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To Teach Children the Importance of Play, First Bring Playgrounds Back

In rapidly developing urban Hanoi, finding engaging outdoor play areas for young children is near impossible. But since 2014, the social enterprise Think Playgrounds has colored public spaces across Vietnam with wildly unique and legitimately sustainable designs, engaging with local communities to give children back their right to play.

Founded by architect Chu Kim Đức and journalist Nguyễn Tiêu Quốc Đạt, Think Playgrounds (TPG) was born as a reaction to a surprise encounter with American Judith Hansen, who was traveling through Vietnam hoping to continue a photography series of public playgrounds. “Wherever I go, I look at playgrounds because I think they tell us a lot about a culture,” she states in a documentary made by TPG. Upon her arrival to Vietnam, however, the realization of the rarity of such spaces in Hanoi inspired Judith to attempt to donate a slide, reaching out to Kim Đức and artist Ban Ga for design assistance. 

Nguyễn Tiêu Quốc Đạt.

After months of efforts and negotiations, the slide, shaped in the form of a turtle to echo the legend of Hoan Kiem, was never completed nor accepted by the city and left Kim Đức with a driving motivation. "After she flew back, I and my partner thought we have to do something! Because someone from across the globe has flown here to build a playground and we didn’t manage," she recalls. "And so we tried our first playground on Bãi Giữa (Banana Island). It was very successful, many people were interested and told us they could not find playgrounds near their house."

Compared to other Asian cities with similar high-density urban fabrics, Hanoi is also one of the poorest in terms of square meters of green space per inhabitant at just 11.2 square meters per capita, compared to an Asian average of 39 square meters, according to HealthBridge. That mixed with overprotective parents believing in “stranger danger” and the common obligation of long schooling hours, urban children in Vietnam have very little opportunity to enjoy the highly beneficial act of play. “Outdoor risky play” that is characterized by elements of uncertainty and risk of physical injury is thought to be especially valuable. It seems, in order for children to learn essential skills (and have more fun along the way) a bit of rough and tumble is advised. Acts like playing at great heights, high speed, near dangerous elements or with dangerous tools sound counterintuitive for the well-being of a child but interestingly is a thoroughly studied and developed notion that is expressed spatially through “Adventure Playgrounds.” 

Having first appeared in Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1943, the concept of Adventure Playgrounds was created by the infamous modernist landscape architect Søren Carl Theodor Marius Sørensen in collaboration with school teacher Hans Dragehjelm. Their concerns were two-pronged: first, how to offer urban children the same play opportunities as their rural counterparts; and second, how to attract them to playing in designated areas rather than the junkyards they seemed to prefer. This second element was of high concern as “mischievousness and sneaking around” — understandably important elements of play — had been criminalized and parents feared their kids' innocent play actions could be confused as acts of sabotage by German soldiers. 

This pioneering Emdrup Junk Playground concept quickly spread in popularity throughout Europe, and also appeared in Japan where currently 400 Adventure Playgrounds exist. In these spaces only a few rules apply, the most important being: no adults apart from the specially trained Playworkers whose job is to teach children how to use the available tools and only intervene if there is a very high risk of serious injury. Often these play areas look exactly like junk-yards: piles of broken wood, dismembered electronics and unrecognizable bits of metal challenge kids’ creativity. The children, free to build or destroy their own structures with whatever they find, learn not only motor skills but also how to negotiate, find resources, manage teamwork, and independently create their own world. 

Going beyond the obvious physical benefits, risky play has been proven to encourage the development of the capacities known as the “Four Cs” — communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. In comparison to “designed” playgrounds that attempt to control the inherently chaotic activity of play, risky play, though difficult to understand initially, has long term benefits and is irreplaceable by indoor activities.

But kids in Vietnam face particular challenges, Kim Đức tells Urbanist: “Historically, Vietnamese children used to play a lot in nature because we were in agriculture with fields, lakes and forests. My parents' generation could tell us stories of how adventurous their 'play areas' were, especially during the wars. My generation and people living in cities like us still have memories of playing with friends in neighborhoods, on the sidewalks, on the street... My daughter now spends most of the time indoors, has no friends after school, no public playground near our house. It's the common situation in Hanoi and cities in Vietnam. Public spaces are invaded for commercial purposes. Parents think play is useless and a waste of time.”

Some people point fault to the rise of digital technology, a belief corroborated by a recent study finding that 78% of Vietnamese children under six use digital devices, but access to positive spaces for children takes more than just turning off the iPad. “I don’t buy the argument that the screens are keeping the kids from the playgrounds,” said Susan Solomon, an architectural historian and the author of American Playgrounds. “If the playgrounds were better, kids would be there. Better playgrounds would definitely give screens a run for their money.”

That said, the creation of engaging play spaces in Hanoi can be more complex than meets the eye. “Raising awareness of children's right to play is the most important. This affects education, urban design and community development. When the community is engaged in a project and committed to protecting it, the playground is successful,” explains Kim Đức.

The past few years have seen a steady growth in community involvement with now more than 180 playgrounds built across the country. TPG currently creates temporary and permanent playgrounds, complete commercial projects and hold events to promote their philosophy. Notably in 2019, they built Vietnam’s first Adventure Playground in collaboration with Tokyo Play and Ecopark. But the project lasted only a few months as the local community didn't mobilize to contribute to the management costs and the area was taken over to become a “check-in” point for youths. 

“From what I know, Hanoi parents are quite protective, especially when there is a lot of bad news in the media. Besides, I think the current mainstream education is not facilitated for independence in general, which surely affects outdoor play,” Kim Đức laments. But all is not lost, with many projects and collaborations en route, TPG continues to expand Vietnam's play platform, exploring subtle ways to make each original design more educative while taking into consideration children of reduced ability. Their recent work at Vietnam National Children's Hospital was specially designed for children with mental illness and the ongoing project on Bãi Giữa sports a fabulous zipline, the neighboring recycled tires, and wooden seesaws becoming a gathering point for the young and old. 

Typically, TPG projects are welcoming, colorful, jumbled spaces, often composed of organic shapes, natural materials and animal forms, breaking from the cold geometry and sterility of the urbanscape. In the beginning, TPG used 100% recycled materials such as wooden palettes. Although having the advantage of being cheap, the wood rarely lasted more than a few months and now TPG source their wood from local producers, treated organically with mud and biomaterials. Each project design involves as much as possible the local community. Through drawing workshops involving children and adults, the gathered illustrations are then crafted by the designers in their workshop, later returning to collaborate with the community to install, paint and maintain the spaces themselves. By transferring this sense of ownership and responsibility, it ensures the longevity of each space to allow children to enjoy their play for years to come.

Though it may seem in Vietnam we are far from arming children with hacksaws and throwing them up great heights in rubble-filled Adventure Playgrounds, slowly the work of TPG will spread the benefits of free play to the next generation, offering them opportunities to learn and grow, one tumble at a time. 

To learn more about Think Playgrounds and their program of activities, visit the organization's website and Facebook page.

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