A one-of-its-kind playground built by 22 NUS Architecture students became an instant hit, delighting not only the underprivileged children in Smile Village in Phnom Penh, Cambodia it was intended for, but also kids from the surrounding neighbourhoods. Smile Village, a community project initiated in 2012 by Pour un Sourire d'Enfant (PSE) and Solutions to End Poverty which the Architecture Department participated in, is a new village built specifically to house 170 PSE beneficiary families evicted from slums.
The project that first started as a semester-long inter-year Design Module to design a masterplan, childcare and social enterprise building for Smile Village became so engaging that students volunteered to continue the project in subsequent vacation periods, explained Senior Lecturer Dr Tan Beng Kiang, who facilitates the group each year. This is the department's fifth trip to Phnom Penh.
On previous trips, the students had worked with PSE in designing and building prototype furniture for the Smile Village childcare centre. This time, they set out to design and build a playground for the children and incorporate learning aid into the childcare centre building.
To prepare themselves, the students studied playground designs, picked up playground design tips from an outdoor adventure expert, and participated in a nature park trek to observe kids at play. To raise funds, they made miniature cutouts depicting Singaporean scenes which they sold for $10 each.
Upon arrival in Phnom Penh in late May, the students visited a community slum near Smile Village and presented their playground scheme and learning aid wall proposal to the villagers, who in return provided constructive feedback. The students spent time hunting for materials and construction tools, which soon posed a challenge due to a language barrier and shortage of components.
However, the real challenge arose during the construction phase when they tried to level the ground and lay the foundation – the hard rocks in the ground and sweltering heat quickly sapped their energy. What spurred them on was the children's high spirits. "It was amazing to see how children play with simple things like tyres. They could come up with one thousand and one ways to play the games and enjoy themselves, said Year 1 student Lam Ching Yan.
"Playing with the kids who came over while the playground was still work-in-progress was gratifying as they tried out the structures with their weight to test their stability. It made me realise not everything will ultimately be used the way it was intended, so it is best to approach things with a really open mind, said Year 1 student, Yang Wei Chuan.
With sheer determination, the students made progress over the two-week period and finally completed the playground. An opening ceremony was held and soon after, the playground for Smile Village became a local attraction, drawing children from the surrounding areas.
Said Dr Tan: "Through this experience, the team learnt the importance of leaning on each other for support in times of need and adapting to unforeseen circumstances. This project is not just about building a playground. The playground is a social space to foster community bonds among the villagers who have resettled to Smile Village from different places. The playground has become a new building block to form a community.