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My nine-year-old daughter Lulu and I headed up the escalator, in the other direction from the library@esplanade, to a mysterious space we had never been to on the fourth floor.
At the end of the escalator and up a flight of steps, we entered PIP’s PLAYbox, Esplanade’s free activity area for children. This long 187.3 sqm room with a high ceiling was formerly a foyer space for the Theatre Studio, where the arts centre stages theatre productions for children, adapted from children’s books by Singapore authors. Families watching these plays or just wandering through Esplanade can now pop by PIP’s PLAYbox, designed by Lekker Architects with sloping, floor-to-ceiling windows that let in plenty of light, the odd corners of the space transformed into secret nooks and crannies.
We overheard one child declare loudly, “This place is perfect for hide-and-seek.” Lulu herself took up a spot on the steps of the “treehouse” – a tall blue watchtower-like structure from which you can peer down, its steps flanked by shelves of local children’s books that little hands can flip through.
Unlike most children’s play spaces which are brightly-coloured, PIP’s PLAYbox is clad in soothing hues of beige and blue-gray, with splashes of leaf-green. High up above on the ceiling, what used to be exposed ducts and insulation are covered with cylindrical blocks of foam, which sway gently due to the air-conditioning.
Rachel Lim, a programmer from Esplanade, explained, “PIP’s PLAYbox was never meant to be a childcare facility where parents can leave their children. Instead, we really want to encourage families to spend time together, and for parents to help their children think out of the box and use their imagination.”
Lulu saw a towering dark blue cupboard, almost reaching up to the ceiling, with cabinets which were arranged helter-skelter. This was an art installation called Cabinets of Curiosities, which surrounded the story-telling area. Nearly every cabinet had a knob. And like almost every other child there, she pulled open the biggest—tall as a wardrobe—cabinet, stepped inside and closed it.
She was surrounded by a magical forest of animals, painted on the inside of the cupboard walls, which become apparent only after I “found” her and opened the doors. I asked her, “What do you see here?”
She replied, “Oh! This bird has three heads. This pig has six legs. Can giraffes have zebra stripes?”
The acrylic paint was still relatively fresh and the colours were bold and in-your-face.
Artist Tan Zi Xi or MessyMsxi, an illustrator of children’s picture books, had been commissioned by Esplanade to paint the inside of the cabinets after it was observed that children couldn’t stop opening them. Previously, the cabinets were undecorated and mostly used for storage. The brief for the artwork was a simple one: anything which would spark a child’s curiosity.
A graduate of the Central Saint Martins art school in London, Tan knows a thing or two about using art to bring wonder to a child: She had previously put up an installation of a sea of plastic objects suspended from the ceiling, called Plastic Ocean, for the Singapore Art Museum’s annual children-focused exhibition in 2016.
Continuing her interest in environmental themes – Plastic Ocean immersed children in what felt like a river choked with trash – she spent eight days in February painting mutated animals and plants for PIP’s PLAYbox.
She said, “I am personally very interested in evolution and mutation in response to environmental disasters like Chernobyl or the nuclear leak at Fukushima. The topic of environmental change could be used to free the children’s imagination and creativity, as they imagine what could happen to animals in future.”
To help children pick up the “mutations” of the animals, Tan encouraged parents to ask questions and talk about the artwork with their children.
Activity sheets support the discussion. For instance, one activity allows children to colour in silhouettes of the same animals drawn in the cabinets.
For Lulu, she left PIP’s PLAYbox not just with a paper cup rooster in her hands, but with surreal images courtesy of Tan swirling in her mind. “I want to draw something completely weird,” this aspiring artist declared.
Admission to PIP’s PLAYbox is free for everyone. Located on Level 4 of Esplanade, it is open from 11am – 2pm and 3 – 6pm daily. Its shelves of local children’s books are made possible by United Parcel Service (UPS). Find out what's on at PIP's PLAYbox