I’m not fond of Wanganui, even though some of our best friends live there, and like him or loathe him, Michael Laws has certainly made it more interesting, and shaken it out of its moribund provincial complacency. Nevertheless, it’s a muddy kind of town. But Wanganui has a jewel in its crown – the best playground in the world.
Kowhai Park is on the banks of the Whanganui River. The land was gifted to the city, for use as a playground. It has some of the most imaginative playground equipment I have seen. It’s all quite basic stuff, in many ways – swings, slides, seesaws and so on, but they are fabulously made.
The swings are suspended from the tentacles of a giant octopus. The head of the octopus is hollow, and children can clamber over its irises (in its eyes), and stand inside and peer out. What is it like to be an octopus?
There are several slides, but none are conventional. There’s the dinosaur slide, the slide down the back of a whale (the whale has its mouth gaping wide open, so there’s another ‘inside an animal experience’ available), the spiral slide inside a clock tower, and the slide inside the shoe. The shoe was inspired by the nursery rhyme:
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe
With so many children she didn’t know what to do
So she gave them some gruel
Without any bread
Smacked them all soundly
And sent them to bed!
It’s quite dark inside the shoe, so the slide has a lovely ghostly feeling. And for adults, quite a frisson of excitement, as you duck low enough to avoid the lintel.
There are turtles to sit on, toadstool picnic tables, Humpty Dumpty’s wall to fall off, Miss Muffet and a greebly looking spider, complete with swings for toddlers hanging from its legs, a skating rink, and waterplay fountains for hot days.
My children always climb into the rocket ship, and imagine flying to the moon. This is such a simple concept, but the children love it, in part because it’s actually quite a tricky climb, especially for smaller children. And, then they slide down it.
Following the rocket ship, they head for the top of a mountain, and, slide down. The mountain has several interconnecting tunnels through it – I’m never quite sure which one my girls will come out of. One day I expect to see Bilbo, or Smaug, instead. The shape of the mountain is vaguely reminiscent of Mt Taranaki, so perhaps one day we will see a lava flow down its side. It’s not the only climbing mound at the park; the storage shed is cunningly concealed in a lump of concrete studded with multi-coloured rocks that are just the right distance apart for children to stretch between and feel a real sense of achievement on getting to the top.
The park has had an attack of the fort builders. The fort builders seem to infest towns and cities throughout New Zealand, descending on playgrounds and schools with wood and hammers and nails, to construct huge forts for children to rampage through. However the Wanganui sub-species has done better than most – the fort is built around several trees, and it incorporates a high platform for a glorious flying fox, and of course, a slide.
As if this was not enough, there’s an entire castle, across a moat, with a courtyard, an upper level and towers. My children always play Rapunzel, and hide and seek, and knights and princesses. They feast their imaginations in what is a fairly basic concrete block structure. The walls are ivy covered, and in the trees around it, there are moa. Concrete, but interesting, especially if your daddy will lift you onto their backs. Of course, to get from the upper level of the castle down to the ground, there is a slide.
Sailing in the moat, a ship. To get from the forecastle to the lower deck, you take the slide.
It’s a wonderful playground. My parents took my brothers and me there nearly forty years ago, when it was still quite new, and we loved it. When I first took my children there, some time when we were travelling between Wellington and Taranaki, I thought that it might have lost its charm, with its delights faded in comparison to modern playgrounds. But it still looked good, and it still looked imaginative, and it was still full of children, who seemed to be having a wonderful time. The various toys have all been built by local service clubs. I have an image of slightly mad Rotarians and Lions spending their weekends with wood and concrete and paint, recreating their own childhoods, having as much fun building the toys as the children have playing on them. I think the children enjoy the toys because they are not over complicated. They are beautifully presented, but they don’t demand elaborate hand-eye co-ordination, or extra equipment, or special skills. There are big spaces between the toys, so the children get to run over long distances. This makes Kowhai Park a fabulous place to stop for a break. My children are always desperately disappointed if it is raining when we reach Wanganui, so we have to opt for McDonald’s instead.
I hope that Wanganui people treasure this playground. Cities and towns are designed, unsurprisingly, with adult needs in mind. It’s lovely to see this park that is dedicated to children, and that works so well for them.