The serious question of play is under discussion by the Auckland Council, which is developing a plan on how to invest in it over the next 20 years.
As the city jams in more houses and back yards shrink, the topic has become an urgent one. It also involves the spending of millions of dollars, most of which the council admits is currently being distributed in the wrong places.
It has sought feedback from local boards on its Takaro – Investing in Play discussion document.
It looks at how not just children, but adults, play; how best to spend available funds to get people outside and engaging in traditional activities; and asks if we are becoming too risk-averse in bubble-wrapping our kids.
Auckland Council owns about $66 million of playground equipment, spread over 940 play areas in the region, ranging from a single swing to destination play spaces. Those assets are primarily aimed at able-bodied 2 to 7-year-olds. Its long-term plan has it investing $25m to provide new play spaces in the 10 years to 2025, with a further $33m spent on renewing existing assets.
Those existing assets are a big part of the problem. Every pre-amalgamation council had different policies and spending levels on playgrounds and open spaces, so the wider Auckland region now has an uneven distribution of facilities.
“The cost of renewing existing play assets consumes over half of all spending on play,” the discussion document states.
“These existing assets are not located in the areas where the greatest numbers of Aucklanders now live.”
Now that Auckland is one big region we find, for example, that while 25 percent of its children live in the south, that area has just 16 percent of the city’s playgrounds. But playgrounds have to be maintained, so the spending continues to go on renewing equipment that’s already there – “These disparities are set to continue.”
The council’s stance on the issue has to be guided by the plans and commitments it already has in place. I Am Auckland: The Children and Young People’s Strategic Action Plan details the council’s commitment to under-25s, saying the council will provide a range of opportunities for sport, recreation, and arts and culture, which are easy for children and young people to access. The Parks and Open Space Strategic Action Plan 2013 includes a commitment to development guidelines for the design of play spaces. Yet another strategic action plan sets out the collective sport and recreation vision, including the provision of affordable and accessible recreation. Plus there are well-documented reasons for making sure the city is full of play opportunities – fighting obesity, managing stress, developing basic motor skills among them.
Less well-documented is a picture of who uses playgrounds, and why – or why not. Safety fears, barriers to access and the lure of the playstation are contributing to a new indoors culture, and it is clear that broadly, New Zealand children aren’t playing as much as previous generations did. The discussion document says 46 percent of children between 8 and 12 are not playing every day. Between 50 and 70 percent of children don’t regularly experience ‘real’ play activities such as tree climbing or games that involve getting muddy or messy. Previous studies by the council revealed little is provided for kids over 8 (playgrounds are generally aimed at 2 to 7-year-olds) or for the disabled. Existing youth spaces are typically male-oriented – skate parks, basketball half courts and BMX tracks.
Problems that inhibit playing included adults who are too scared to let children go in case they hurt themselves; a lack of street connections to some play spaces; and too much screen time. But Auckland’s population is relatively young – 36 percent are under 25 – so what can be done to get them outside and running around?
One suggestion is to introduce Scandanavian-style “kids off leash” areas in parks where the grass isn’t mown, the trees are left where they fall, and stones and rocks become part of the adventure. While the idea presents some challenges to public safety, the council says it’s not against the rules to climb trees, build huts, and play in mud and streams – although there may be a perception that natural spaces are off-limits.
How about putting swings in trees and painting hop scotch games on paths? The council was criticised earlier this year for asking a Sandringham resident to remove a homemade swing on a verge, but said it did so because the branches weren’t strong enough to hold it.
In some cases it would require the council to develop an understanding of, and tolerance for, risk. The discussion document points out play is inherently risky – bumps, bruises and sometimes broken bones are all part of the deal.
Water parks are popular and fun, but expensive to run and maintain. They need a lot of cleaning and generally require other facilities as well, such as toilets and changing rooms, along with more frequent rubbish bin emptying. Facilities are rarely used over the winter months so they don’t make sense when there are space demands.
Should we be encouraging children to become skillful riders at an early age and embrace a green, bike-loving future? Bike parks let them learn to ride in a safe space and children gain confidence before riding on the road and cycleways. Often they can go in beside existing cycleways or BMX tracks to provide a logical progression for new riders.
Of the region’s 940 playgrounds, only 29 currently have an artificial shade structure, in spite of the Cancer Society’s recommendations. But it costs around $25,000 per playground to throw a shade sail up above it – that’s $23.5m to do the lot, not including the cost of taking them down for winter or repairing them. The discussion document points out it’s a lot cheaper for people to take personal responsibility for sorting out their sun protection. Planting large trees would be a cheaper option – about $5000 per playground.
Great for when the twins run off in different directions – not so good for trying to get a gate open from a wheelchair. The council also points out a fence around a playground cuts it off from the surrounding area, and they’re only as effective as the last person to use the gate. And obviously, extremely expensive – about $250 per metre.
Local boards now have the chance to formalise their views on the issue, and have until August 21 to submit feedback. Most decision-making on playgrounds and open spaces is done at local level, and the new plan will form guidelines for those decisions.