"We can all agree that children are stressed by school and there is no place to relax and interact with other children. They spend a lot of time inside with iPhones and iPads and TVs. It’s a problem everywhere in the world now, right?”
This is the question Chu Kim Duc, founder of Think Playgrounds, asks co-founder Nguyen Tieu Quoc Dat, who nods in enthusiastic agreement. The belief that outdoor play is integral to a child’s development was one of the ideas sparking the creation of Think Playgrounds. The project has seen over 25 play areas built around the city to date using low-cost recyclable materials.
Think Playground’s workshop, just off Au Co is precariously packed with wooden pallets and tyres waiting to be turned into playground equipment. Sitting between the dusty potential, Duc gives me all of the details of their origin.
The idea for the project began with an American tourist’s desire to photograph playgrounds from around the world. Judith Hansen visited Hanoi in 2013 and was struck by the lack of local places for children to play. She was put in contact with Duc, an architect, who agreed to help her build a play area for the children of Hanoi. Judith funded the first playground under Long Bien Bridge and Think Playgrounds was born. The first playground cost about US$1,000 (VND22.8 million) to make.
“This is the price of an iPhone but it’s become a playground for many kids to play together. It’s amazing,” says Dat.
The team, which has grown to include other architects, designers and accountants, works with communities around Hanoi to build playgrounds. Dat, a journalist, deals with the company’s social media and publicity and the whole team helps in the construction process, which is often challenging.
“We faced many difficulties but we’ve changed quite a lot since we started,” says Kim.
Dat explains the key to overcoming challenges is including local people’s ideas, encouraging participation in all activities and encouraging them to maintain the playground once it has been built.
“We learnt that if you want to have a sustainable project you have to involve the community from the beginning,” says Dat.
However, this is not always easy. It is difficult convincing local people that spaces should be turned into playgrounds and not used for other purposes. Some locals are also hesitant to support building playgrounds because of the noise.
The company became a social enterprise last year, making commercial playgrounds and made-to-order equipment to fund the construction of free playgrounds, but they are still in need of donations to keep the project alive. Dat says it is difficult to convince people that this cause is important and that it deserves funding.
“Kids in the city have food, an education, but they don’t have a place to play. No one thinks it’s necessary so no one wants to donate. Fundraising is slow,” he explains.
Despite these challenges the team are still keen to build more free playgrounds to encourage unstructured play.
“Recently we met a professor from the US who did research into play,” says Kim. “Kids learn everything from unstructured play. You can send children to piano classes and teach them many things, but only through unstructured play can they truly understand music and its origins. They can understand many things without the stress.”
Adds Dat: “Sometimes I feel like a victim of school. We don’t want the next generation to be caught in a nightmare. We want them to dream of beautiful things that playing can bring them.”