Fun & games

A group of volunteers has taken it upon themselves to build playgrounds for kids in the cement jungle that is Vietnam’s cities.

By Story: Le Diem - Photo: Think Playgrounds on April 07,2016 05:07 PM

Fun &  games

Aroutine day for Hai Minh, a five-year-old boy in Hanoi, used to be to ‘play’ around his mother’s convenience store as she worked. Like other city kids, Minh often played games on her phone as there seemed to be nothing else to do. After he become bored with the games he’d kick a football against the wall behind the shop or just wander around alone in the hope of discovering something. And eventually he did find something - a new place nearby with colourful toys. Better still, he’s longer alone. He has some new friends who play there too. Just thinking about going back there to play makes Minh smile.

Thanks to Think Playgrounds, hundreds of kids also have a smile on their face after their simple wish of having somewhere to play with friends came true. It took a long time, though, for many parents to realise their children’s dream. A playground almost seems to be a new idea for many people, according to architect Kim Duc, the co-founder of Think Playgrounds.

She used to be the same. Like other parents she often took her seven-year-old child out to eat or to one of the few amusement centres in Hanoi. ‘But having nice food and playing with electronic machines is not a healthy way for children to play,’ she said.

Only after working with Ms Judith Hansen, a retiree from the US, did Ms Duc recognise the importance of playing.

With a big passion for taking photos of kids, Ms Hansen tried to find public playgrounds when she visited Hanoi. All she found, though, were a few parks and crowded entertainment areas in big shopping malls, with computer games that cost a lot to play. Public parks and gardens, she noticed, appeared to be more for adults to walk or play sport. Children only went there with their parents and sometimes chased each other around to ease the boredom. Others managed to find a tiny space in an alleyway or on the footpath to play badminton or football.

So she tried to sponsor a project building a small playground near Hoan Kiem Lake. But the complex formalities took longer than her visa’s validity, and the idea come to nothing.

Ms Duc then stepped in. ‘From Judith I knew of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to Play, where every child has the right to rest and leisure, to play and engage in recreational activities appropriate to their age and free of charge, to develop their bodies and minds,’ she said. ‘Lacking healthy activities, many children become inactive, obese and stressed.’

But Vietnam’s history of poverty and war means that most parents traditionally pay more attention to food and study than play. Urban development has also taken over many public spaces, with limited places for children to play.

Appreciating Ms Hansen’s concern for Vietnamese kids, Ms Duc and her friends established Think Playgrounds, a volunteer group, in the hope of raising people’s awareness and working together to build free playgrounds for children.

A lot of people were quick to give support. After the first playground opened in Hanoi people from different parts of the city asked them to build a playground in their area.

It’s not been a smooth process, however. Conflict over the use of public space has been an issue, according to Mr Quoc Dat, the other co-founder of Think Playgrounds. For example, older people want the small public area that is available for exercise, while younger people want it for sports and others see it as just somewhere to sell food or park vehicles. ‘This conflict is our biggest difficulty but at least people are talking about the issue and parents are thinking about somewhere for their kids to play,’ he said.

Another challenge is the playground equipment, which needs to be affordable and also safe and appealing to the children. Each of these new playground costs around VND10 million ($500), or a fraction of what a regular playground may cost, with the group brainstorming the use of recycled materials such as wood, iron, and rubber tyres, while they make all the toys.

As all members are volunteers and have a full time job and can only make toys on the weekends they must do a lot of research into what might be suitable. They both work in groups to share ideas and also individually on special toys. For example, Mr Hung Cuong, a fan of mountain climbing, is trusted for his safe climbing equipment, Mr Dat became an ‘expert’ in games using ropes as he is an architect, and Ms Duc and Mr Minh Quang prepare the planning for the playgrounds.

Improvements are constant. Each new playground is a new experience and discovery for the group. ‘Along with our own ideas we also try to learn from the equipment and games of international playground groups,’ Mr Dat said. ‘We learn as we go. For example, we used bamboo on some toys to give a sense of a Vietnamese village, but we then found that steel and wood are more durable.’

With their good hearts, innovative minds and sweaty hands, unique see-saws, swings, slides, climbing frames and ropes, and folk games were built at about 20 playgrounds in Hanoi, Danang and remote areas like Ly Son Island and northern mountainous provinces such as Son La and Hoa Binh. Young volunteer groups, who usually bring food and clothes to children in remote poor areas, have come to Think Playgrounds as they recognise the role of playgrounds in kids’ well being, according to Mr Dat. Authorities in Hanoi authority recently said they plan to build 100 playgrounds around the city, and next month Mr Cuong will go to Laos to help build playgrounds.

Moreover, the volunteers have a lot of fun too and have some beautiful memories. Mr Cong Tien, another member, was attacked by an ostrich on a farm when he chopped down trees for a playground. One time Mr Cuong was so focused on his work on Ly Son Island that he forgot to take time to see its beautiful beaches. Mr Dat, meanwhile, will always remember the playground they built in Ngoc Khanh ward in Hanoi. After it was finished only a few children came to play and were a bit wary of touching the toys and equipment. He thought maybe they didn’t like them. But he came back after a while and there were kids everywhere, and they kept the area clean too. ‘Besides having fun together, they also created a small community and divided up the work in a fair way, which I think is great,’ he said.

Their greatest pleasure is to see the happy smiles on kids like Minh, Mr Quang said, playing with the things they made with their own hands in the space they created.

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