During the 1960s, most of the chinese families had many children, as many as 10 and more. Most parents did not have time to spend one-to one with every child as they had to earn their keep to feed the big families. Children learnt about independence very early in their lives and had ample time free playing by creating their own games. Many families could not afford televisions at home for entertainment.

Whenever my mother tells me stories of about her childhood and play, I’m always so envious. There was so much freedom, risk and creativity in their play.

My mother grew up in a big family of 10 children. Her family grew their own vegetables, fruits and reared chickens and ducks for living. The kampong (or village) was her favourite playground where she had the experience of catching insects like praying mantis, baby birds in the nest, fish in the canal with rattan basket and worms to feed the ducklings. The children also climbed trees to pick guavas, soursops and rambutans.

They used inexpensive materials like metal tins, twigs, stones, fruits to create their own games. These were some of the fun games they created and played during their childhood:

1. Hopscotch. My mother used broken porcelain piece to throw into the square. Read here on how to play hopscotch.

2. Walking stilts. The stilts are made of wood planks nailed to its positions suitable for a child’s height. The children learn to balance when walking on stilts. This #2 picture is drawn by my dad.

3. Rotating top. The top is made of a guava with a nail inserted throughout the middle of the fruit. A string is tightly wound clockwise round the base of the fruit, beginning from the nail. The player clasps the top in his hand, gripping the loose end of the string between the fingers. He throws the top onto the ground and swings the string backwards to give the top a spinning effect.

4. Five Stones. This game used five small stones, instead of the triangular cloth bags containing with rice, beans or sand. Read here on how to play Five Stones.

5. Walking tins. A hole is drilled through at the top surface of milkmaid tin. A rope is then tied within the tin with the other end out of the hole. The tin can be lifted up with the rope. Make another tin in the similar manner. When the two tins are completed with the ropes, the child can hold the ends of two ropes while stepping on the tins and start walking with her walking tins.

Playgrounds over time

As more people moved into HDB flats, more playgrounds were created. I was browsing through the old photos and I found this photo of my mother and her friend at an old playground taken most likely in the late 1960s or 1970s. I remembered playing at such playground when I was young. We had to stand on the platform and asked someone outside to turn it and it would rotate slowly until it stopped.

This is another picture of my siblings and I at a neighbourhood playground which existed during the 1980s.

How the children play now

Children’s play is now more structured even though the children have more toys and playgrounds than ever before. Even the best-selling toys promote highly structured play with instructions on how to play. With the advent of computers and handheld gadgets, children can be seen almost everywhere with gadgets on their hands. The recent article on The Straits Times also reported on the adverse effects of children using gadgets at early age. Children also spend less outdoor time running and exploring their surrounding. Afraid that the children get hurt, little or no risk is encouraged. All these I believe hinder the children’s social, physical, emotional, and intellectual development.

My mother’s childhood play really inspires me to give Dot a fun childhood. Living in an urban city, we intentionally expose our child to nature and risk appropriate for her age. We will go on outdoor trips where Dot can see, touch, feel and even play. We grew our own caterpillar which turned into a butterfly and encouraging her to be bold by holding the harmless butterflies, birds and spider. When we are at home, we use inexpensive materials to create our own games and activities like the cardboard house cum restaurant, cardboard doll house, light and shadow show and homemade play dough. Dot also has her personal time for free play and playtime with other children.

“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” – Charles Schaefer

Probably it’s time to play like the children in the 1960s. What do you think?


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