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Does your council take play seriously?

Sport NZ is working with councils to redefine play and build more ‘playful’ towns and cities. Why? Because play brings people together and is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and our community wellbeing.  Sport NZ provides funding for Play Advocacy Advisors in councils – and their role is to make our towns and cities more playful places. We spoke to Play Advocacy Advisor Jacquelyn Collins and heard the benefits she’s seen during her time in the role.

Firstly, can you tell us about the essence of play?

The academic definitions usually describe play as unstructured and child led. But I’ve got a really basic definition: play is the stuff we do for fun. It’s the enjoyable, life-enhancing activities – for example, skiing, sewing, painting, baking, knitting, tennis – the list goes on! As adults, we tend to refer to these as hobbies, but it’s the same thing. Play is lifelong. It’s not something you should outgrow when you hit double figures. 

Why has your council got behind it?

I’m from Auckland Council and we’ve always done a huge amount in this space. We've got nearly 900 playgrounds, plus, a lot of things that we don’t necessarily refer to as play that are very much playful things. We have 65 libraries, and they all do “wiggle and rhyme” each week and that's play. Kids do it because it's fun. Not because they want to increase their literacy at the age of two.

People often think the only way we enable play is through building playgrounds. But there are many ways. How can we make sure the urban spaces we design invoke play opportunities? It’s part of my role to tackle that, not just for kids but for all of us. It has the potential to make our cities more joyful places.

How did the partnership with Sport NZ arise and how do you work together?

Sport NZ’s remit has always been play, active recreation, and sport. It's interesting because it reflects a shift in how people are spending their time, particularly young people. There’s been a decline in participation in organised sports. With that, there’s an increased focus on other ways people can be active.

Sport NZ recognised their Regional Sports Trust as a good way to support and encourage more playful activity. But when push comes to shove, if it's about how a space is designed or how are parks used, the buck stops with the council. So Sport NZ realise that investing tactically in council-based roles enables them to have a person on the inside who is working hand-in-hand with themselves and the Regional Sports Trust.

What are the benefits of getting more kids and adults active and involved in play?

It's just a life enhancer and it brings people together. And for well-being, that's so important. We all need to prioritise doing things we enjoy. More broadly, there's heaps of research which underpins the physical, mental, cognitive, emotional, and social benefits of children engaging in play.

I was leading a Waka Kotahi Innovating Streets for People project. It was a pilot for community play streets. One of our goals was to assess whether creating the opportunity for play would increase community cohesion in the streets where play happened. And overwhelmingly, it did!

Play provides an opportunity to bring people together. There’s also the intergenerational element I’m keen to explore. There's a heap of ways older generations used to play that we don't anymore. We could have our older citizens engage directly with local kids and show them, "This is how you can build something." It benefits both parties’ wellbeing and strengthens the sense of community.

What strategies are you using to encourage play?

In a council context, a strategy is a formal document, and we don't have a play strategy. So if we think of strategy in unofficial terms, I intend to work with our 21 local boards to support and encourage them to think about more ways they can enable play in their areas. 

Even if we just look at green spaces in Auckland, there are over 4,000 parks, but 900 playgrounds. So that means 3,000 parks probably aren't regarded as playful spaces. 

I encourage the local boards to broaden their horizons about what play looks like (because local boards build and maintain our playgrounds). And I want them to think about, what if we looked at some of these parks as potential play spaces? What would we need to do to enable people to engage with those spaces playfully?

Do you engage with mana whenua and local iwi in your work?

Absolutely. We must underpin everything we do in this space with a bicultural lens. It's so important we engage with mana whenua. But not just engage, we must genuinely embrace tikanga and use mātauranga Māori to underpin the work we do.

 We have this project called Te Kete Rukuruku, which is where iwi gift Māori names for existing parks, so they have a dual naming. What I'd love to do is explore whether we can work with iwi to interpret the narratives behind those names playfully.

What's been the biggest impact of your work so far?

Seeing how many people within Council see this vision of a playful city and support that coming to life. In the past year, I’ve set up a play advisory group, which is a network of play champions within the wider council. It's been heartening to see so many people who care about play and truly see the benefit of this. 

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

The biggest challenge is thinking about how we can do more with less. Part of my role is thinking about sustainable, affordable ways that we can increase play. It doesn't need to always be building stuff. That's the model we're moving away from.

With local boards for example, it’s about helping them to continue to provide amazing play opportunities for their local communities, but perhaps looking at it a little differently. Our local boards get it. They're completely engrossed in their communities, and they understand what their communities want and need. But financial challenges make things difficult. And I'm hoping I can be a part of the solution for them. 

Another big focus I'm looking at with Sport NZ is around play equity. That’s ensuring everybody is getting the same opportunity to play. Usually, when that's discussed, it's often around location or deprivation. It's hard because playgrounds are expensive, but we need to figure out a way to remedy that. 

There are different intersecting factors which can affect how much play children get access to. If we can create an ethos around play in Auckland, which offers a diversity of experiences, we can start to address some of those.

What's your advice for councils who are thinking about coming into a partnership with Sport NZ and creating a role like yours?

Just go for it. Embrace it. My role is a good example of this, you don't need a formal play strategy in place to begin doing more with play. You can do a bit of a groundswell. 

If councils think about embracing play more (ideally with support from somebody like Sport NZ and having a dedicated resource) the possibilities are endless. You can increase your opportunities to engage with younger people and to start thinking about and reflecting on what they would like to see their cities and towns be like. This work is nothing but beneficial for your community’s overall well-being.