You’ll hear it time and time again – children don’t play like they used to. In the utopian New Zealand of yesteryear, we roamed neighbourhoods in packs, making our own fun (and chaos) as we went, an ability that many think modern children have lost. Well, that’s partly true – but it wasn’t the children that necessarily changed, but the world around them.
In the 70s and 80s play happened locally, our neighbourhoods were built around strong communities with more access to wild nature. It was safer for children to be on the streets and, with fewer cars, even kicking a ball across the road was less dangerous. For the most part, children made their own fun, playing in their backyards and in the streets, and activities focused on roaming and exploring nature. There was public play equipment – typically funded by service-style clubs like Rotary and the Lions Club – but no standards were in place.
In 1986 the focus changed to one of risk avoidance when New Zealand’s first playground standard was published. At the time there was widespread public concern at the number of child injuries associated with playgrounds. The purpose of the standards was to prevent accidents with a disabling or fatal consequence – for example head and neck entrapment – and to lessen serious consequences caused by the occasional mishap.
By 2004 the tide was turning again and we had adopted European Standards for equipment. These standards were found to be a good fit with the New Zealand environment, largely because they provide children with an appropriate level of challenge while keeping safety as a priority. What’s more, the benefits of risk in play were better understood. Through play, children can learn about risks and use their own initiative. If children and young people aren’t allowed to explore and learn through playing and taking part in positive activities, they won’t learn how to judge risks and manage them for themselves. In 2015, a revised standard was adopted which expressly acknowledges the benefits of exposing children to challenge and risk. Risk-taking is an essential part of children’s play and it’s important for them to experience risk and learn to cope with it, even though this may lead to bumps and bruises and, occasionally, even a broken limb.
This knowledge has heralded a new focus on wellbeing and inclusivity. The play realm has moved back into the neighbourhood, with shared urban spaces, schools, wild spaces, and parks. It’s given rise to concepts that echo the magic of the pre-1978 era, such as Playbourhoods, which are adult-curated neighbourhood adventures for children. Playborhoods refer to an approach where the entire neighbourhood functions as the play venue. The underlying belief is that by affording children the freedom to roam, they are encouraged to create their own society, manage risks and weigh up threats and benefits to find the right balance between growth and safety. It’s an amazing concept and creates opportunities to extend play spaces outside of traditional parks. Play can and does occur anywhere and it’s the activity itself that defines play, not the location or structures. Social platforms such as Neighbourly lend themselves well to this type of activity and offer an opportunity to form closer connections within the community.
We’re also seeing the rise of streets as places, redefining them as more than just a means of transport – they can function as play venues within themselves and as part of the connecting tissue of the urban fabric. Daldy Street in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter is dotted with small play interventions that act as points of curiosity and delight. Unlike structured activities like sport, art and music, free play is what children and young people do when they are allowed free time and space to use in their own way, for their own reasons and for no external outcome, reward or goal. The essence of play is that it is child-led and initiated and not directed by adults. As adults I believe it’s our responsibility to provide the opportunities to enable this.
About Catherine Hamilton, Principal Landscape Architect, WSP-Opus Catherine is an industry-leading landscape architect whose work has contributed to the enhancement of many urban environments, recreation reserves, coastal edges, public and private institutions and spaces for children and young people. She is committed to collaborative, design-led processes to achieve the best and most enduring outcomes. She recently led the design of the Takaro a Poi/Margaret Mahy Family Playground, a key investment in the post-earthquake regeneration of Christchurch. The playground offers a vibrant destination for locals and visitors and has attracted millions of visitors since opening in 2015. Most importantly a part of the City that was once empty is again filled with laughter.