On a Sunday morning in a 12 metre square room in Hanoi’s Nghia Tan tenement, eight-year-old Nguyen Phi Hung laments to his mother: “Mum, why don’t we go to the park? Do I have to continue watching cartoon films?”
Nguyen Thi Van, Hung’s mum, says nothing but turns up the television showing the children’s “Tom and Jerry” cartoon. She cannot take him out because she is busy finishing her half-done work as assigned by her boss. She worries if she lets him out on his own, what will happen to him because traffic accidents can happen to him at any time, and who will take care of him?
Van cannot believe it was just half a year ago that she and her family lived in Hanoi’s suburbs where there are large spaces for children and her boy enjoy playing games.
She looks at Hung’s small desk on which there are scores of pictured storybooks. In the corner of the room, various toys for boys look lively. Cartoons, storybooks, and toys are Hung’s all private world of entertainment.
Van steps towards the window, through which warm sunlight drifts. She looks down to the playground in front of the tenement. She wishes her dear son could have a decent space to play as he used to have in the countryside. In the yard, there are no children’s see-saws or rocking chairs but scores of motorbikes and plastic tables and chairs.
Nguyen Thu Trang, a resident, says that the yard has long been used as a place for selling drinks and food or washing motorbikes.
Sometimes, Van takes her son to the park but these days, while her husband is away on business, she is too busy.
Five-year-old Nguyen Tuyet Nhung in Hanoi’s Thanh Nhan quarter shares the same situation with Hung. Her small house is located at the end of a long wet lane.
“She is weak and timid because she spends almost all of her time indoors. She is not old enough to attend school,” My Van, Nhung’s neighbour says.
“Her parents work all day and employ me to look after her,” Van says, pointing to a small three-wheel bicycle at the corner of the house. “The bicycle was given to her more than a year ago on her birthday. However, the child cannot ride it because there is no space,” Van says.
During my talk with Van, I am surprised the child can see the green when her parents take her to the park.
“Her mother tells me that when she is taken to the country side, she does not want to return here,” Van says.
Children in urban areas still have no spaces to play when they are free.
Hanoi’s tenements have witnessed a loss of spaces for children’s entertainment activities. From five in the morning, the yards around the Giang Vo tenements are filled with tables for breakfasts and hundreds of motorbikes.
“We want to play badminton and football but we have no space to play,” says 14 year old Nguyen Minh Hiep. “Yesterday afternoon, the boy nearly had an accident when he was trying to pick up the ball by Ngoc Khanh Street,” says Minh Thu, Hiep’s mother.
“We only ask that the state create more recreational spaces for children,” Thu says while embracing Hiep.
The children’s situation is not uncommon in Hanoi where living standards are on the rise, which means more pressure in education is weighing upon children’s minds while there is a dearth of spaces for children to play in. Confined away from the open air, most children are in lack of those jubilant moments that we used to enjoy in the past such as flying kites on the green field or helping parents planting trees and rooting up wild grass in the garden.
Nguyen Kim Thu, dean of a primary school says, “Lacking space for entertainment, children will lose their active sociability and could suffer from speech impediments. As a result, they will be timid and find it difficult to mix with other friends. This will make it difficult to adapt to life.”
“I remember that many years ago, the Ministry of Culture and Information (currently the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism) issued a temporary regulation on building recreational spaces for children in localities. However, there have never been any plans to be implemented so far. As a result, children are facing more and more pressure,” she says.
More pressure in education weighs upon children’s minds while few recreational spaces are created for children.
Thu adds that each pupil often has to carry a four or five kilo bag to school every day. “They have no time to play with nature or think of creative games because they have to study too much at school throughout the whole day. In the evening, they often have to do extra homework and have no time to even watch television,” she says.
“Child-oriented psychiatric clinics have received young patients who have symptoms such as bad-tempers or melancholy which come in the wake of their being deprived entertainment in the open air,” says Nguyen Thi Vi, a Hanoi psychiatrist.
Local media cited a survey conducted by Jerome Singer and Dorothy from the US Yale University as stating that the rate of Vietnamese mothers who say that their children often watch television is more than 91%, while it is 71% for the mothers of the rest of the world. Four percent of Vietnamese mothers say their children participate in physical games, while it is 22% for mothers in the world. Besides, the number of Vietnamese children who engage in natural discovery and imaginative and creative games is just 5-6%.
Thu shares the same view, saying that parents have a one-sided interest in their children’s activities.
“They only care about what marks their children get from schools or whether the children pass or fail their exams without paying attention to their entertainment activities and how to develop their aptitudes,” she says.
“Everything is lively and attractive for children. When they play with nature, they are discovering, studying, and developing their feelings,” Vi says.
However, despite complaints from adults like Thu and Vi, many kids like Nguyen Phi Hung, My Van and Nguyen Minh Hiep still have no spaces to play in when they are free. It is clear that so many children in Vietnam, especially those in big cities, are suffering from a caged childhood.