Play Chiefs of Ōtautahi – an interview with Lou Van Tongeren & Kate Finnerty
Knowing that play is an important part of urban life, it’s reassuring to know that there are professional play chiefs focussing all their energy and talents on promoting and protecting play in Ōtautahi. We sat down with Louise Van Tongeren, Play Advocate at Christchurch City Council (CCC), and Kate Finnerty, Urban Play Coordinator for Gap Filler, to find out more about the serious business of play.
Q: Perhaps a good place to start, is to ask how you came to have a job in play?
Louise: My degrees are in Education and Music, both of which have informed my career path. Over the last 20 years, play has been a big part of my work, working in a play-based early intervention clinic, being exposed to pedagogical theories of play, learning from fellow educational and psychology professionals and using facilitated play therapy with students. It is in a child’s nature to play so when working with a child who finds the world hard to exist in, play helps. I am also a mum of three boys, so as you can imagine, play is a big part of my personal life. My role at CCC is funded by Sport NZ, and they fund the same role in many cities across Aotearoa. I don’t just work in Sports and Recreation though; in any given week I can be consulting with the community development team or with a stormwater engineer. I’m there to look at all the different ways the Council impacts play and to advocate for play in every element of city life.
Kate: Playing has always been a huge part of my life, my career in play has been guided by life experiences rather than a standard educational pathway. I discovered climbing when I was about 16 and that led me to travel all over the world, from Jordan through to the Arctic Circle. Play is a big part of climbing as there are no set rules and you must experiment with movement to access a playful flow state and climb the rockface. Through climbing I worked on street festivals in Europe building large scale bamboo sculptures and performing in aerial shows. That led me to be the artistic director of two community arts festivals in regional Australia. These festivals were playful and thought provoking; they brought diverse communities together and helped forge connections between people and places. I have always followed Gap Filler so when I eventually found my way home to Aotearoa and saw the programme to establish Ōtautahi as an urban play capital I knew that I wanted to be a part of it.
Kate Finnerty, Urban Play Coordinator for Gap Filler is also an avid climber.
Louise Van Tongeren, Play Advocate at Christchurch City Council
Q: Do you think there are particular strengths or skills that are required for a job in play?
Kate: I think being curious is a key trait to have. When you think about how games were created, they will have come about from people being curious and inventive. That openness to give something a try, motivated by a desire to find out what will happen, is the beginning of play. It’s also the beginning of innovation, which is why I think it’s important to state that play isn’t just meaningless fun and frivolity, it’s a gateway to discovery, innovation, problem solving and recovery, which are all serious aspects of life. As my role is often about working in the public space on events and with a broad spectrum of people and groups, excellent time management and the ability to stay calm under pressure are also good strengths to have.
Louise: I would agree with the need for curiosity when play is a central part of your job description. Personally, being able to see the world from a child’s point of view has been something I have nurtured and protected in myself as I predominantly work with or on behalf of tamariki. In this role, I am unapologetically idealistic about the possibility of play, that it can be represented in all walks of life and should be within all corners of local government.
Let’s talk about the role of local government and play. Bearing in mind that ChristchurchNZ’s new identity for Ōtautahi talks about being a city of balance where people make time and space for all types of play, and Gap Filler has the intention to establish Ōtautahi has a world capital of urban play, what do you think is local government’s role in facilitating play in the city?
Louise: Play should be embedded into the council’s plans and policies, so that it is part of any strategy that is on the table, whether that’s housing, a library, street design or a commercial development. We need to shift the understanding from play being something done in certain places, such as a park or sports centre, to looking for play opportunities everywhere and in everything. In the time since I was a child, opportunities for play, particularly for tamariki in the urban environment, have diminished significantly. Due to safety concerns in modern society, adults put a lot more boundaries on children’s play through time, space and permissions given. Children just don’t have the same freedoms to play where and when they would like, and this has serious implications as they develop skills in learning, socialising, self-management, measuring risk, having fun!
Kate: Which of course then leads into adulthood. Post industrial revolution, the worth of a person is measured on their productivity and what they do. Previously there had been a bigger focus on community and interaction with others, and with the introduction of computers and phones the potential for independent living and isolation has grown exponentially. I think if the council actively encourages play being seen and available throughout the city, it will help increase people’s appetite for positive interaction. Gap Filler’s Pae Tākaro (Place of Play) programme receives funding from CCC which is fantastic, because it acknowledges that play is worthy, and we can already see positive outcomes with collaboration between communities and positive engagement with the play activations we have run in the city.
Q: Can you both talk about why play is important in the urban environment and what the benefits are?
Louise: There has been a lot of research looking into both the benefits of play for tamariki, and the negative consequences of a play deficit in a child’s life. I can recommend some excellent reading material if someone wants to get a deeper understanding. Even without the academic evidence, most of us will know in our own lives how play has a positive effect on our wellbeing. For me, singing brings so much joy and I realise that when I take the time to sing, even if it’s going to karaoke with friends, it gives me a huge lift. When you find your play, what brings you joy, then it’s an incredible tool to help with mental and physical wellbeing. The importance of urban play became very clear to me when my first son was born just a few days after the February earthquake in 2011. For those formative years, a lot of the elements a mum with small children would rely on were gone. Playgrounds were shut or not there anymore, there was no Plunket and groups were non-existent. Many friends with children left the city because it was just too hard to raise a family in a city that didn’t have the facilities we rely on. We chose to stay and be part of re-creating the city through various family-focussed initiatives and I think Ōtautahi has a huge amount to offer families now. I am glad we stayed.
Kate: I love that you mention finding your play, because that’s something we have been exploring at Gap Filler with the play personalities framework that Dr Stuart Brown developed. By answering questions, you can find out what type of play personality you are, which could be the Joker, Kinesthete, Explorer, Competitor, Director, Collector, Creator or Storyteller (click here). Understanding how you like to play can impact all areas of your life. We recently ran a day of play personality tests and play stations at Tūranga and it was wonderful to see people discovering how they like to play. I think it would be a valuable tool in the workplace to create a culture where employees are able to approach work tasks in a way that tapped into their play personality, and for leadership to see how their teams could be working together in a more playful way. I’m certain productivity would increase as a by-product of bringing more joy to the workplace and putting people into a more curious and inventive mindset!
Q: Why do you think Ōtautahi Christchurch should become a capital of urban play?
Kate: I think we’re already well on the way. After the earthquakes, there was so much space to experiment in and what we saw was people innovating, creating, imagining and activating spaces. Christchurch had a reputation for being conservative and austere, but now it’s becoming a more participatory and fun place to live and people from all over the world are choosing to move here. Play is an increasingly hot topic, not least through the recent launch of Ōtautahi Christchurch’s new city identity which describes Ōtautahi as “a city that is always in pursuit of balance, reflected in our desire to make time and space for play, in all senses of the word”.
Louise: We have had to become less attached to ‘the way things were’ because so much was taken from us. We were forced to reimagine and embrace change, and it feels like that attitude remains now. Which is crucial for many of the challenges the world is facing. If our city can give tamariki a generous amount of access to play, I believe we will produce the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, writers, doctors, designers and philosophers that will help solve the world’s greatest problems. Creating a capital of play is creating an environment for innovation and invention.
Q: Sadly, we have to wrap up the conversation now, but as a parting gift, what would be your advice to someone wanting to get more play in their lives?
Kate: A great start would be to do the play personality test. Then you can be purposeful about playing more. If you’re an Explorer, take yourself somewhere new. If you’re a Director, organise a party. And invite me!
Louise: First of all, give yourself permission and agree that it’s a valuable use of your time. For some people, play comes easily, but for others it’s harder. That’s why Kate and I have these jobs, to make the city a more even playground so no matter where a person lives and what their means are, they can find play. A city of play is important, because it’s an open invitation for people to come together and share joy. We need that.
For more information, you can contact Kate on email@example.com or Louise on firstname.lastname@example.org