Play time: A problem we can't play with much longer

By Trinh Hang   December 25, 2019 | 10:00 pm PT
It’s been said before, but it has to be repeated till we kick ourselves on the backside and get our kids moving.
Trinh Hang

Trinh Hang

So here goes: An excessive focus on academic learning without adequate play time will stunt Vietnam’s future generations, not just physically, but there’s that, too.

Through grade six and twelve, my niece’s physical education (P.E.) comprised breathing exercises, stretching exercises and a few athletic sports like sprinting, long-distance running, high jump and long jump.

I thought things would change when my child started junior high school. Since the school was a big one, I expected that there would be a variety of sports to choose from. However, after the first week, my child and her friends were disappointed. "There’s nothing different from primary school, mom."

The children were eagerly expecting regular chances to play exciting games like badminton, shuttlecock, dancing and so on. In reality, the chances were few and far between.

Some schools with more financial wherewithal manage to get swimming and basketball into the curriculum. However, the allotted time for practicing even these sports is very limited.

Under the public education program that the schools follow, a mere 90 minutes is given each week for P.E. A 7-year-old spends the same amount of time exercising as a 17-year-old.

Last month, I met Ha Linh, my daughter’s friend, and wished her the best for her martial arts ranking test. She made a face. "I’ve quit martial arts." Having seen her practicing and competing with vigor, I was shocked. I asked her why.

"My mom said I’m in eighth grade now so I have to spend more time studying math, literature, and English so I have to quit," Linh replied in haste as she rushed for a test-cramming night class.

Linh has been a straight-A student for the past eight years. Her GPA is constantly above 9. Despite that, her family is still worried that she will not be able to score high enough in the entrance exam for a place in a prestigious grammar high school in Hanoi. Compared to that, quitting martial arts is not much of a loss.

Linh is past the 150cm mark and will certainly be taller than her mom, but will our community and nation as a whole, suffer from the lack of physical activity?

Let’s start with a brief look at height. Vietnamese are the world’s fourth shortest people, according to a September report by the World Population Review. This is not the only report that says this. With stagnating height, Vietnamese are now shorter than those from poorer countries like Cambodia or Sri Lanka. 

Both the public and government have expressed the hope for a taller, physically fit generation in the future, but this will remain an illusion if we persist with a boring and ill-organized physical education program, increase academic pressures, do not ensure adequate rest and proper diet for children.

High school boys play football at a school in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

High school boys play football at a school in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Linh, along with thousands of other children, goes to extra classes after school in order to secure a place in a prestigious high school. That need is put above being physically fit and happy.

A lot of parents say that their children get home at eight, nine, sometimes even ten o’clock. They are so tired that they skip dinner. They don’t even have time for a quick chat with their own parents. Where would they find time for sports? The answer is that physical development during teenage years, which is vital to one’s future fitness, is allocated 90 minutes per week.

When the news came out that the Ministry of Education is developing a new textbook for physical education, some parents consulted our friends around the world on how P.E. is taught in their countries.

A friend in Paris did not understand when I mentioned a "P.E textbook." His child, studying in a public school, gets four periods of P.E. per week and is taught different sports each semester, from swimming to table tennis.

Another friend’s child, currently in junior high school, gets three hours of P.E. per week, learning swimming, baseball, tennis and basketball. A Polish mom with children in junior high school and high school said that besides the main curriculum which offers a variety of sports like table tennis, basketball, volleyball, and net ball, the government encourages children to participate in free extra-curricular programs from 12 a.m. to 9 p.m. at schools or cultural centers.

Ando, a friend in Japan, said first-graders get three periods of P.E, per week. The main purpose is to "help students develop a lifetime habit of physical activities and gain proper attitudes for a comfortable and happy life," he said.

In these countries, children don’t spend most of their time hunched over their desks to study math, literature and English. After school, children are free to explore different sports, art forms, and personal hobbies.

The lack of physical activity in childhood and teen years will have long term impacts on them as adults. Already, we know that many diseases linked to the lack of physical activity, like hypertension and diabetes, are rising in Vietnam.

It seems sometimes that the elders in Vietnamese society are keener on exercise than youngsters. A WHO report says that the number one root cause of death in 2018 was a lack of physical activity, a sedentary existence. A very high 29 percent of Vietnamese children and teenagers battle mental illnesses and 2.3 percent of them have suicidal intentions, according to a joint study done by the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs and UNICEF.

Given the rising instance of obesity and related problems among Vietnamese children and youth in particular, Vietnam's material prosperity might well turn out to be an ignominious anti-climax as the money is spent on treating a wide range of "rich man's diseases."

The best, and only way, to implement a long-term solution to this problem is to start early, in all our schools. We are not doing this at the level it is needed. If we don't rectify this at the earliest, we will not just fail our P.E. exams, we will fail our future generations.

*Trinh Hang is a Vietnamese mother, documentary film director working in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are personal.

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