Every summer time, I fondly recall 20 years ago when I was a junior secondary-school student. In those days, neighborhood organisers joined hands in my district with the local Youth Union to provide activities for kids during June and July before we went back to school.
We woke each other joyfully at around 5am to do morning exercises. And then we joined in groups at badminton, skipping, volleyball and football. We smiled and joked and could not wait for the next day's fun.
They are most beautiful memories. Now that I am a working adult with five-year-old twin daughters, I wish they could also enjoy similar summer days.
But summer neighborhood activities for children are now on the wane. For instance, my neighborhood group only holds a small performance on International Children's Day on June 1 at which the children dance and sing. And that's it, nothing else all summer!
Instead of outdoor activities, parents now feel compelled to take their children to leisure centres in big shopping centres. It's the done thing! None of that old singing and dancing stuff.
A number of centres with child leisure centres have been built in Ha Noi in recent years, including Royal City in Thanh Xuan District. It is considered the biggest underground trading and recreation complex in South-east Asia and has its own indoor water park, ice-skating rink, Vinpearl games, Fairytale Garden and cinema.
Times City in Hai Ba Trung District and Lotte Mart in Dong Da District in Ha Noi also have popular attractions for kids. But none of these places are cheap.
Le Thu Lan, a teacher at Quan Hoa Primary School in Cau Giay District, said she has to pay VND1.5 million (US$70) for herself, husband and two children for a day at Royal City. This includes tickets into the leisure centres and a lunch of pizza or spaghetti.
Seventy bucks! That's half my monthly salary. If Lan is frugal, she can afford to take her children to a centre once or twice during summer vacation. She says that while these places offer quality services, she cannot afford to pay for more visits.
The average monthly income of Ha Noi workers is now VND4.2 million (US$200). No wonder only the well-to-do can afford to keep their kids happy in a modern world.
While upmarket leisure centres may be the flavour of the month for the rich, organised traditional fun is far more active and inclusive. Everyone joins in. Parents don't have to pay much money for weeks of good healthy fun for their youngsters. Bonds of love and friendship develop naturally - and it is rare for anyone to be left out of the picture.
Tran Van Tinh, head of the Dinh Cong residential quarter management board in Hoang Mai District, said it had a playground for children.
"We wanted to organise outdoor activities for children during summer, however, now the playground is now mostly used for a motorbike park and shops," he said.
There is even a small market on the site every morning. "How can any one do morning exercises in that atmosphere? To keep play spaces open for children means that adults must adopt a more responsible attitude," he said.
Nguyen Hong Phuong, a psychology lecturer of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, said that children today spent most of their spare time on indoor activities, such as playing computer games and watching TV.
She said that this could help develop their intelligence, but their physical strength and personality would suffer if they did not take part in outdoor activities.
Phuong said that in England, district authorities were still responsible for making sure there was plenty of outdoor public space for children.
They spent their budget cleaning up outdoor playgrounds and invited retired teachers and volunteers to visit them every week and design games for children to enjoy.
Phuong said the children were divided into groups and played games suitable for their age.
"It's a good model for us to learn from and provides useful and healthy summer activities," she said.
In a rapidly developing society, modern leisure centres can be good for children. But outdoor activities are cheaper and better.
Let's make sure that the ever growing commercial world does not swallow all our precious time, and add insult to injury by making us pay for it. — VNS