Play – A Hidden Phoenix of Christchurch

9 May 2015 · 1 comment

in Developing School Grounds & Outdoor Spaces, International, Urban

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In April I had the privilege of visiting in New Zealand. Although it was a whistle stop 6 days involving training one day and flying the next, I did pause to catch my breath in Christchurch. I met up with an old friend and children’s citizenship and environment educator, Bronwyn Hayward, who gave me tour of downtown Christchurch.

This was an eye opener. It is hard to truly imagine the long term impact of an earthquake without experiencing it first hand. Talking to residents who have remained in Christchurch and contributed the rebuilding their communities as well as repairing the structural damage, it is clear that grassroots efforts have played a key role.

Following an article in The Press newspaper and an interview on Radio NZ National,  Emma Woods got in touch. Through an exchange of emails, she recounted the experiences of herself and other parents working with her child’s school post-earthquake. This disaster has resulted in the school community coping with its transition through focusing on what children need – daily opportunities to play. To quote Bronwyn, “This is not just temporary. This is a new trend. We should be proud of people thinking creatively about new play space as adventure reminding us that this is a good thing to do!

The rest of this blog post is written by Emma who also supplied all the photos. Her involvement with the school has been as a parent volunteer.  She has helped organise working bees, gardened with the children and have taken an active role in creating and maintaining the playspaces.  Her background is in primary education but she is working towards becoming a playground designer.  This journey has definitely inspired her to work towards that goal.

Christchurch Rebuild 4b

This is what the site looked like when the school arrived.

Prior to the earthquakes, Discovery1, a special character primary school, was located in the city-centre of Christchurch, New Zealand. Located on the third, fourth and fifth floor of a central city building, aside from two rooftop areas that were our playspaces we used local parks, community gardens and greenspace in the central city.


On February 22, 2011 Christchurch experienced a 6.3 magnitude earthquake and our school community was evacuated through the central city and into Hagley Park. The central city was cordoned off for more than two years and our school was temporarily relocated, first into borrowed space at another school and then into portable buildings in a paddock on the outskirts of the city. The Ministry of Education paved an area in front of the portables and grassed the paddock but there was no money available for playground equipment and we had no idea how long we would be displaced for.

Christchurch Rebuild 3b

Compare these to the “after” photos!

One of our learning advisors had a background in landscape design and worked with the children to find out what they wanted in their playground. Plans were drawn up, working bees organised and donations of materials sought to start our temporary playground. A large sandpit, BMX track and sports field were created. Telephone pylons were sunk into the ground at angles for climbing and balancing, bricks from homes that had been demolished were brought in to make raised beds. Many of our community had had their homes red-zoned (meaning they were located in neighbourhoods which were being cleared because the land was unstable). Plants donated from these people’s gardens were transplanted to our site, allowing us to put ‘roots’ into our new home.


Parental involvement is a big part of the culture of our school. Several parents with a passion for natural playspaces brought their interest and enthusiasm to the various projects the children were interested in. Many of these centred around improving our greenspaces: areas have been planted to encourage birds and insects; a butterfly garden has been planted near the entrance of the school; wildflower beds have increased the number of insects which, in turn, have encouraged frogs into the school grounds; an edible garden has grown in size from eight raised beds to include dwarf fruit trees which we intend to take back into the city with us.

Christchurch Rebuild 1a

The transformation has been amazing – look at the photo at the start of of this blog post.

One of our 11-year old students designed and helped build a herb garden after being inspired by a visit to a local herb farm. A fairy village was created using natural materials. Several parents supported a long term project using salvaged materials to build huts. Over the years the playground has evolved and different interests are reflected in the space. Working bees, workshops and voluntary hours have built a playground that is interesting, educational, fun, challenging and constantly evolving.

At the end of 2013 the Ministry of Education merged Discovery1 with a secondary school, Unlimited Paenga Tawhiti, another school closely aligned with our learning philosophy. We are now Ao Tawhiti Unlimited Discovery, a 0-13 school on two temporary sites. We have been on our temporary sites for four years now and are on the cusp of finding out where our new school will be located, back in the re-growing city centre of Christchurch.

Christchurch Rebuild 2

Our temporary playspace is unique. It has been built with little cost but lots of passion and donated hours. The fact that it is a temporary space has meant we’ve needed to be creative with our design and materials we’ve used. We’ve got a stage built from pallets, seating from tyres, cable reels for huts, plastic drums for instruments and a living willow hut. Even our old playground, that had been on the rooftop garden in our inner-city school, was salvaged, lifted out by crane and refitted into our new temporary grounds. We have been fortunate to have a community that is great at sourcing, donating and experimenting with materials.

Although initially the shift from the city was unsettling, the experience of creating and developing our grounds has been interesting and very positive. Our children have been through a lot over the last few years but the playground offers them a space to play, be creative, use their imagination and have fun. Being in a temporary space has meant that as a community we have been innovative, taken more risks, had lots of conversations about design and grown our understanding of what play is.

Christchurch Rebuild 3a
Thanks Emma! May your school community continue to grow – through and for the love of play! It feels like a real example of a phoenix rising from the ashes, stronger and better than ever before.

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