centre and a bus interchange? You be the judge.

Pasir Ris — Sampan (bumboat)

Sampan boat playground in Pasir Ris. Need a snack? Hawker center right next to it.

It’s only fitting that the Sampan playground is near the water in Pasir Ris. Making use of tires (just like a real sampan!) and a sandy bottom, the little slide on the Sampan is good fun. Plus, the hawker center right next door gives you a perfect snack time break in-between slide workouts.

So much of Singapore can seem planned, fabricated, almost sterile, but there are parts of the country that show the heritage — of an earlier time. We loved visiting these playgrounds, because it forced us to go to parts of the city we wouldn’t normally visit, and found little hidden gems, so uniquely Singaporean. Sure, it might seem overkill to spend $30 on Grab fares to check out a tiny concrete playground, but when there, it’s the people we meet, the sights we see, the snacks we eat that make the entire trip worthwhile.