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For the average Kiwi, a play space might bring to mind an area with Lego, balls to kick around, dress-ups and multitude of tiny toys, or a PlayStation. 

For Forest & Bird’s Kiwi Conservation Club (KCC) families – and fourth-year students from Massey University's College of Creative Arts – play spaces mean something completely different.  

The two organisations have recently participated in their 2022 Nature and Play session, part of an ongoing six-year research project that explores how interactive games and the way they are designed can teach our young people about conservation and looking after our natural environments. 

The project forms part of the College’s Play, Research and Design paper, which aims to engage KCC kids in an environmental thematic and test their response to elements of each game. 

The paper is led by Senior Lecturer and multidisciplinary designer, Tanya Marriott, who confirms she and her students are grateful for the opportunity to work with KCC families.  

“It is a really invaluable experience for a wonderful cause – and the bonus for many of us is that we were KCC members in our own childhoods!" she says. 

Massey University fourth year student working on her Nature and Play project

Massey University fourth year student working on her Nature and Play project. Credit Tanya Marriott.

“Our fourth-year students appreciate this unique opportunity to develop their game design skills across all the art and media disciplines and test them on kids.” 

Over the past two years, the project has had to adapt to the Covid restrictions and has offered both digital (so participants can play online) and in-person play sessions. The most recent were held over May and June 2022 and were a great success. 

“Each year we focus on a different theme, and this year themes were Be with a Tree and climate change.”  

Tanya explains students need to design an outside game/play space with KCC members in mind and work out how to bring the theme into it. After the initial test sessions, the university students go away and refine the games with the help of KCC feedback. This year their final “game day” took place on the 4th of June. 

Nature and Play My new neighbours game using tiny crafted characters

Tiny characters crafted are from recycled materials for the My new neighbours game. Credit Tanya Marriott.

By incorporating an environmental theme into the game, these budding designers are using play to open-up conversations about issues such as erosion, pest control, creating spaces for wildlife and protecting our native species. As KCC kids play the games they are intrinsically absorbing a variety of positive environmental messages.

“This year, for example, we had a game called ‘Night and day’,” Tanya says. “It was a play space that allowed children and adults to learn about our New Zealand birds and how we can protect them from our domestic cats, and how we can be better, responsible cat owners.” 

Tanya says that with the current tensions around cat ownership, the game allows kids to understand what being a good cat owner might look like: feeding pets properly, keeping them inside at night, microchipping them and providing them with collars. 

Another game ‘Root Run’ explored wildlife that are affected by coastal erosion. It gives players the opportunity to use problem-solving skills to build a path of resistance, slowing the movement of a ball as it moves down a board. Like a marble run but in reverse, players have a flat game board each which they arrange ‘roots’ on to slow a ball’s run. The goal is to have the slowest travel through the run. 

Credit or caption

KCC members play the Root Run game and learn about water flow and erosion. Credit Tanya Marriott

Two other games included in the play session were ‘My new neighbours,’ which engages children to learn about the local insects in their garden using four little insect characters, their move to a distant Pōhutukawa tree, and what they need to thrive in their environment. And ‘Ranger Adventure, a digital board game about the importance of protecting our native bird species and the role rangers play in the monitoring and protection of these species.

But Tanya says one of the most popular games over the years was called ‘Pollution revolution.’ It won the students a Design Institute of New Zealand student public good award in 2018 - and with New Zealand’s current focus on emissions from the dairy industry is still very relevant. 

“It’s played like ripper rugby with a ‘cow’ base and an ‘eco’ base. One team are the poopers (cows), and the other team are the scoopers (the eco-warriors), with the scoopers clearing up as many poos from the stream as they can. It’s a lot of fun!” 

Playing the game teaches kids about choices in dairy farming whether there is a sustainable number of cows in an environment. It asks questions such as: How do you deal with poo? Why is it so hard to clean up after cows? How could we fix this problem in real life? There is a poo processor, and participants can add new bits to the game, such as a fart processing device. 

Tanya explains that once each annual play session is complete, the open-source links to all game documents and the students' reports are provided to all KCC branches so they can continue to run their games themselves as part of branch activities. 

KCC Volunteers advisor, Alina Huff, says the collaboration with Massey University is an example of some of the incredible connections KCC has been making over the years. 

“The Massey students create such a unique experience for our members – we can see how much they benefit and how their thinking changes as they play these interactive games,” she says. “It’s a joy to be part of this research and if it prompts families to take real-life conservation action they had not thought about before, it’s a win all round!” 

Who would have thought that a relationship between a university and a children's conservation not-for-profit would be such a fruitful experience for everyone six years on! 

Kate & Jessica's nature and play experience

Kate (mum) and daughter Jessica (11) joined a Forest & Bird Massey University nature and play game day early in June. They live in Lower Hutt in a house with an average-size garden.

“It's not big but by no means tiny either,” Kate says. “There is enough space for decking and a BBQ area, a lawn with a trampoline, clothesline and some fruit and vegetables. We asked Jessica a few questions to find out what she liked best about the game day. 

What game did you enjoy the most and why? 
My favourite was the Root Run because I love strategy and designing games. 

What did you and your family learn about conservation by being part of this game day? 
The water erosion game, root run, is something we'll think about for any planting or work being done. We have a cat, dog and a new kitten so are very aware of protecting wildlife from them. My other favourite game, My New Neighbours was fun - we've been spotting the critters and their natural homes in our garden. 

As a family, have you decided to do anything to protect nature in your backyard after playing these games? 
All our pets are micro-chipped, and we’ve put a bell on the kitten because he'll be let outside soon. Fantails like the bugs if we leave our compost bin open, so we want to keep them safe by having a 'warning' bell on our kitten. 

What is your favourite native New Zealand critter? 
Stick insects 😊  

Kate and Jessica extend a great big “thanks!” To KCC and the Massey students for a super play day! 

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For more information about Tanya Marriott and her research  

This article first appeared in the June 2022 E-news.


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