By Dr Damien Puddle, Sport Waikato Local Play Advocate

Some of my favourite play memories as a child include making dens with my cousin in hay bales in a barn on my uncle’s farm, trying to climb up the slip and slide on the hill at the beach bach with my brothers imagining we’re on different adventures, playing go home stay home in the dark or games on the trampoline with my neighbours. 

When I was a bit older, I loved playing roller hockey in the cul-de-sac and going on bike rides and not coming home until we were hungry. Come to think of it, I’ve never really stopped playing. 

Parkour is my play of choice these days. I’ve been trying to play every day in 2021 and I’ve captured it on my Instagram (@dpudds) to create a catalogue of how you can use everyday spaces to play, regardless of what they might be built for.

I think a lot of people believe play is frivolous or trivial, but there is overwhelming evidence that it’s foundational and transformational. So, what is play? Why is it valuable? How can we do more of it? And where does Sport Waikato fit into the picture? 

Let’s talk about play.

I asked my daughters what play is and they said that it’s “doing activities and cool things” and “playing with friends . . . and by yourself . . . and with toys”. How would you define play? A good dictionary definition of the kind of play I’ve been engaged in since I was young is “to exercise or employ oneself in diversion, amusement, or recreation”. Sport NZ further unpack children’s play, identifying that it is:

  • intrinsically motivated – it is spontaneous and will happen anywhere
  • personally directed – it has limited or no adult involvement
  • freely chosen – it is self-determined and has no pre-determined outcome, and 
  • fun, accessible, challenging, social and repeatable.[1]

A Playworker’s Taxonomy of Play Types

Regardless of how it is defined, it can look like a thousand different things and involves being active and having fun. Children don’t spend much time thinking about what play is though, they’re too busy doing it. They don’t need much reminding of how to play either, they just need support from us adults in the form of time, space and permission to do it. 

Some of the simplest ways to do more of this is to plan less of your children’s lives, intervene less, and practice not saying no. The value of children having their own personal time to play the way they want cannot be overstated. Indeed, so many of the good things that we want for our children, especially in relation to their behaviours, wellbeing and relationships are learned through play. And because it’s fun, they want to do it all the time! 

What about us though? Play isn’t just for kids you know. That’s right, we can still learn more about the world, ourselves, have fun and get healthy while doing it too. We might identify embarrassment, lack of time, or injuries as barriers to us playing like children do, but I’m 100% confident that that doesn’t stop them – they always find a way. You can play more by taking some cues from the children in your lives. Here’s some inspiration from my girls:


At Sport Waikato we recognise the importance of play across all our areas of influence. Through collaboration and partnership, our expert team are providing high value, strategic leadership to support play (and active recreation and sport) across the Waikato region. The team have helped me gather some of insights as to why we’re investing in play:

Play allows mokopuna tamariki (under fives) the opportunity to develop an array of cognitive, social, emotional and physical elements of their wellbeing, that will be with them through into adulthood. It is at this stage where mokopuna tamariki will grow and develop the confidence and competency needed to exist in all aspects of their physical life.[2]

Local and global evidence points to play as a vehicle to support and enhance the hauora (holistic wellbeing) of tamariki, the chief aim of many of the Kaahui Ako’s (Communities of Learning) we work with. Play can support learning across all strands of the primary curriculum, and with nearly 25% of the primary school week dedicated to play breaks (including eating time), it’s essential our team act as play advocates. Indeed, Dr Mike Shooter, Chair of Play Wales has said: 

“Free play gives the growing child the cognitive ability to solve problems, the emotional ability to withstand hardship, the social ability to help each other, and the physical ability to carry it all through. Play is the foundation stone of resilience in children, no matter what life may throw at them!”[3]

Even in secondary school, the insights we’re gathering are showing a growing awareness of the value of play, particularly during the current COVID climate. Play concepts provide the opportunity to restructure conventional sport and physical education programmes and timetables to meet different alert level guidelines. Further, play also enables greater student-led decision making across their physical activity participation. This is a great boon to rangatahi (teenager) wellbeing at a time when so many decisions are out of their hands. 

The benefits of play in sport have been more broadly established and enjoyed from our tamariki to elite athletes for many years. Playing organised sport is not the same as ‘free play’ as described above, however studies have shown that when game-based approaches (i.e. letting kids play instead of trying to teach them skills) are used by coaches, their participants improve faster, report increased enjoyment, and are more likely to keep playing. This is because playing is fun and it increases the engagement of participants, who self-discover, problem solve, develop and execute skills while they’re in the moment. Coaches can encourage play by setting up games that encourage participants to have fun, make decisions and learn though their experiences. 

Play is spontaneous, fun, accessible, challenging, social, repeatable and can occur anywhere. However, without adequate community spaces (or avenues for play) play can be limited. It is important that spaces and places (including facilities) are designed to accommodate changing community profiles and associated trends and needs over time; this includes play. 

Spaces and places therefore play an important role, and we are seeing this realisation from councils who are investing more into playgrounds, parks, tracks and trails, and gullies. Quality provision of these spaces increases opportunities for play which goes a long way to increasing community health outcomes. 

As the adage goes, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing”. 

Go on, get out there and play the way you want to.

Damien Puddle, a.k.a. Dr Play, is Sport Waikato’s Local Play Advocate. His role supports Hamilton City Council to activate their Play Strategy and realise its vision of making Hamilton a great place for everyone to play. He is an active parkour practitioner and father of two school-aged girls. Damien's
 understanding of play has been heavily influenced by his personal play experiences growing up, his adult experiences of parkour, and his academic studies. Damien’s PhD is in the sociology of sport, focusing on the interplay between global and local forces that shape parkour experiences in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Play: Frivolous or Foundational? Trivial or Transformational?

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