It was a fun day for brothers Hoang Hai and Hoang Nam, six and eight years old. Waiting for their mother at a shopping mall, they found a new game for themselves: running and sliding along the floor to see who could go the furthest. They laughed a lot, as the worried eyes of shopkeepers, scared of what damage they may do, looked on. Now they ask to go to the shopping mall every week, so they can play again. 

It’s better than playing football on the tiny strip of ground in front of their building, where they have to avoid traffic and sometimes get told off by drivers. Other kids also have a hard time finding somewhere safe to play, as there’s a shortage of playgrounds for kids in Vietnam’s large cities.

Lack of public space

The rising population in cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City increases demand for residential areas, bringing more and more buildings but not enough public space or, especially, playgrounds for children. Recognizing the issue, a number of investors in new and luxury apartment blocks make sure to allow for outdoor space for both adults and kids. But there is little in the way of public space or sometimes none at all at old or affordable apartment blocks for low-income earners and houses in low-rise residential areas, which remain the majority in cities.

Hai and Nam’s mother, Ms. Mai Huong, and her family live in Hanoi’s Cau Giay district, and she noticed there was no playground when they bought the place but could only afford a small apartment. “It’s not easy to buy a house in Hanoi, and high-quality apartments with good amenities and services are expensive as well,” she said. 

She had to accept that her two active sons would be left just to play with their toys or watch TV after school. On weekends, they often invite their friends over. Sometimes, they are taken to the park or, better still, the entertainment zone at shopping malls. But this form of entertainment is not cheap, so it’s not a regular occurrence.

Meanwhile, though having access to a small public space nearby, Mr. Mark Harris, an Australian living in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 3, struggles to find a safe place for his kids to play. The small public space nearby serves different purposes. In the morning, it’s a small market, while in the afternoon it’s filled with fruit juice stalls and people playing badminton and shuttle kicking. 

Parks are an option, of course, as they are for Ms. Huong and other parents, but there are only a few and not many are close. Moreover, they’re crowded and not the open space Mr. Harris wants, while the only equipment are slides, see-saws, and swings. Kids have to always wait in line for their turn. “Back home, parks and gardens are everywhere, so it’s easy to have outdoor activities or just chill on the grass,” he said. “There are much fewer green places like that here.” 

Agreeing, Ms. Kim Duc, Co-founder of Think Playgrounds, a local pioneering volunteer group building free playgrounds for kids, said it is necessary to have playgrounds in residential zones that children can get to in about five minutes. But public awareness of the important role that playing has for children is thin on the ground, which means the shortage continues.

Playing and doing outdoor activities make an important contribution to children’s brain development, according to many international scientific research papers and specialists. Such activities help them develop nerves that stimulate intelligence, thinking, and expression, and they also practice language and social skills when interacting with other kids. 

With a lack of playgrounds, many Vietnamese kids play more online games on smartphones than do outdoor activities, though it’s far from the only factor at play. These games are proven to be dangerous for kids at an early age, as they can have a negative effect on their eyes, mental health, and activeness. In fact, the rate of overweight and obese children aged less than five has increased from 2.7 per cent in 2000 to about 12 per cent in 2017 in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, according to the latest figures from the National Institute of Nutrition in 2017.

For children to play

Young volunteers have been working with companies and non-government organizations to resolve the lack of playgrounds. 

In 2014, Ms. Judith Hansen, a retired American with a passion for taking children’s photos, noticed the shortage of playgrounds in Hanoi while in the capital on holiday and was inspired to form a group of young architects, engineers, and students and set up Think Playgrounds, the first group to raise awareness among people and cooperate with them to build free playgrounds for children. 

Think Playgrounds has worked together with residents, businesses, and local authorities to take back public land for playgrounds, with a wide range of equipment being made from reclaimed materials such as old tires, straw, and discarded wood. There are to be some 150 playgrounds built by Think Playgrounds all over the country by the end of this year, including 80 in Hanoi. Those that have already opened have made a difference for local kids. 

One of them, Tuan Anh, a five-year-old boy in Chuong Duong ward in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem district, goes to the new playground nearby every afternoon to slide, climb, or play games. Before the playground was built, he only went out sometimes to ride his bicycle. “The neighbors also bring their kids here, so he has more friends,” Tuan Anh’s grandmother said. “He looks forward to coming here every day.” 

Think Playgrounds has also inspired other groups to build playgrounds, such as Cung Hanh Dong (Act Together) and the Song Ma Volunteer Team in Hanoi, Kicodo - a group of architecture lecturers and students of Da Nang Architecture University on the central coast, and the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union at Nha Trang University in south-central Khanh Hoa province. 

With its efforts to join with the community, Think Playgrounds encourages more and more enterprises and NGOs to join in and support its projects, such as Ford Vietnam, Jouer Pour Vivre, Kukuk Kultur e.V, HealthBridge Vietnam, the Japan Foundation, the France - Germany Cultural Fund, the Goethe Institut in Hanoi, the French Cultural Centre (L’espace), Plan International Vietnam, and Live and Learn Vietnam.

Think Playgrounds is working with HealthBridge Vietnam and UN Habitat to renovate five public spaces in the capital’s Tan Mai ward, Hoang Mai district, which will provide a combination of a small park, a community garden, a public art space, and a playground with access for disabled children. Two other projects are also planned, in Go Vap and Nha Be districts in Ho Chi Minh City, at the end of this summer. Established to build dozens of playgrounds, the partnership between HealthBridge Vietnam and Think Playgrounds has been a win-win endeavor, Ms. Thanh Ha, Livable Cities Project Manager at HealthBridge Vietnam, told VET. “We recognized that Think Playground’s success in working with communities raised awareness among the public about playgrounds and attracted the attention of the community, the media, and policymakers,” she said. “The results of our advocacy efforts have created policy changes at the upper level that are favorable for Think Playground’s work with the community and authorities. Together, we have made important improvements in communities and in the lives of urban residents.