WALK into Playeum, Asia’s first children’s center for creativity at the Gillman Barracks, and squeals of kiddie glee and giddy joy will greet you.
You have entered a 3,000-square-foot space with a high ceiling that has had the good fortune to watch over kids, age one to twelve, playing with total abandon, since the center opened on September 19, 2015.
Across this light-filled space, children are having fun, verbs as well—tinker, fiddle, explore, experiment, learn, create, they’ve all come out to play, guided by some mysterious, innate motto that shouts, “Anything goes!”
From the three-meter-high IKEA-styled Community Ramp from which they can slide their own car creations to the blackboard mural where they can draw alongside animator Clio Ding’s racing animals, children can fashion works of art for the sheer pleasure of creation without the pressure of having to figure out what is right or wrong, better or worse.
What Playeum is after is a style of play that hits all these high notes: open-ended, self-directed, process-led, activity-based. “And art lends itself well to these qualities,” said Anna Salaman, the center’s executive director.
Which is exactly what makes Playeum’s play philosophy attractive: play sits on the same platform as art, the terrain of creative possibilities unfettered by rulebooks, manuals, or the noise of teacher-says-this-and-that. It is this “open-ended” spirit of creation that excites Ms. Salaman, an active champion for creativity in the lives of children.
“There are no fixed outcomes, no value judgments,” she explained. “None of the activities here at Playeum are predetermined.”
Scan the display shelves of the center’s create-all-you-can Play Maker Space graced by a giant communal table at the center and a smorgasbord of recyclable materials in bins along the walls, you will find this freewheeling, free-spirited play come to life.
All the art and craft pieces produced are one-of-a-kind—a car with a juice carton for its chassis, another with a Yakult bottle. Then, there’s a Grandpa image fashioned out of a paper plate, its most striking feature the sparse, dangling whiskers of snipped red rubber bands, so goofy you wonder what Grandpa would have thought if this very same child were to hold his hand and lead him to the artwork pointing out proudly, “Look, Grandpa, that’s you!”
What is evident from all these works of art is not just the reverence for individuality, but learning as a journey, where the entire play ethic honors process over product. In other words, it’s okay to fail because failure is part of the process, not an end.
“At the heart of playing is the creative process,” said Ms. Salaman. “There is no creative process if you have a fixed outcome. And because it is your own journey, there’s also a sense of ownership and pride.”
Children also come face-to-face with experimentation (“you try what you test”), and they get to cultivate intense focus (“sheer absorption levels”). That’s good news for the frontal lobe, and it also triggers dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is released when we engage in pleasurable activity.
Even though Playeum may be buzzing with dopamine, Ms. Salaman likes to speak of creativity in much larger terms: “It is the zeitgeist of our time.”
Citing the IBM 2010 Global CEO Study where creativity was singled out as the most crucial factor for future success, she hopes that people would look at creativity not just at the level of the individual but on a global scale. How can creativity, for instance, help us solve the problems of the world from food, resources, to the environment?
“We have a global obligation to ignite and encourage creativity in children so that they can be tomorrow’s problem solvers,” she said, “because creativity has much more far-reaching consequences than merely instilling confidence or focus at an individual level.”
Here, she reflects on the state of education—“entrenched Victorian model,” she grumbles—and how the world must strive, in the style of educationalist Sir Kenneth Robinson, to nurture creativity in schools. Subjects, she observed, are like silos, compartmentalizing minds in a way that would have made Leonardo da Vinci cringe.
But there’s hope yet.
Playeum has one other vital piece in its play puzzle—that da Vinci ability to pollinate ideas across subjects. It came to life when Noemi Schumacher, six, visited me at the Dark Space, as I was manipulating the floor-treading lamp by pulling a rope, making the light go back and forth, so that the objects in the room moved like some black-and-white Japanese anime on the wall. And then a ballerina appeared on the wall, elegant and breathless in her arabesque pose. She grew taller and bigger, then shorter and smaller.
In creativity parlance, this would have been called a cross-disciplinary approach because Noemi made art, first at the Play Maker Space, then on the wall, playing with light and shadow.
But let’s forget all this creativity speak. We should just call it this: a da Vinci moment.
Block 47, Malan Road
#01-21 to #01-23
+65 6262 0750
Tuesday to Sunday, 10am – 6pm
Closed Mondays and December 25
$20 per child (ages 1 to 12)
Accompanying adult is free
Additional adult is $10
Photography by Richard Kearns