The place for a game: the importance of play in the residential red zone

We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well – for we will not fight to save what we do not love
— Stephen Jay Gould
Children in the Christchurch Nature Play group 'fishing' in the Avon/Otakaro    Photo Credit: Celia Hogan

Children in the Christchurch Nature Play group 'fishing' in the Avon/Otakaro  

Photo Credit: Celia Hogan

60 years ago the river Thames, in the UK, was declared biologically dead.  Now it’s full of life - fish, birds, seals and otters are all coming back and there’s plans to create swimming areas - pools lined with reeds to help filter the water.

The state of our local rivers has been in the news a lot recently.  As popular swimming and fishing spots dry up and local waterways become too polluted to use, there’s been anger, conflicting opinions and ideas - but also a sense of loss.  

Regenerate Christchurch recently surveyed 1000 children about what they need from a future Christchurch.  Their top three needs were: 

  • Connecting with nature - having a green space to walk, picnic or camp, with pristine waterways, trees attracting native birds, and orchards and vegetables gardens to harvest. (26%).
  • Caring for myself and others - the need to feel safe and loved, and to ensure vulnerable people and animals have a place to stay and be cared for (14%).
  • Fun with water - the red zone must have a way to enjoy water – be it pools, a water park, wave pools, kayaking or water slides (13%)

Although ‘connecting with nature’ was the top need, the need for ‘fun with water’ did not include the natural waterway that runs through the red zone - and why would it, when you can’t swim in it, fish from it or safely play on its banks?  Sadly, the degraded state of the river has meant it doesn’t figure into the consciousness of this generation of children as a space to play.

But, not too many generations ago, children played on the banks and swam in the river.  Otakaro, the original name for the Avon, comes from the translation for ‘the place for a game’  - in reference to the children who played on the banks as their parents gathered food from this, once resource-rich, area.  

A few weeks ago I was privileged to attend the conference held in Vancouver, Canada, hosted by the Children & Nature Network  - I was one of almost 900 delegates from 22 countries.  It was inspiring to hear examples from around the world of ways people are forging opportunities for children to connect with their local environment.  At the conference we heard from local Coast Salish speakers who shared their belief that decisions should always be made considering the land and the next seven generations. 

Instead of looking at the river in its current state and lamenting its ‘loss’, we need to think about how we want our children in the next seven generations to use it.  Do we want them to be able to swim and fish in the river?  How do we move past the sense that it’s too late and too big a problem to solve?  How do we create a connection with the children in this generation and the river, so that they will fight to save it?  

After the earthquakes in November, a large group of people moved in to save the paua that had been cast up from the seabed.  The drive to save the paua was undertaken by people who knew the area, who benefitted from the paua and who felt a connection to the paua and the local environment.  We need this understanding and love of local ecosystems to forge a connection strong enough so we are motivated enough to fight to for it.  How will we create this love and understanding in our children when it comes to the local rivers?

Photo Credit: Little Kiwis Nature Play

Photo Credit: Little Kiwis Nature Play

Obviously there needs to be immediate changes, but there also needs to be a long-term shift in the way we view the river and surrounding areas so that future generations feel compelled to continue to make changes and create new ways to tackle the problems.  Natural areas for learning and play are an ideal way to create a sense of stewardship in children - the residential red zone is well-positioned to provide this.  We need to ensure there are spaces set aside for children to play, explore and learn; areas for children to learn how water moves - what makes it muddy and what cleans it; interpretive signs to educate - to show how the river was once used, what wildlife lived there and what still lives there; areas that provide them with adventure, excitement, new learning, open-ended ways to interact - opportunities for them to connect and fall in love with the land and the river.   We need to create space for our children, the next generation of kaitiaki, to learn about the river, to forge a connection, to see the issues and to come up with new ways of thinking to solve the current problems.  

In two generations the river Thames has gone from being ‘biologically dead’ to a river that’s healing - with increasing biodiversity and a sense of hope from those around it.

The residential red-zone provides the ideal opportunity to re-think how we use and regard the river and what opportunities we afford the next seven generations.

Check out for more information on the planning process.  This Friday (June 2nd) is the last day to give feedback on their draft vision, which will shape the next steps of planning.

Picking fruit in the residential red zone  Photo Credit: Celia Hogan

Picking fruit in the residential red zone

Photo Credit: Celia Hogan